Lots of things had to break just the right way Monday for the Okawville Rockets to earn a second straight trip to the Class 1A state baseball tournament.
So much so that Okawville coach Jackie Smith credited the “baseball gods,” after the Rockets wiped out an early 6-1 deficit to force extra innings, then beat Abingdon-Avon 8-7 with an improbable and dramatic eighth inning to win the Springfield Super-Sectional.
“The baseball gods won us this game with some gutsy pitching and some timely hitting,” said Smith, whose team tied it 6-6 in the sixth, fell behind 7-6 in the top of the eighth, then won it on a two-out, bases-loaded hit by pitch followed by a bases-loaded walk. “At this point of the year we’ll take it any which way we can get it, but we were very fortunate to come out on top today.”
Improbable ending? Yes.
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Impossible? That word apparently never entered the minds of the Rockets (19-14-1), who will face Goreville in the 1A semifinals at noon Friday at Dozer Park in Peoria after finishing second in the state in 2015.
“We came back last year, too, which is kind of crazy that we came back in the supers both years,” said Okawville pitching ace Brendan Killion (9-2), who allowed six runs in the first two innings Monday and still came away with the victory by holding the Tornadoes (27-4) to only four hits and one run the the rest of the way. “
“These guys just keep battling and that’s just great for the town that we can go back-to-back. Hopefully we’ll get the championship this time.”
The eighth inning was like something out of a Hollywood movie script, because no other explanation would seem believable.
Abingdon took a 7-6 lead on a two-out RBI single by Nolan Struhs. Abingdon’s Kaine Sundquist, who relieved starter Nick Boggs with two outs in the second inning, had his team three outs away from a trip to state.
These guys just keep battling and that’s just great for the town that we can go back-to-back. Hopefully we’ll get the championship this time.
Okawville pitcher Brendan Killion
Okawville’s Alec Wisneski kick-started the rally with a ball that bounced off the ground near the plate and was so high that it didn’t come down until it fell into the grass in left field.
“We’ve had a lot of tough luck all season long with stuff like that, balls not bouncing our way,” said Smith, who remembered something assistant coach Beau Barkau had said earlier this season after some tough losses. “Coach Barkau said ‘You don’t want those hops now. We’re going to get the hops but you want them when it matters’ — and lo and behold he’s correct.
“We get a hop that hits in the batters box and goes over the third baseman’s head. You just need luck sometimes and that’s a lot of what it was today.”
Wisneski was bunted to second and Abingdon coach Jeremy Pickrel ordered an intentional walk to Rockets catcher Brad Fuhrhop, who by that time was 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly and two RBIs. With two outs, Sundquist walked Noland Crane to load the bases, then hit Killion in the leg with an inside pitch on a 3-1 count that tied the game 7-7.
“I was just thinking if it’s close I’ve got to hit it,” Killion said. “It was up and in close to me, so I just took one in the leg. I figured taking one (there), go back to state ... it pays itself off.”
It certainly did.
Frederking was up next and worked the count to 3-2, then laid off an outside pitch to draw the walk that forced in the winning run.
“The last pitch, the guys said it looked it was right there,” Frederking said, “but when I saw it I thought it was quite a bit outside, so I took it and I hoped for the best.”
The way the inning started with that crazy hop at third base ... if that ball stays down it’s a routine ground ball and maybe we’re having a different conversation right now.
Abingdon-Avon coach Jeremy Pickrel
Frederking said the Rockets never stopped believing they could win.
“The guys battled man, they battled,” he said. “It was crazy. We were down at the beginning, BK (Killion)wasn’t hitting his spots great and he battled back and made every pitch. He was great from like the third inning on; he was awesome.”
Abingdon got three runs in the first, including a two-run triple by Heath Milan, and three more in the second with the Rockets’ contributing five errors on the day to aid the Tornadoes’ offense.
Okawville kept pecking away, getting a run in the first, a two-run double from Josh Madrid in the second and single runs in the third and fourth. Tornadoes outfielders Ben Stipp and Brett Fordyce each made leaping, diving catches to prevent further Okawvilel damage.
The Rockets tied it on Fuhrhop’s two-out RBI single in the sixth inning.
Pickrel was asked about the intentional walk to Fuhrhop in the eigth inning since Fuhrhop wound up scoring the winning run.
“The way the inning started with that crazy hop at third base ... if that ball stays down it’s a routine ground ball and maybe we’re having a different conversation right now,” Pickrel said. “It’s just a decision we made and we felt like that was the best decision. I can’t say we didn’t give it our best shot.”
Killion settled down after the shaky start, allowing only two hits over five shutout innings until ginving up the run in the eighth.
“I wanted to pull him twice and I feared for my family if I would have,” joked Smith. “We’re going to rest him, rest, him, rest him and see where we’re at the rest of this week, but this has been the goal all along and I’m glad he could get us there.”
“We failed to capitalize a couple times, let them off the hook,” Pickrel said. “Credit to (Killion), credit to all of them, they kept plugging away. They’ve got their best pitcher on the mound, they could have folded up shop, but we knew at this stage of the game everyone’s going to continue to fight and that’s what they did.”