On the road to recovery
Spartans are prosperous in busy week
By Ken Karrson
Seven games into the 2015 season, some might have thought Oak Lawn was on the road to ruin.
That road has since become one of recovery.
What was overlooked by doubters was the fact that a string of early losses had been administered by some of the Chicagoland finest baseball programs. The Spartans weren’t winning, but the same could be said for many opponents of teams like St. Rita, Lyons Township and Lincoln-Way North.
While it looked as if Oak Lawn had hit rock bottom, in reality it may very well have been the Spartans’ ticket to the top of the South Suburban Conference Red.
Much of the schedule remains to be played, of course, but Oak Lawn has already made its presence known. With three league victories -- including one over cross-town rival Richards -- bagged last week, the Spartans entered the current week with a 5-1 mark in SSC action, leaving them just a half-game behind Red Division leader Shepard.
“You’re questioning your worth two weeks ago, but going 1-6 to start might have been the best thing that could have happened to us,” Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny said. “[Our guys have] seen the worst of it already. We’re doing better and finally playing as a team.”
The Spartans’ fortunes have improved to the point where Gerny came away disappointed with a split the defending SSC Red champion Bulldogs. After dropping a 7-5 verdict in eight innings to Oak Lawn on Monday, Richards turned the tables one day later as it collected an 8-5 triumph.
“I really felt we should have beaten them twice,” Gerny said. “We kind of snuck out of there with one Monday, then we gave it right back. I hope that game doesn’t [eventually] mean more than just one loss.
“You’re looking at all the [Red] teams that are usually in the mix [of contenders] doing well -- that just puts more pressure on [everybody]. Whoever manages to sweep someone else is going to establish themselves as the front-runner. I hope it’s us.”
The Spartans (8-9, 5-1) positioned themselves nicely for that tag by overcoming an early deficit last Monday and then, after stranding baserunners in the fifth, sixth and seventh stanza, notching the deciding tallies on Liam Blake’s double. The two-bagger followed Joe Dodaro’s hit and Patrick Slattery’s bunt single.
“Our guys are definitely in a comfort zone at the plate right now,” said Gerny, whose club finished with 11 hits. “I think that early schedule is paying off. Teams that we struggled to beat last year, or that we lost to, we’re going toe-to-toe with them.”
Boo Quillin and Ivan Georgelos each drove in an earlier run with a single, Bobby Beard registered an RBI on a groundout and Justin Swatek brought home two teammates with a suicide squeeze in the fourth as Richards was slow to react.
“There was a lack of baseball IQ on that all the way around,” Bulldogs coach Brian Wujcik said.
Richards caught a break when it retired Ryne Melnik on a play at the plate to end Oak Lawn’s fourth-inning at-bat, and when Noel Castro’s sacrifice fly tied the score for the Bulldogs momentum had seemingly begun to shift. But a double play abruptly halted Richards’ plate appearance and it left runners aboard in both the sixth and seventh frames, including one at third.
“We did OK [overall], but [it would help] if we could shore a few things up, [like] the misplayed bunt, passed balls and wild pitches,” Wujcik said. “Every time we make an error, it seems like it’s two runs or better [for the opposition].”
Nick Fritz (single), Ryan Renken (sacrifice fly) and Angelo Smith (single) accounted for the Bulldogs’ other RBI. Oak Lawn’s Matt Witkowski went the distance on the hill to best Nick Mejia.
Richards gained its revenge on Tuesday, although it again was unable to hold an early 4-2 lead. This time, though, it did some late-game damage as Castro (two-run double), Smith (RBI single), Chris Zeschke (double) and Noah Petrusevski (sacrifice fly) helped generate a total of four runs between the fifth and seventh innings.
Smith was also the pitcher of record as he threw a complete game with 11 strikeouts. He now has 33 in his last three starts. His latest batch of strikeouts overrode the six walks and seven hits he surrendered.
“His control wasn’t the best, but he was effectively wild,” Gerny said of Smith. “He kept our hitters guessing and had us off-balance a little bit. [But] I thought we put up a good fight until the end.”
Castro (single) and Smith (bases-loaded walk) also had RBI during Richards’ four-run second stanza, as did Fritz (single) and Ryan Willett (swinging bunt). Dodaro and Quillin both poked two-run singles for the Spartans while John Roberts’ single gave them another marker in the seventh as it came on the heels of a free pass and Slattery’s double.
Oak Lawn 4
Tinley Park 0
A Quillin throwing error on Wednesday had given Marist the go-ahead runs in what became a 7-5 win for the RedHawks. He was making a relief appearance at the time, so Gerny wanted to quickly give his third-year varsity player a chance to redeem himself.
And that’s exactly what Quillin did on Thursday as he fanned eight, walked one and scattered four hits in a shutout of the Titans in an SSC crossover. Gerny called it “the most dominating pitching performance we’ve had all year.”
“Coaching a game like that is easy when your pitcher is not making your defense work very hard,” he said. “[Quillin’s] been the kind of player who is dependable. He puts so much effort into it and I know how much he cares.”
Quillin also knocked in Oak Lawn’s second run with a second-inning single. Other RBI men were Roberts in the first, Melnik in the fourth and Slattery in the sixth. The latter’s came on a two-base hit.
Oak Lawn 10
Oak Lawn 8
Rich Central 1
Neither the Hawks nor Olympians provided much in the way of resistance on Saturday. Ryan Quinn, in fact, held Hillcrest hitless while whiffing six in the SSC crossover.
Rodrigo Zavala did give up five hits to Rich Central, but he also slipped third strikes past seven batters. The Spartans amassed 21 hits over the two games.
Dodaro had a pair in each and four RBI on the day while Blake and Slattery both supplied two hits and two RBI versus the Olympians. Also driving in two runs apiece in the second contest were Georgelos and Melnik. Swatek had a two-run double against the Hawks.
“People that follow our team [probably] don’t realize how good we’re doing in conference because of the tough nonconference schedule we had,” Gerny said. “It makes you feel better about the rest of the season, but if we don’t take care of [future] business the games will be meaningless.”
While the Spartans made progress within the SSC Red, the Bulldogs backslid a bit as they lost to the Indians in a Thursday crossover. A six-run third inning gave Lemont the boost it needed to pull away from Richards.
“We had done the same thing the week before against Lincoln-Way Central, referring to falling behind by a sizable margin. “It was still early. We have to be able to forget it and still attack teams.”
That didn’t happen, however. Save for singles by Mejia and TJ Spyrnal that chased in runs, the Bulldogs’ bats were relatively quiet. Certainly they didn’t match the Indians’ Nick Wisz, who homered twice and totaled five RBI.
Afterward Wujcik spoke with his athletes and asked them if they wanted to be playing ball.
“I said, ‘Some of you don’t seem like you’re enjoying playing,’” Wujcik said. “We don’t celebrate good plays; everybody looks relieved [when they’re made]. Everybody’s career is finite. It’s going to end sometime, but sometimes the younger guys don’t get it.”
Richards (6-7, 3-3) isn’t overstocked with vocal upperclassmen to help bring less-experienced players out of their shells, but one individual who has been stepping forward in that regard is Willett. An all-area performer in football last fall, Willett did not play baseball as a junior because of injury and Wujcik wondered how much he’d be able to provide.
Now he knows.
“What a great addition,” Wujcik said of Willett. “I don’t know where we’d be without him. He’s always encouraging guys in the dugout. He’s the one keeping everybody up.”
And Willett did more than that on Saturday. His diving catch at the warning track saved two runs and was part of a team defensive display Wujcik felt was the ‘Dogs’ best since their season-opener versus Rich Central.
Richards also turned a couple double plays to thwart the Thunderbolts, who stranded runners in each of the first four innings. They tallied their lone run in their initial at-bat.
Renken also drew praise from his coach for hanging tough on the mound. The junior struck out four.
“[Andrew] threatened all day, but Renken just kept pounding the [strike] zone,” Wujcik said. “Every outing that he has had has been a quality outing.”
Mejia finally gave his teammate a lead to protect in the fourth by going deep for a two-run homer. The hit was one of only four Richards mustered.