For Southwestern Illinois College sophomore pitcher Conner Buenger, it’s always been about control. And on a warm, windy Wednesday afternoon, Buenger was in total control from the outset as he shut down Olney Central College.
Buenger and Blue Storm closer Zack Sparks combined on a five-hit shutout as SWIC defeated the Knights 5-0 in a Great Rivers Athletic Conference game.
The game was moved up a day because of the threat of rain on Thursday and, as a result, was played on a sunny spring afternoon.
But pitching on short rest, Buenger was in command from the outset as he struck out the side on 10 pitches in the top of the first inning and never let up. Buenger went to 3-2 counts on just two hitters all day and did not allow a Knights baserunner to reach third base until the ninth inning.
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Buenger pitched 8 1/3 innings before Sparks preserved the shutout by getting the Knights Dillon Whitten to ground into a game-ending double play.
The game was in sharp contrast to the Blue Storm’s contests with rugged Mineral Area College on Tuesday when the two teams were aided by gusting winds to help combine for 54 runs in splitting a doubleheader.
On Wednesday, with the wind blowing in and Buenger as sharp as he’s been all year, Olney (12-10) simply never had a chance.
“Conner was great today, but he’s been outstanding for us all year. He’s 4-0 now and he and Caleb (Arbeiter) have both been our aces,” veteran Blue Storm coach Neil Fiala said. “Today, he got ahead of the hitters and just threw strikes all day.
“He challenged the hitters and today with the wind blowing in as hard as it is, was the day to do it. Yesterday (Tuesday) was just crazy. There were at least five balls hit today that would have been home runs yesterday. And I mean they would have been way out of here.”
Ranked in the top 30 in the latest NJCAA Division 1 poll, SWIC is now 17-8 for the season and holds a half-game lead over Lincoln Trail in the battle for the top spot in the competitive GRAC with a 10-4 record.
The Blue Storm offense gave Buengeer all the runs he would need in the bottom of the second inning. With one out, Dylan Johnson reached on an error when Knights starting pitcher Elijah Knepper hit Cody Massey with a pitch.
Jacob Monti then singled to load the bases and freshman Luke Bakula made it 1-0 with a single up the middle. Seconds later, Adam Schnurbusch gave SWIC a two-run lead with a sacrifce fly which scored Massey.
Knepper then settled down as he held SWIC in check for the next three innings. But taking advantage of its speed, the Blue Storm put the game by scoring once in the sixth inning and twice in the seventh.
Sophomore Dan Holst led off the sixth inning with a single and scampered to third base on a single by Adam Bauer. Holst made it 3-0 minutes later when he scored on a Knepper wild pitch.
The Blue Storm put the game out of reach in the bottom of the seventh inning. Consecutive singles by Monti, Bakula and Schnubusch loaded the bases with nobody out.
After Knepper got the next hitter, Holst grounded a slow roller to the right side of the infield. The ball was fielded cleanly and the Schnurbusch was out on a fielders choice at second base. But running hard on the crack of the bat, both Monti and Bakula scored on the play to put SWIC up 5-0.
“We’re playing good baseball and we have for most of the season,” Fiala said. “We didn’t get a lot of hits tonight, but the ones we got were with runners in scoring position or they set up scoring chances for us. We got hits at the right time.”