JOLIET The 2015 edition of the Highland Bulldogs has drawn inevitable comparisons with the 2008 baseball team which won 36 games behind the pitching and hitting of current big leaguer Jake Odorizzi.
As things currently stand, those two teams have only Highland’s black and red in common, says 26-year head coach Joel Hawkins.
But a 13-0 win over (Chicago) Morgan Park in a Friday semifinal puts the current Bulldogs just one win away from something else in common with Hawkins’ boys of ’08 – an Illinois Class 3A State Championship.
Highland (27-13) will next face (LaGrange Park) Nazareth Academy (32-8) at Joliet’s Silver Cross Field beginning at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
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“A lot of the things we do are the same, but that (’08) team hit 47 home runs and we had Jake on the team who made it through the whole year allowing one earned run,” Hawkins said. “We’re not that.
“This is a totally different group, but it’s been really fun to watch them establish their own identity.”
Apart from senior Grant Geppert’s fifth inning home run, the Bulldogs showed Morgan Park – as they did the Jerseyville Regional and Salem Sectional fields – that clean defense, aggressive base running and deep pitching is what they need to set them apart.
The game started four hours later than scheduled due to three separate rain delays in the first semifinal, which Nazareth Academy won 2-1 over (Wheaton) St. Francis.
Geppert pitched an Odorizzi-like four innings, shutting out Morgan Park on four scattered hits. He struck out just two, but walked none.
Keeping the speedy Mustangs off base was the key to the game, Geppert and Hawkins agreed.
“They are a fast team so I had to limit base runners and make sure I was quick enough to the plate to slow down the running game,” said the Highland senior. “I was trying to run the fast ball inside because I know they’ve been taught to go opposite field. It worked out.”
Three Morgan Park pitchers, however, had a hard time keeping Highland off the basepaths. The Bulldogs had eight hits, but also benefited from three walks, three hit batters, and four Mustang errors. Starter Christian Bullock also advanced two runners on balks.
“We make no excuses – there are some plays we should have made,” said Morgan Park coach Ernest Radcliffe. “We’re used to playing at a higher level than that. If we could have the game to play over, there would be a different result.”
Highland took a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Jordan Smith scored on a wild pitch and Will Greenwald knocked home two more with a clutch two-out single that may have set the tempo for the rest of the game.
Geppert admitted to some pre-game nerves, but said they faded quickly with the early lead. An errorless Highland defense provided support as well.
“Grant did a really good job of getting strike one and when he got to ball three, he did a good job of coming back to the zone and making them put it in play,” Hawkins said. “Our defense played well enough behind him to give us a chance. They gave us some mistakes – four of those runs were unearned, I think.”
The Bulldogs added four more unearned in the fourth inning. Bullock was an out away from escaping trouble, but Griffin Welz’s soft pop fly into the outfield was dropped allowing two runs to score. Tyler Kimmle followed with a single to plate two more.
Super-Sectional hero Andrew Winning knocked home a run with a single in the fourth, then the Bulldogs scored two runs with the benefit of Morgan Park errors before Geppert’s three-run homer.
Geppert was lifted in the bottom of the fifth, allowing Sam Greene to close out the game.
Hawkins provided no clue as to who he might start in the championship game against Nazareth Academy. Pete Baumgartner is the traditional next-in-line, but Kimmle and Jordan Smith also are rested.
“We may have Grant, too, for a couple of innings because, after what happened today, he only threw 50 pitches,” Hawkins said. “We may go to a committee.”
Game at a glance
Highland second: Jordan Smith drew a leadoff walk. Matt Augustin reached on a bunt and Griffin Welz walked to load the bases with one out. Smith scored on a wild pitch. Will Greenwald scored Augustin and Welz on a shallow hit to right-center. Highland 3, Morgan Park 0.
Highland third: Grant Geppert and Smith singled and Augustin walked to load the bases. With two outs, Wells lifted a fly ball, which was dropped by the right fielder. Geppert and Smith scored. Welz and Augustin scored on a Tyler Kimmle single. Highland 7. Morgan Park 0.
Highland fourth: Cody Bentlage led off with a bunt single and advanced to second on a ground ball out and took third on a wild pitch. He scored on a Andrew Winning single. Highland 8, Morgan Park 0.
Highland fifth: Welz reached on a fielder’s choice and Kimmle became the third Bulldog batter to be hit by a pitch. Greenwald hit a line drive off the first baseman’s glove, scoring Welz. Kimmle scored on a ground ball and an error. Geppert followed with a three-run home run to close out the scoring. Highland 13, Morgan Park 0.
Records: Highland 27-13, Morgan Park 25-13.