Hank Liss brought the heat again Tuesday – all the way from Florida.
Fresh off a pair of pitching victories during Evanston’s baseball spring trip to Vero Beach, Liss became the first hurler in school history to toss more than one no-hitter in his career.
The senior right-hander struck out 11 and tamed Highland Park 11-1 Tuesday in the Wildkits’ home opener, helping Evanston Township High School improve to a sizzling 12-2 on the season.
The temperature reached 80 degrees Tuesday at the ETHS stadium and no one was hotter than Liss. He pounded fastball after fastball into the strike zone and the Giants only managed to hit one ball out of the infield before the Central Suburban League crossover contest was decided by the 10-run slaughter rule.
Highland Park scored its only run on back-to-back Evanston throwing errors in the third inning. Liss walked one batter in that frame, then retired the last seven hitters in a row, five on strikeouts.
The only real threat to ruin the no-hitter came with one out in the fifth, when center fielder Addison Blough chased down a drive hit by the No. 8 hitter in the Giants’ order, Jake Berliant.
“When we were down in Florida the weather was warm and it was a lot easier to get loose,” Liss said after boosting his mound record to 4-0 on the young season. “When the weather is warm like that, then you feel like you can dominate out there. That’s what I tried to do today.
“I just tried to pound fastballs in the zone and get that first strike, because that’s the most important part of the at-bat. In the first inning I always try to show my fastball as hard as I can, then go to my off-speed pitches.”
Liss, who also hurled a no-hit gem against Loyola Academy as a sophomore, knew what was at stake in the latter stages of Tuesday’s contest. He also knew he was coming out of the game after five innings due to pitch count limits.
“Rule No. 1 when you’re a pitcher is never think about pitching a no-hitter – just do it,” he said. “It’s bad mojo to talk about it. The coaches told me I was done after the fifth [with ETHS on top 7-1] and I was OK with that. There are other guys they wanted to get some innings and they’re just as important to the team as I am. I still felt perfect, but I play for this team, not for myself.”
At least at that point Liss didn’t face an ethical dilemma. Knowing he’d be replaced on the mound, he didn’t have to weigh trying to get a hit in his last at-bat to bring the 10-run rule into effect, or make an out and get to go out and pitch another inning.
As it turned out, Liss didn’t get a chance to be a walk-off hero with the bases loaded, either. Highland Park reliever Adam Abreu threw wildly to second base on a pickoff attempt with a 1-2 count on Liss, and Sam Sheikh strolled home with the game-ending tally.
Newly installed leadoff hitter Braden Grimm, Brandon Brokowski and Charlie Kalil each collected two hits for the winners and the Giants committed five errors and a couple of balks while falling to 3-5 on the season.
“That was a dominating performance by Hank. He beat a really good pitcher [Luke Weber] and a really good team,” said Evanston head coach Frank Consiglio. “If he keeps pitching like this, I think he has a good shot to catch Russell Snapp [school record 20 pitching wins in his varsity career] because Hank had a better year for me as a sophomore than Snapp did.
“Hank did the same thing when we were down in Vero Beach. He just blew fastballs right by people, and it was really nice to see. He got going at the plate [1-for-3 with a run scored], too, and we’re going to need his bat.
“I thought we did a nice job on the bases today, getting good reads and taking extra bases. That was one of the benefits of our trip to Florida, because before the trip we were more of a station-to-station team.”
In Vero Beach, the Wildkits swept to seven victories in eight games and concluded the spring break trip with a come-from-behind 7-6 win over the team ranked 10th in Kentucky, Henry Clay of Louisville. The ability to grind out victories in close games against teams from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida not only boosted Evanston’s won-loss record but boosted the head coach’s confidence in his team going forward.
Consiglio admitted he wasn’t certain just how much toughness his Kits had in them until they crossed state lines together and came from behind to post some of those wins.
“We really only had one bad day down there,” Consiglio said. “They really competed well in some of our biggest matchups. This is a gritty group of guys. Every tight game they were in, they won.
“Outside of a couple of guys coming back from last year, I told them I just wasn’t sure some of them were tough enough. It was fun for me to see that toughness coming out of them. They showed me there’s some toughness there and that’s how you win in the state playoffs – by being tough. At some point in the playoffs you have to play better than you are, you have to have someone you didn’t expect to step up in a big moment.”
Eron Vega and Jared Lortie both slugged home runs during the Florida trip. Grimm, a junior, contributed plenty of big moments both on the mound and at third base and has helped solidify the batting order since being moved to the leadoff slot by Consiglio. His two-out, bases loaded triple tied the game against Henry Clay in the bottom of the seventh on the team’s “getaway” day and Vega’s walk-off single sent the entire squad racing to their van to catch their homecoming flight last Wednesday.
“No doubt Braden is the guy who took the biggest step down there,” said the Evanston coach. “I found out the way he approaches the game is very consistent, very even keel, no highs and lows. He played good defense, had some good at-bats and was really good on the mound for us. He took a jump maturity-wise and he just continues to ring the bell for us.
“Braden hasn’t been just good – he’s been a dynamic player for us. He’s not just contributing, he’s dominating at times. He’s a kid who just gets out there and competes. I knew he was really good as a player, but I didn’t know how he’d approach things mentally. Would he be up and down? No, and it was fun to watch him and the other kids perform like that in big moments.”