Springfield was chipping away at a six-run Belleville East lead until Lancers reliever Ben Cruikshank shut down the Senators’ offense.
The left-handed junior retired the last 10 Springfield batters he faced, striking out seven of them in a dramatic 6-5 Lancers semifinal win at the O’Fallon Class 4A Baseball Regional on Wednesday.
“Fastballs early is what coach preaches to us, and (catcher) Braxton Chandler and I were on the same page the whole time,” Cruikshank said. “You just come out here and try to keep them down and keep the lead.”
Belleville East, 17-19 and the No. 7 seed in the Bloomington sectional, advances to the regional championship game against No. 1 O’Fallon. The game will be played at 4 p.m. Saturday at Blazier Field.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Fourth-seeded Springfield’s season ends at 20-13.
The Lancers spotted starter Ryan Culley a 6-0 lead in the first inning. Four of those runs were scored with two out, thanks to back-to-back, two-run hits by seniors Kyle Rensing and Jaden Webb. Culley also singled home a run during the rally, as did freshman Zachariah Georgian, who was hitting from the ninth spot in the order.
But Springfield right-hander Austin Troemper got the Senators out of the inning in relief of left-handed starter Damian Pierce and shut the Lancers down through the next five innings. Troemper allowed just two more Lancers hits, while striking out 11 and walking two.
Getting the early lead was key, said East head coach Ryan Wiggs.
“We had an idea a lefty was going to start, so we threw about a thousand left-handed batting practice pitches to our guys the last couple of days,” Wiggs said. “We did what we were supposed to do early, but then put up six zeroes in a row. It would have been nice to build on that.”
The Senators, meanwhile, chipped away at the Lancers’ lead with two runs in the first and two more in the third, before Culley got himself out of further trouble with a bases-loaded strikeout.
Springfield got its first two batters on base in the fourth against Cruikshank, who allowed a run to narrow his lead to 6-5. But a strike-them-out-throw-them-out double play with an assist from Chandler ended the only threat the Senators made against him.
“That was the biggest play of the game right there,” Wiggs said. “We got pumped up after that.”
Cruikshank was perfect from that point forward. He ended the game by striking out the last four he faced, including Springfield’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-place hitters. By NFHS rules, Cruikshank gets credit for the win since East’s starter didn’t last a full four innings.
“Ryan Culley has been our most consistent pitcher all year. He had some tough luck behind him; otherwise, I thought he pitched really well,” Wiggs said. “Ben came in and was excellent. Excellent. He threw a lot of strikes by getting ahead of hitters.”