The big story was the excellent six innings turned in by Minooka senior left-hander Devin Smith, who allowed one run on four hits in Minooka’s 5-1 win over Joliet Catholic in the fifth-place game of the WJOL Baseball tournament.
“We came into the season not knowing if Devin would be able to throw strikes, and he has done nothing but compete,” Minooka coach Jeff Petrovic said.
“Our three senior starters [Tyler Talbot, Jackson Shepherd and Smith] have been throwing the ball well. Their ERA combined was 2.08 coming into [Saturday] and it’s gone down below 2 now. It’s nice because it allows us to go left, right, left with our starters. We traditionally haven’t had many left-handed starters.”
Hayden Kaczynski led off the game with a home run off JCA left-hander Alex Vera. Back-to-back doubles by Nick Airola and Grant Olsen touched off a three-run second inning for Minooka (5-2), and Deston Martin doubled in the Indians’ final run in the third.
The only run for JCA (3-6-1) came in the second came on Jack Naal’s RBI groundout.
“We’re going to stay with the cliche that pitching beats hitting early in the season,” Hilltoppers coach Jared Voss said.
Last Tuesday: Minooka and Providence Catholic have staged epic battles on the baseball diamond through the years.
Some have occurred in the WJOL/Don Ladas Memorial Tournament.
What occurred in Tuesday’s nonconference matchup was one of those other kinds of games as Minooka rolled to a 13-0, five-inning victory behind junior right-hander Seth Gutknecht.
“I absolutely know better than to think anything is going to come easily,” Indians coach Jeff Petrovic said, anticipating Thursday’s 3 p.m. game at Joliet Central between Minooka (3-0) and Providence (2-1), who between them have won claimed more than half of the WJOL titles. “We have had some great games, and I have been on the other end of a few games like this one, too.”
The eight-team tournament field is as deep in potentially strong teams as it ever has been.
“There are teams that are traditionally good like Providence, Joliet Catholic, Lockport and I’ll put us in there, too,” Petrovic said. “But now you go outside the normal circle and you find more good teams.”
Besides the four Petrovic mentioned, Joliet West, Joliet Central, Lincoln-Way West and Plainfield Central are in the tournament.
“We always enjoy playing Minooka,” Providence coach Mark Smith said. “Jeff [Petrovic] is a good friend. I have a ton of respect for what he does there, and they always have good, high-class kids.
“It’s a great tournament and one of our goals always is to win it. It’s fun. There are early-season bragging rights at stake, and the kids all know each from growing up and playing together and against each other.”
Tuesday’s game took a twist off the get-go. Petrovic had turned in his lineup card with Jon Butler pitching and batting second.
However, Butler tweaked his back warming up in the bullpen and was moved to center field. Gutknecht, scheduled to pitch in relief, became the emergency starter. Then Butler was scratched from the lineup entriely, and Petrovic did more lineup shuffling.
“It’s Jon’s back or oblique,” Petrovic said. “The best I can say about it now is that he is day to day. Losing him hurts us all the way around. He’s a great center fielder, he was going to pitch and he’s huge at the top of our lineup.”
Gutknecht, meanwhile, showed no ill effects from the hurry-up preparation. He went the first four innings, allowing four hits and no walks. Left-hander Simon Herold pitched a clean fifth inning to end the game.
“For Seth to not walk anybody when he didn’t know he was going to pitch until five minutes before the game was outstanding, and Nick Airola did a great job behind the plate,” Petrovic said. “Seth competed in the strike zone. They hit balls hard but at us, and he let our defense work. That’s what we want from our pitchers.”
“I felt really good,” said Gutknecht, who threw 60 pitches. “I had tendinitis last fall and it was not feeling great in the winter, but this was a good start. It felt good to beat them. They destroyed us last year.”
The Indians supported Gutknecht with 13 runs on seven hits. They had 16 runners who reached via walk or hit batsman against five Providence pitchers, all of whom are juniors.
“This game was embarrassing,” Smith said. “We’re trying kids out. We have a whole new staff, and this was not a good day for any of them. They’re all juniors, and they seemed to be scared and nervous. You can’t go out there that way against a good team.
“I do like the way we swung the bat even though we didn’t score any runs. We’ll be OK there. Ultimately, we’ll be OK in general, but we will have go through some major growing pains with this team. I have hope for these guys, I really do.”
Luke Faifer had two hits and two RBIs and Jackson Shepherd, elevated to the 2-hole when Butler was scratched, added two hits and an RBI for Minooka. Logan O’Brien knocked in two with a bases-loaded single, and Hayden Laczynski drew four walks and singled in five trips to the plate.
“I had a very good defense and a very good offense behind me,” Gutknecht said. “It felt good to have an early lead, to have good hitting behind me.”