In losing five of nine games the last two weeks, the O'Fallon Panthers had struggled to keep pace with the clubs on top of the Southwestern Conference baseball standings, a fact coach Jason Portz partially attributed to a run of tough luck and bad bounces.
But the winds shifted in the Panthers' favor during a 9-1 victory over Collinsville on Thursday.
O'Fallon held a two-run lead in the fourth when senior right fielder Bradley Harrison lifted a high fly ball that looked to be slicing away from the left-hand batter and toward the parking lot out of play.
But the ball caught north-to-south jet stream which pushed it just inside the line at the base of the left-field fence, landing Harrison safely at second and breaking the game open with three big runs.
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"I don't know if it was just my angle or what, but I thought that ball was 30 or 40 feet foul," said Collinsville coach Pete Trapp. "That hurt because instead of getting out of it and being down 3-1, all of the sudden we're down 7-1 on a ball that just kept curling, and curling and curling until it somehow dropped fair.
"Baseball is just one of those games."
That's exactly what Portz has been saying during a two-week rut in which the Panthers scored just seven total runs in five tough losses. But Harrison's bases-clearing double was a welcome change of pace, he said.
"I think that ball was just about out over the fence out of play and it comes back and almost goes out of the park, but lands fair. That's a ball that goes in our favor for a change," Portz said. "We'll take it. I know Bradley will take it and run too.
"We've been playing into a lot of hard luck and our kids broke out a little bit today."
The Panthers improved to 16-8 overall with the win and 6-2 in Southwestern Conference play, good for second place. O'Fallon has six conference games remaining in the regular season, including games at home against first-place Edwardsville (22-1, 8-0) and Alton (19-4, 5-2).
Senior pitcher Chris Holba, who lasted the full seven innings in taking credit for Thursday's win, thinks the Panthers may be turning the corner in time for a buildup to the postseason.
And he's looking forward to rematches with conference rivals.
"We've been struggling to score wins lately, so this was huge for us to break out with a nine-spot," he said. "We're always watching the standings and know there's a lot of baseball ahead. We're very confident because we know both of those games will be back here."
Mitch Reising led off the game for Collinsville with a sharp single and scored on a single by Sean Edrington three batters later. But Holba quickly settled in by retiring the next eight batters in a row.
In all, he struck out 11, walked just two and allowed just two more hits after the first inning.
"Chris is a guy who commands the strike zone with his slider and if he's able to get ahead with his fastball, he can throw a slider on the edge and be really dominant," said Portz. "Today he had command of the zone."
But the O'Fallon offense was the story of the game.
The Panthers also scored their lead-off hitter, Kyle VanBeveren, when he singled and came home on an RBI hit by Harrison in the first inning. They added two more in the the third when Harrison scored on a ground out and Bradley Snyder, who had singled, scored on a hit by Jacob Holl.
Snyder picked up the RBI in the fourth inning, singling home Harrison after his wind-blown, bases-clearing double.
O'Fallon added two more runs in the fifth when Van Beveren doubled home Joe Guithues and Jake Maxey.
In all, six O'Fallon batters scored at least once and five had RBIs.
"Every day out is a tough battle and the kids are facing some really tough opponents," Portz said. "It was good to see them make solid contact all day long. I don't think we made soft contact one time today. Balls that were even outs were hit well. I'm really proud of my guys."
Collinsville (9-12, 2-6), which started its season with seven wins in its first eight games, has now lost six of its last seven.
"The kids come prepared and ready to go every day, we just have to get all three phases going in the same game," Trapp said. "It's a long season, so we just have roll with the punches right now and keep grinding."
The Kahoks used four pitchers in the game, but starter Mathew Cook took the loss. He allowed seven runs on 10 hits while striking out one, walking three and hitting one in four full innings.