In a game that might decide the Central Suburban League South division baseball championship Thursday, Joe Ward showed the Evanston bullpen how it’s done.
While Evanston’s relievers surrendered a 4-0 lead, the Maine South right-hander mowed down all 12 Wildkits he faced to help the Hawks surge to a 5-4 victory and sole possession of first place with just one week remaining on the schedule.
Evanston’s task in the most tightly contested league race in decades is clear now. The Wildkits – like New Trier, Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South – each have three conference losses and trail Maine South, which improved to 11-2. Evanston would probably have to sweep its final three games versus Deerfield (Saturday) and Glenbrook North (next Monday and Wednesday) to earn at least a share of the title.
The Wildkits slipped out of the driver’s seat in the CSL South and fell to 24-5 overall after suffering their second straight 1-run defeat versus the Hawks. An error cost the Kits a 1-0 loss in eight innings in the first meeting between the two teams, and they faltered again in the final frames when the Kits’ bullpen couldn’t close the door completely on a resilient Hawks’ squad.
After being held scoreless by Evanston junior hurler Braden Grimm for 4 and 2/3rd innings, the visitors pushed across 2 runs in the 5th inning and more in the 6th to take the lead. Ward, who moved from right field to the mound in relief of starter Drew Koenen in the 4th, was perfect in relief.
“The positive for us today was the way Braden Grimm pitched. He was fantastic out there!” praised Evanston head coach Frank Consiglio. “But the negative was we haven’t seen this team out-executed and out-worked in the late innings like we were today. Maine South put together a lot of good at-bats and executed better in big spots in the game. I’m disappointed that we didn’t finish better. It was a good series, two 1-run games that could have gone either way. We could have been better on the mound today, though.”
Ward slammed the door shut after the hosts built a 4-0 lead against the Hawks’ ace, Koenen.
ETHS scored twice in the 3rd inning, on a double by Charlie Kalil, a throwing error on Brandon Brokowski’s squeeze bunt, and a sacrifice fly by Hank Liss.
A leadoff walk to Eron Vega, Jared Lortie’s single down the right field line and a double by designated hitter Noah Cryns chased Koenen in the 4th. James O’Connor delivered a sacrifice fly to boost the score to 4-0, but the Wildkits never mustered a single baserunner after that against Ward.
Grimm allowed back-to-back singles with 2 outs in the 5th and was replaced by Derek Llanes, who hit a batter and then yielded a 2-run single by Noah Collins to cut the South deficit in half.
Consiglio turned to closer Mason Denlow for what he hoped would be a 6-out save. But the usually reliable righty hit the first batter he faced and also committed a balk before retiring the next two Hawks.
But pinch-hitter Alex Babich prevailed in an epic 10-pitch at-bat against Denlow, fouling off a half dozen pitches before singling to right to drive in another run. Liam Maloney followed with another single, and Ward singled to right on a 1-2 pitch for what turned out to be the game-winning blow.
Charlie Kalil finished up on the mound for the losers after Denlow issued a pair of walks.
“Mason has to do a better job of limiting the traffic as a late-inning guy,” said Consiglio. “If we execute some pitches in the 5th inning, that game is over.
“I think Braden is highly effective for 4 or 5 innings and now we need to figure out the back end [late-inning relievers] when he starts. I might have left him in a batter or two too long today. But he’s a pitcher who can win for us in the playoffs. He had a chance to prove that today and he did everything right. The back end didn’t.”