In 168 at-bats over the previous three seasons, Highland outfielder Andrew Winning had never hit a home run.
Showing an amazing sense of dramatic timing Monday, Winning crushed a two-run homer with two outs in the sixth inning that lifted the Bulldogs to an improbable 3-2, come-from-behind super-sectional victory over Champaign Centennial that sent them to the Class 3A state tournament.
“This home run was unbelievable because my dad passed away this past year, so I was just looking up at him,” said Winning, whose father, Bob Winning, died of cancer in 2014.
With Highland trailing 2-0 headed to the bottom of the sixth, the rally began with a two-out triple by Highland senior Cody Bentlage. Bentlage scored to cut the Centennial lead to 2-1 on a hard shot by Grant Geppert that eluded the Chargers’ second baseman.
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Winning turned on an inside fastball and belted a home run that scaled the high left field at GCS Ballpark and was headed in the direction of Interstate 255 before colliding with the nearby office building.
“I just tried to stay back and drive it,” said Winning, whose team will face Morgan Park at noon Friday in the Class 3A state semifinals in Joliet. “I can’t believe it just happened. I could tell that I got hold of it, but I didn’t know it was going that far at all.
“It’s crazy. It was unbelievable.”
Whether the home run was divine intervention or just a skillful swing was up for debate, but Highland (26-13) had only two hits going into the sixth inning and was being dominated by Centennial starter Anthony Martin.
Centennial’s pitching and hitting had been so good in the playoffs that the Chargers had outscored their previous four opponents 26-1. The odds were stacked against the Bulldogs, but they had a few solid hole cards to play.
Highland coach Joel Hawkins liked Martin’s performance so much he joked about wanting to bring him along to the state tournament, but he will be more than happy with his own players.
“Andrew can do it,” Hawkins said. “We see him do it in practice all the time, but he hasn’t done it in a game yet. He picked a nice time. That’s our fourth home run of the year, this is not what we do. We’ll take it.”
Unlike Highland’s 2008 state championship team, which was built around first-round major-league draft pick Jake Odorizzi and future Division I player Danny Gifford, these Bulldogs are a little feistier. They enjoy playing from behind and burned another playoff foe Monday.
“Every time I turn around there’s something going on with this team that I had no (idea about),” Hawkins said. “This is a shock. Each kid just keeps fighting and battling. The other day they were down 4-1 in the sixth inning and they just kept fighting. They get to play a little more baseball.”
Highland pitcher Tyler Kimmle picked up his second straight relief win in the playoffs.
“They were on top of us all night,” Kimmle said. “We were rolling over, popping up, everything. Sixth inning with two outs, Cody Bentlage started things off. It’s the fight in the Bulldogs, that’s what I’ve got to say.”
Winning’s home run sent everyone on the Bulldogs’ bench into immediate celebration mode.
“Our team’s small, we don’t get many home runs,” Kimmle said. “So when we see one get up, it’s exciting for everybody.”
Centennial got a run in the first and another in the third. The way Anderson was pitching, it seemed like that would be more than enough.
“We’ve been putting the ball in play hard the last couple of weeks, but we didn’t today and that’s a tribute to what he was doing,” Hawkins said of Anderson, who worked quickly and pounded the strike zone. “We just couldn’t slow him down, he kind of controlled the pace of the game.”
Centennial coach Ryan Remole said the loss was tough to take with his team just four outs away from going to state.
“They came through when it mattered most,” Remole said. “We thought we were three outs away from making it to our first Final Four ever, but what do you do? You cry a little bit with the boys. It’s a crushing thing when you consider you’re standing on the doorstep of state.”
Remole felt Anderson’s two-strike to pitch to Bentlage was a good one.
“We had the guy that hit the triple in a two-strike count and we thought we struck him out,” Remole said “There was a pitch right on the corner ... of course we have a very different perspective. (The catcher) didn’t flinch, (Martin) hit the spot and we thought we rang him up on that. I think it caused a little bit of frustration from our pitcher.”
Game at a Glance
CENTENNIAL FIRST: Dylan Grady singled, Brian Paul walked and Anthony Martin his an RBI double.
Centennial 1, Highland 0
CENTENNIAL THIRD: Jeff Lindgren singled, Grady followed with an RBI double.
Centennial 2, Highland 0
HIGHLAND SIXTH: With two outs, Cody Bentlage tripled to right-center. Bentlage scored when Grant Geppert reached on an error, then Andrew Winning hit a two-run home run to left field.
Highland 3, Centennial 2