Richards tops Spartans twice in spotless week
Everyone connected with Richards baseball would love it if the South Suburban Conference Red championship remains in Oak Lawn this spring.
They’d like to see only one change: have ownership of it move a few miles to the south.
Oak Lawn High School is the defending SSC Red kingpin, a point Bulldogs coach Brian Wujcik made sure to emphasize to his athletes prior to last Monday’s confrontation with the Spartans. Part of what pushed Oak Lawn to the top of the divisional standings a year ago was its ability to register a sweep of its two-game neighborhood series.
“All week, we told [our guys], ‘If we want to win, we’ve got to go through them,’” Wujcik said.
So that’s what Richards proceeded to do, albeit in nail-biting fashion. The Bulldogs defeated the Spartans on both Monday and Tuesday, but the latter did not go down easily.
Eight innings, in fact, were needed to settle the issue on Monday. Richards squeezed out a 2-1 victory and then blanked Oak Lawn 5-0 in Tuesday’s rematch. Two days after that, another win was pocketed, as the Bulldogs downed Oak Forest 12-5 in an SSC crossover contest.
“You don’t want to be chasing anybody [in the conference race],” Wujcik said. “It’s a good start against quality competition and it certainly felt good. There’s not a whole lot to complain about.”
That included on Saturday, when Richards (8-2, 3-0) completed a perfect week by triumphing twice in the Lincoln-Way Central Tournament. After fighting back from a 6-0 deficit to trip up Plainfield South 8-7 in the first meeting, the Bulldogs constructed their own comfortable edge versus Normal Community and eventually bagged a 15-9 victory.
“Everything is working together,” Wujcik said. “If you play well in two out of three areas, you’re going to win a lot of games. We’ve been getting three out of three.”
Pitchers AJ Sanchez, Ryan Thompson and Angelo Smith all went the distance for Richards in its three conference encounters. Sanchez struck out 10 Spartans, Thompson required just 75 pitches to log his win over Oak Lawn, and freshman Smith survived a rocky beginning to tame the Bengals on Thursday.
Only Smith had the benefit of a hearty offense behind him as the Bulldogs answered Oak Forest’s three-run first inning with a five-spot in their initial at-bat. Mike Marchione’s two-RBI double served as the critical hit.
Richards tallied at least two runs in three other stanzas as well.
Nick Mejia was the Bulldogs’ hero in their first game, his single in the eighth inning breaking a 1-all tie with Oak Lawn. Shawn Chiaramonte and Noel Castro singled ahead of him.
“Two of their hits were bleeders, but give their guys credit — they figured [Spartans pitcher Matt Dunne] out by the eighth inning,” Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny said.
Mejia and Castro both hit safely for Richards in the second frame, too, their singles coming with two outs and just before Shane Mills rapped a double.
“We’ve done a lot of that this year,” Wujcik said, referring to his club’s two-out surge. “When you’re in the field, you’re frustrated because you can’t shut it down. When you’re hitting, it’s a big momentum boost.”
The Bulldogs squandered some other opportunities to add to their total prior to the eighth, but Dunne’s mound effort on the Spartans’ behalf — which included seven strikeouts and just one walk — was matched by Sanchez. Oak Lawn got its only run off him in the first when Kevin Zurek doubled in Brandon Quillin, who had singled.
Zurek finished with three hits for the Spartans, but beyond that Sanchez was pretty much in control. He retired Oak Lawn in order three times and allowed it to place just one runner aboard in four other plate appearances.
“It seemed like both teams were ready to go from the start, but [Richards was] better this year and our hitting just isn’t there,” Gerny said. “The one thing that was nice was that it wasn’t one of those games where you could look back and say something happened that shouldn’t have happened, or you lost on a fluke play.”
Just as it did against Sanchez, Oak Lawn notched seven hits versus Thompson on Tuesday, and its batters struck out only half as many times. And, as Wujcik noted, nothing was going to be a given for the ‘Dogs simply because they had prevailed the day before.
“We said, ‘Today’s a new day — there’s two new pitchers, a different umpire and the wind’s blowing differently,’” Wujcik said.
Luckily for Richards, it was the same outcome as before, thanks to Thompson and some more clutch hitting. Sanchez (double) and Eric Mallo (sacrifice fly) staked the Bulldogs to a 2-0 lead in the second inning, then Mills (double), Chiaramonte (single) and Charlie Zeschke (groundout) added later RBI to seal the deal.
“Heading into Saturday, our team batting average was .352,” Wujcik said. “Give us extra baserunners, and we’ve done a nice job of getting them home.”
On this occasion, Richards was the recipient of several unintended gifts, including five hit batsmen. Four of those players scored.
“They’re going to make you pay for your mistakes,” Gerny said. “You read about some of the run totals they’ve put up — if you give them all those extra baserunners, they’re going to get that clutch hit [at some point].”
Wujcik was impressed with the defense displayed by each team in both games. Only two errors were charged.
“You’re getting some funny hops in the infield because the grass hasn’t grown yet, but the series itself was played cleanly,” Wujcik said.
“Every time we got a runner on base, they’d make a good defensive play,” Gerny said of the Bulldogs. “It seemed like both games, everybody was hitting [for us], just not at the same time where we could get some momentum going.”
Oak Forest 5
Although the wins over Oak Lawn were quite satisfying, Wujcik also took a moment to savor the Bulldogs’ success against the Bengals on Thursday.
“We hadn’t beaten them in at least five years,” he said. “Their pitchers have had our number.”
Not this time. After four hits, two hit batsmen and a walk were parlayed into a five-run rally, Richards struck again in the second inning as Sanchez doubled and Zeschke socked a two-run homer.
Oak Forest climbed back within two by scoring solo markers in the fourth and fifth frames, but it would get no closer. RBI doubles from Mills and Mallo restored a four-run cushion for the Bulldogs, then Chiaramonte (two-run homer) and Mills (RBI double) capped off the victory in the sixth.
Plainfield South 7
Even though the Cougars teed off on the Bulldogs early in Saturday’s tourney opener, Wujcik was only moderately concerned.
“What’s nice as coaches is we don’t have to hit the panic button if our pitchers struggle,” he said. “We can leave our pitchers out there because we trust that we’ll swing the bats.”
Wujcik admitted, however, that his players might have been “too anxious and trying too hard” at the outset. Richards put runners aboard in each of its first four plate appearances, but had nothing to show for that scoring-wise.
Things changed in the fifth, which began with Mallo’s single. He eventually came home on Zeschke’s groundout, then Chiaramonte sent a ball over the fence.
More noisemaking happened in the sixth and seventh, as the Bulldogs tallied three times in each stanza. Mallo (two-run double) and Sanchez (sacrifice fly) provided the first batch of RBI, then Mills (two-run single) and Castro (double) came through for Richards in the seventh.
“Within a game, it was [like] two different teams hitting,” said Wujcik, whose squad racked up 11 hits in all. That helped offset eight strikeouts and made a winner of Brett Thomas on the mound.
Normal Community 9
Andrew Schramm, who earned a save for the Bulldogs against Plainfield South, was the winning pitcher in Saturday’s second contest as Richards held a 9-1 lead after three innings.
Mallo, Nate Natividad and Kyle Garrett all homered for the ‘Dogs and five other players contributed doubles to an 18-hit assault. Richards plated at least four runs in three different frames.
Sanchez, Zeschke and Castro evenly split half of their team’s hits between them.
Two dates with Evergreen Park and a confrontation with Bremen were the SSC tilts on the Bulldogs’ four-game slate this week. They visit Andrew on Saturday.
Oak Lawn 4
TF South 1
Knowing the Rebels had also dropped their first two games in SSC play, Gerny warned his players about what to expect.
“We said, ‘You guys better play desperate [because] whoever loses this game is going to be in a huge hole,’” he said. “It was like looking in a mirror with the team we were playing. We knew exactly what they were going through because we were going through the same thing.”
Gerny had advised his hitters to “swing the bats, be aggressive and get your money’s worth” at the plate, but that didn’t matter through the first five innings. TF South, playing as the visiting team on its own field, scratched out a run in the top of the first and made it hold up.
“I think it’s taking its toll on us,” Gerny said of his squad’s steady diet of away contests, made necessary by a delay in the renovation of its own field. “Mentally, we were asking a lot of the kids to bounce back that quick [from the losses to Richards].”
But that’s what the Spartans (2-9, 1-2) finally did in the sixth after a Rebels error gave Oak Lawn an opening. Quillin, who had singled and then stolen both second and third, scored the tying run on the play.
Justin Swatek’s sacrifice fly broke the deadlock a short time later and sophomore Liam Blake stroked a two-run single to culminate the rally. Blake went 3-for-3 on the day.
“It was nice to be on the other side of one like this,” said Gerny, whose team has suffered several close losses this spring. “Our hitters couldn’t find a hole or catch a break [earlier], but if we’re able to give our pitching staff four or five runs, we should be OK in conference.”
Freshman Chad Cwik collected his initial varsity triumph by throwing the first six innings on a yield of two hits. He walked four and struck out eight.
“He might have been a little nervous at the start, but after that he was lights out,” Gerny said.
Richards 010 000 01 — 2
Oak Lawn 100 000 00 — 1
Richards 2B: Mills. RBI: Mejia, Mills. WP: Sanchez (2-0).
Oak Lawn 2B: Zurek. RBI: Zurek. LP: Dunne (1-2).
Oak Lawn 000 000 0 — 0
Richards 021 200 x — 5
Oak Lawn LP: Quillin (0-1).
Richards 2B: Mills, Sanchez. RBI: Chiaramonte, Mallo, Mills, Sanchez, Zeschke. WP: Thompson (1-0).
Oak Forest 300 110 0 — 5
Richards 520 023 x — 12
Richards 2B: Mills 2, Mallo, Marchione, Sanchez. HR: Chiaramonte, Zeschke. RBI: Chiaramonte 3, Mills 3, Marchione 2, Zeschke 2, Mallo, Mejia. WP: Smith (1-1).
Richards 000 023 3 — 8
Plainfield South 500 101 0 — 7
Richards 2B: Castro, Mallo. HR: Chiaramonte. RBI: Mallo 2, Mills 2, Castro, Chiaramonte, Sanchez, Zeschke. WP: Thomas (1-0).
Richards 504 100 5 — 15
Normal Community 001 400 4 — 9
Richards 2B: Chiaramonte, Estrella, Mills, Sanchez, Zaeschke. HR: Garrett, Mallo, Natividad. RBI: Castro 2, Estrella 2, Garrett 2, Mallo 2, Natividad 2, Chiaramonte, Mills Zeschke. WP: Schramm (1-1).
TF South 100 000 0 — 1
Oak Lawn 000 004 x — 4
Oak Lawn RBI: Blake 2, J. Swatek. WP: Cwik (1-1).