With a devastating slider and a lot of movement on his fastball Wednesday, O’Fallon senior right-hander Chris Holba was just the kind of pitcher who could give his team a chance to derail one of the top teams in the state.
Holba did just that, scattering four hits and striking out seven as O’Fallon reversed a pair of previous losses to Edwardsville with a 3-1 victory in the semifinals of the Class 4A Bloomington Sectional at Hopkins Field.
“There’s a historic rivalry between us two, so it’s great to get the last laugh here in the sectional,” said Holba (8-2), a Division I East Carolina recruit whose team had lost 2-1 in 11 innings and 8-4 to Edwardsville in Southwestern Conference play. “That’s the second time I’ve pitched against them this year and one through nine they’re a tough out. There’s no resting at any point during their lineup.”
The win pushed O’Fallon (29-9) into the sectional championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday against Minooka, a 6-5 winner over Normal West. The game will be played at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Edwardsville’s season ended at 35-2 as the Tigers saw their 16-game winning streak end.
“We’ve lost nine ballgames and sometimes you’ll write a team off that’s lost nine ballgames,” O’Fallon coach Jason Portz said. “We have known from the get-go that this team had this type of potential, ansd we’re still pretty young. That’s an exciting thing.”
Holba held the Tigers — ranked 12th nationally in the USA Today Super 25 and first in the state by PrepBaseballReport.com — without a hit until Matthew Zielonko’s bloop single with one out in the fourth.
That ended a string of eight hitless playoff innings by O’Fallon counting Bradley Harrison’s five-inning no-hitter in the regional championship.
Holba always has high velocity on his fastball, but on Wednesday featured a sharp breaking slider that the Tigers had little luck finding with their bats.
“I felt like I could throw it in any count,” Holba said. “I felt like I could all three pitches today.”
Portz was not surprised.
“Chris Holba has the potential to do that,” he said. “He’s done that just about every outing ... he had that same type of outing at Edwardsville (earlier), he was just as dominant. They struck some ball swell and got some good swings, but his slider was dominating today.
“I didn’t have him on a gun (today), but that’s the most velocity we’ve see him have. Without question that’s the most dominating pitching performance that we’ve ever had out of one of our arms.”
After hitting into a pair of outfield-infield double plays in the first two innings, the Panthers scored twice in the third. Shortstop Camden Bauer followed Jackson Penrod’s single by crushing a double to center and Kyle Van Bevern walked to load the bases.
“You see a guy that goes out and works as hard as he does and he hasn’t had the success that he’s wanted,” said of Bauer, a junior who committed to Alabama. “He’s been guy that’s hit down around .230 or .240 all year and he’s never stopped working. He has just worked and worked and now he just has figured it out that he’s an on-base guy..”
An error by Edwardsville shortstop Jordan Hovey led to one run and Nick Crabtree’s RBI fielder’s choice drove in another. Crabtree also drove in the third run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth.
“My BP (batting practice) earlier today went very well, I was feeling very comfortable at the plate,” Crabtree said. “I just had to stay focused; try and not feel the pressure. Our whole team’s just been really focused this postseason.”
Holba got two big plays from his outfield in the sixth inning as Bradley Harrison and center fielder Dillon Weiss each made highlight-reel diving catches to save potential extra-base hits.
“They struck two balls well there,” Holba said. “It could have been a bigger inning but hats off to my outfielders who tracked down balls That was huge for us. That’s awesome to see I’ve got them behind me.”
Holba carried a 3-0 lead into the seventh inning, but the Tigers wouldn’t go away quietly. Singles by Fahd Shakeel and Bailey Zimmer ignited a rally, but Holba picked off Mitchell Krebs at first on a close play.
Catcher Joe Wallace reached on an error on O’Fallon second baseman Connor Breyer that led to a run, but Holba retired Hovey on a fly ball to deep right-center to secure the win.
“That last inning we just wanted to get the tying run on deck and we were able to accomplish that,” Edwardsville coach Tim Funkhouser said. “Jordan put a good swing on the ball, unfortunately the wind ate it up a little bit.
“We didn’t have the at-bats we wanted early in the game, put ourselves in a situation to score some runs and credit their pitcher, he was outstanding. He was really sharp early on and when we did put some swings on some balls, they were able to make some nice catches in the field.”
Game at a Glance
O'FALLON THIRD: Jackson Penrod siogled and Camden Bauer doubled before a walk to Kyle VanBevern loaded the bases. Penrod scored on an error and Bauer scored on a fielder's choice grounder by Nick Crabtree.
O'Fallon 2, Edwardsville 0
O'FALLON FIFTH: Kyle VanBevern singled with one out, Dillon Weiss singled and they both stole bases to advance to second and third. VanBevern scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Nick Crabtree.
O'Fallon 3, Edwardsville 0
EDWARDSVILLE SEVENTH: Fahd Shakeel and Bailey Zimmer singled leading off the inning. Mitchell Krebs hit into a force play, then was picked off first. Joe Wallace reached on an error as Shakeel scored.
O'Fallon 3, Edwardsville 1