With one swing of the bat Wednesday, Gage Cruz's somewhat disappointing offensive season got a whole lot better.
Cruz, Belleville East's catcher, belted a two-out triple in the fifth inning to score Hunter Davis, and Lancers ace Ryan Culley allowed only two hits, as the Lancers defeated Belleville West Maroons 1-0 in a Class 4A Belleville East Regional semifinal.
Entering the contest with a .216 average and eight RBIs, Cruz earned his game-winning hit. With Maroons sophomore Joey Kossina not allowing a hit through the first 4 2/3 innings, Cruz fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches before lining his run-scoring triple to give East the only run it would need.
The triple was the only hit East (20-15) would collect all night off Kossina.
"I think it was a change-up," Cruz said of the pitch. "I've been struggling all year, but I've been working in the (batting) cages, and I guess it's helped. I was able come up with the big hit tonight."
And Culley, despite a few anxious moments in the seventh inning, made the lead stand up. After allowing a one-out double to the Maroons' Tyler Adams , Culley retired the final two batters to end the game and send East into the title game against the winner of the Collinsville-Granite City contest.
Collinsvillle will take on Granite City at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Belleville East. The regional title game is at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Forced to come from behind in two regular-season wins over their crosstown rivals, the Lancers were held in check all night by Kossina, who struck out seven and walked only one. Fortunately for coach Ryan Wiggs' team, its ace was just as dominating, as Culley improved to 6-1 for the season and lowered his ERA to 1.27.
"Ryan pitched well. But that's kind of been the expectations for him this year," Wiggs said. "Tonight he was throwing strikes, getting ahead of the hitters and making them hit his pitches instead of them hitting a hitter's pitch.
"Gage (Cruz) has struggled at the plate all season. But I've been telling him all year that there would be a time when he would get a big hit for us. That triple was a big hit."
West (10-21) did not have a runner reach second base until the seventh inning. Adams' double came within a few feet of a game-tying home run, but as has been their story much the season, the Maroons came up just short.
"If you came to see home runs and a lot of hits, then you were in the wrong place because this was a pitchers' duel," West coach Todd Baltz said. "The pitchers were in control throughout the game. There were not many pitches that were hit squarely.
"Joey (Kossina) pitched a fine game. One hit beat us tonight."
Davis led off the fifth inning with a walk and advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Ben Cruikshank. One out later, Cruz drilled a line-drive triple into the right-center field gap to score the run.
"This was a lot of fun. West hadn't beat us all year, and they really wanted to beat us tonight," Cully said. "The difference tonight was the defense. I was getting a lot of pop-ups and ground balls, and my defense made the plays.
"Gage (Cruz) got the big hit for us, but as a catcher, he was calling the right pitches."