On a day when they were needed the most, the prolific bats of the Southwestern Illinois College went silent at the NJCAA Region 24 Baseball Tournament.
Kaskaskia College designated hitter Johnny Ruiz hit a two-run home run in the third inning while pitchers Hunter Hart and Mason McReaken held the Blue Storm offense in check as the Blue Devils went on for 2-1 opening-round win on Friday at Rent One Park.
Ruiz’ opposite-field home run came off SWIC starting and losing pitcher Connor Buenger, who allowed only four hits in six innings.
But the story on this day was the absence of the Blue Storm offense.
SWIC (30-17) left the bases loaded three times without scoring a run and finished the game stranding 14 baserunners, including 10 in scoring position.
“It was just a very frustrating day. We just didn’t get the big hit when we needed it today,’’ Blue Storm coach Neil Fiala said. “I thought we played great otherwise. Connor (Buenger) got the one pitch up. The guy hits a little pop up that gets caught in a jet stream and goes out. Our guy (Dan) Holst hits a shot in the ninth inning 395 feet that hits the top of the fence and stays in the park. Then we can’t bring him in.
“We just didn’t get any breaks today.’’
The loss moves SWIC into the losers’ bracket and means the Blue Storm must win two games Saturday to advance into the district tournament next week. SWIC will play the loser of a game between Lincoln Trail College and John A. Logan College at 10 a.m.
Kaskaskia (30-12) will play the winner of the Lincoln Trail-John A. Logan game at 1 p.m. for the region championship. The loser will play the winner of the 10 a.m. game with the winner of that contest also earning a trip to the district tournament. The Region 24 champion will host the tournament.
Originally set to start at noon, the first pitch was delayed twice — the second time because of a two-hour rain delay which pushed the starting time to 3:10 p.m.
SWIC had a chance to take command in the first two innings when it loaded the bases twice but came away with nothing.
In the first inning, Holst doubled with one out, Adam Bauer walked and Jake Daily reached on an error. But Hart struck out Dylan Johnson and got Jacob Monti on a fly ball to retire the side.
In the second inning, Collin Holton was hit by a pitch and went to second when Adam Schnurbusch reached on an error.
Sean Murley followed with a single to right that the Blue Devils’ Ryan Cates fielded and then fired a perfect throw which easily got Holton at the plate for the second out of the inning.
Hart walked Holst to load the bases but Bauer grounded weakly to second to end the inning.
“We didn’t play great defense and we need to do a better job, but we made the big plays when we needed too. He (Cates) just made a great play and throw to the plate to cut down the run and then we made a couple of other solid plays,’’ Blue Devils coach Mitch Koester said. “Pitching-wise Hunter (Hart) and McReaken made big pitches.
“Hart wasn’t as sharp as he had been, but McReaken came and did the job for us. I think he’s like 4-0 now with four saves. The save today was a big one.’’
Kaskaskia pushed two runs across in the top of the third when Cates walked with two outs and Ruiz took a 2-1 pitch from Buenger and hit it over the left-field fence for a 2-0 lead.
SWIC answered with its only run in the bottom of the inning. Daily led off with a single and went to second base on a ground out. Monti then hit a double to score Daily, making it 2-1.
Buenger worked six innings before giving way to relievers Tyler Herbert and Anthony Garza, who combined for three scoreless innings. But it did no good.
Well past the 100-pitch mark, Hart tired in the seventh inning as he walked both Holst and Bauer.
When Daily greeted McReaken with a solid single to center, the Blue Storm had the bases loaded for a third time.
But McReaken, a Centralia graduate, struck out Johnson and got Monti to fly out to end the inning.
SWIC’s final chance came in the ninth when Holst knocked a McReaken pitch off the top of the left-center field fence for a double. But when Bauer grounded out and Daily struck out, the Blue Devils were in the title game.
“Our goal was to win the region title, but we just didn’t get it done today,’’ Fiala said. “This team has battled all year. There is no doubt we’ll do the same tomorrow (Saturday).’’
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2661.