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One strike away from losing the championship game of the Illinois Summer Baseball League Wednesday, all Evanston Naturals could do was wait for the defense to rest.
Wilmette’s Waves obliged in shocking fashion and the Naturals captured an unlikely 4-3 victory to end their summer on a winning note.
Wilmette right fielder Aidan Nicholson dropped Charlie Kalil’s routine fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded to produce the tying and winning runs as the top-seeded Evanston squad overcame five errors and repeated as league champs.
The game-ending miscue came just two pitches after Wilmette’s pitcher, catcher and first baseman allowed Kalil’s foul popup to land untouched and gave him another chance to be a walk-off hero.
No one in the winners’ dugout could ever remember being part of a game that concluded in such jarring fashion. The victory in the championship showdown between the two rivals – with teams consisting of players who will make up the high school rosters next spring – was the third in four head-to-head summer tries for host Evanston, which finished 16-5-1 overall.
It was a happy ending for Kalil, a junior-to-be who is being counted on to replace graduated star Alex Vasquez at shortstop but endured a nightmarish three errors that allowed the Waves to score all three of its runs.
“It was a good ending to a tough day for me,” Kalil agreed. “Not a lot went my way today. Thank God that ball fell in. I got very lucky! It was a crazy way for it to end – and against New Trier, of all teams.
“Last summer I didn’t think we had a lot of fight in us. Now, we do, and we showed we have the talent and the pieces to have a deep run next [spring] season. We can do some damage.”
The Naturals were down to their last strike with pinch-hitter Vinnie Miller on first base after singling against the third Wilmette pitcher, Thomas Hartman. With two outs, Hartman pumped two strikes past Jared Lortie and the Waves were ready to celebrate with a championship trophy.
But Hartman couldn’t close the deal. He walked Lortie on a 3-2 count and then James O’Connor reached safely on a low throw from the Waves third baseman to fill the bases.
Four pitches later, it was the Naturals who were celebrating.
“We left a lot of guys [nine] on base and we made five errors. But they hung in there and gave themselves a shot at winning,” said Evanston coach Frank Consiglio. “These are two good teams and we had to keep putting the ball in play to put pressure on their defense.
“Wilmette had their mistakes in the biggest moment. That was bad timing – for them.”
The unlikely comeback occurred after the hosts left the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth inning. Reliever Mason Denlow earned the win on the mound, retiring seven of the nine batters he faced after replacing Lortie in the fifth.
Denlow also started and pitched the first inning of the semifinal game earlier Wednesday, as the Naturals routed No. 4 seed Lane Tech 12-1 in a slaughter rule contest to advance to the finals for the second year in a row.
Denlow is aiming to crack a starting rotation that figures to include Lortie, ace Hank Liss and Eron Vega in the spring. He pitched mostly in relief last spring but showed Consiglio and the coaching staff that he’s a viable option against the tougher opponents on the high school schedule next spring.
The rare assignment of both starting and relieving only hours apart didn’t faze the hard-throwing senior right-hander.
“Starting or relieving, I’m good with either, just so I get in,” said Denlow. “I didn’t throw a lot of pitches in the first game today and it was smart of the coaches to get me out and save me for later.
“This was a crazy game and the odds were against us, for sure. Winning this game shows the younger guys we can compete with good teams. We can compete with anybody.”
Wilmette led 1-0 after the first despite not hitting the ball out of the infield, as leadoff hitter Aidan Nolan reached on Kalil’s error and came around to score on a wild pitch and a pair of infield outs.
The Waves tacked on two more runs on a ball that went right through Kalil’s legs with two outs and two men on base in the third.
Evanston racked up runs in the first on an RBI single by Lortie and again in the second on a wild pitch that allowed Noah Kryns to score when the Waves botched a rundown with runners on second and third.
The hosts out-hit Wilmette 8-4 on the day but couldn’t come through in the clutch until the bitter end.
In the semifinals, junior outfielder Noah Cryns hit a grand slam home run over the Blue Monster wall in left as part of a nine-run outburst in the first inning. Sam Sheikh went 3-for-3 with three runs batted in and pitchers Denlow, Akash Sharma and Thomas Ferguson hurled a combined two-hitter.
Evanston ruled the eight-team summer league for the second straight year and, coming off a 20-win season last spring with almost everyone returning, is poised to do some damage in the postseason.
“It’s nice to get a championship in the end – it’s really fun for the kids – but development-wise, I think I’d have felt the same way about our development as a team even if he didn’t drop that ball,” said Consiglio. “It’s been a fantastic summer. I saw a lot of growth and a lot of development, and that’s what summer baseball is all about.
“I’m really excited about next year.”