All phases go for Richards in spotless week
Potent hitting? Check.
Reliable pitching? Check again.
Dependable defense? That gets the biggest check mark of all.
As Richards coach Brian Wujcik has asserted for a long time, success in baseball can often be found when a team proves competent in two of the three above-mentioned phases of the sport. But what has sparked the Bulldogs’ surge to the top of the South Suburban Conference Red standings and capturing of 15 wins in their first 18 games is efficiency in all three areas.
And without question, the X-factor has been Richards’ gloves. From outfielders Kyle Garrett and Eric Mallo and catcher Charlie Zeschke, to infielders AJ Sanchez, Noel Castro and Nate Natividad, the Bulldogs’ defense has been rock solid thus far.
“Two errors in one game is, I believe, the most we’ve had,” Wujcik said. “Last year, when we made an error, it seemed like it cost us three runs. We haven’t had that kind of meltdown this year.
“This is the best defensive team we’ve had in quite a while, and it’s something we’re real happy to see. I really think it’s the difference between us being 15-3 and 11-7 and being in a tight race.”
Richards continued to distance itself from all SSC Red pursuers by knocking off four more conference foes last week. The Bulldogs entered the current week ahead of second-place Oak Lawn by four games and three up in the loss column.
The latest round of success began at Shepard’s expense, as the Astros were dispatched 17-5 on Monday and 7-4 on Tuesday. Richards (15-3, 10-0) then followed up with a 12-0 demolition of Tinley Park on Thursday and 18-3 mauling of Hillcrest on Friday.
Wujcik pointed to the most competitive of those games as an illustration of how in sync this year’s club has been to date. Shepard actually outhit the Bulldogs 8-6 on Tuesday, but the latter took advantage of numerous Astros gifts in the second frame.
While Shawn Chiaramonte stroked a two-RBI single, that was the lone hit Richards produced during a five-run rally. Also part of the uprising were two walks, two hit batsmen, a wild pitch and Shepard error.
And when the Astros threatened to come back in their final at-bat against a tiring Ryan Thompson, Wujcik put Nick Mejia on the mound to hold off the charge. He wrapped a popout and strikeout around a free pass to nail down the victory for the ‘Dogs.
“We were a great five-inning ballclub last year, but then we’d have trouble in the sixth and seventh,” Wujcik said. “This year, we’ve closed the door on teams, either by getting a clutch hit or an out when we need it.”
Wujcik admitted, though, that he thought “Shepard lost the game more than we won it.” Were it not for the second-inning disaster, the Astros were in decent shape to knock off Richards, which hadn’t been the case at all one day earlier.
While Shepard coach Frank DiFoggio agreed that “two errors basically killed us,” he was happy to see the Astros make their District 218 sister school squirm a bit.
“We’re not going to quit,” DiFoggio said. “We’re going to fight and compete with whoever we’re playing against, but I don’t think the confidence is there that we’re going to win.
“The effort is there, the want is there, but we’re not confident enough. We’re better than this talent-wise, but it’s almost at the point where we’re thinking, ‘What are we going to do to lose this game?’”
Sam Hermanas (double), Kevin Knoerzer (RBI single) and Bobby Peterka (bases-loaded walk) were key individuals in Shepard’s late rally. Eric Horbach and Kenny Gorski supplied the Astros with RBI hits in the first and fourth frames, respectively.
Three runs in their initial plate appearance got the Bulldogs off and running on Monday, and six more runs amassed over their next two at-bats put them on Easy Street. Unlike on Tuesday, Richards didn’t need assistance in order to prevail, as Sanchez (two hits, including a double, three RBI), Mallo (two hits, including a triple, two RBI), Castro (two hits, four RBI) and Natividad (two-run double) spearheaded a 17-hit assault.
“We’ve scored early [in games] and gotten a lot of runs after two outs this year,” Wujcik said. “We don’t have to hit the panic button in the first or second inning if they’re hitting our starter around a little bit because we know we’re [also] going to hit the ball.”
Sanchez pocketed the victory for the Bulldogs by pitching all six innings and striking out eight. He gave up eight hits to Shepard, which was paced by Brett Smith (two-run double), Kevin Carmody (RBI double), Brendan Herrman (RBI single) and Jake Hart (RBI single).
“That Monday was a disaster,” DiFoggio said. “Richards jumped on us right away and they really just pounded us that game. They were catching it, they were throwing it and they were hitting it.
“We responded [early], but we could never rally enough to stay close.”
A trait DiFoggio noticed in the Bulldogs was the one he feels his own athletes are still seeking.
“You could see it with that Richards bunch — they have something where they believe that they’re not going to lose,” DiFoggio said.
Tinley Park 0
An eight-run fourth inning brought last Thursday’s SSC crossover contest to a premature halt via the slaughter rule as the ‘Dogs bombarded the Titans with a 15-hit attack. Mike Marchione (two-run triple), Castro (two-RBI double) and Mallo (triple) played the biggest roles in the fourth, but also chipping in Richards’ behalf were Mejia, Sanchez and Shane Mills, each of whom stroked an RBI single.
Zeschke contributed a couple RBI singles before that, and Castro (single) and Mejia (sacrifice fly) drove in a run apiece as the Bulldogs raced to a 4-0 advantage after two frames.
Richards carries a team batting average only 11 points shy of .400 and that’s with only minimal help so far from Danny Estrella, who has been used sparingly while recovering from a serious injury suffered near the end of the 2013 summer campaign.
“When Danny’s in the lineup, it’s as solid as [any] we’ve had,” Wujcik said. “Guys up and down the lineup can put the ball in play, get on base, leg out doubles and drive guys in.”
Wujcik considers his 2004 squad, which won 30 games, his best one of the past 21 years but states “this team certainly rivals it,” particularly in the area of hitting. The current group’s exhibition versus Tinley made another pitching win for freshman Angelo Smith (four strikeouts, three hits) a sure thing.
The Hawks were no match for the ‘Dogs on Friday, especially after the latter erupted for a dozen runs in their initial at-bat. Three errors and a passed ball undermined Hillcrest in the first inning, but Richards also inflicted damage with its sticks as doubles by Thompson (two RBI), Natividad (one RBI) and Sanchez (one) led the way.
The Bulldogs nearly batted around the order twice before being retired. Applying the finishing touches on the rout were Andrew Schramm (two-run homer), Castro (two-run single), Chiaramonte (RBI double) and Jason Avery (RBI single).
Brett Thomas stopped the Hawks on six hits and whiffed four as Richards triumphed for the 14th time in its last 15 outings.
“When the sectional [grouping] first came out, I thought we’d be lucky to be a 10 or 11 seed because it was such a minefield,” Wujcik said. “We don’t have the pedigree of a lot of other teams in our area — we don’t have all-staters or D-I recruits — but we have guys who want to win. Now, we’d probably be a four or five seed.”
Two SSC Red clashes with Reavis began the current week for Richards, and a sweep of the Rams would pretty much put the Bulldogs on the brink of a divisional title. Of their remaining seven conference foes, only Lemont and TF South would appear capable of offering anything in the way of a serious threat.
But Wujcik prefers to not examine the situation too closely.
“We’ve been playing all three facets of the game pretty darn well and I just want to enjoy it,” he said.
On a number of past occasions, the Astros proved a rather thorny problem for the Eagles. Even though Sandburg was successful much more often than not, rarely did the victory come without some anxious moments.
None of those were in evidence last Wednesday, though, as Eagles pitcher Bryan Pall dominated the proceedings. The University of Michigan-bound hurler quieted Shepard on two hits and fanned nine, and Sandburg used both that mound performance and some robust hitting to take down the Astros in just five innings.
Alec Martinez was the Eagles’ offensive headliner as he delivered four hits and three RBI. Sandburg tallied three times in its initial at-bat and seven more times in the second frame to place Shepard on the brink of what eventually became a slaughter-rule defeat.
“We were losing the day before to Lincoln-Way North [before rain intervened], so we were trying to get on [our players] a little bit about not letting up,” Eagles assistant coach Chuck Peters said.
The message was obviously received, much to DiFoggio’s dismay.
“We got the doors blown off us on Monday [by Richards] and we got murdered on Wednesday,” he said. “[Hermann] wasn’t finding the zone and he’s one of our best strike throwers. They hit him all over the place and we weren’t going to match their offense.”
Adam Gregory’s groundout, which followed a walk to Peterka and Hart’s single, drove in the Astros’ lone run in the fourth inning.
The Braves kept the Astros headed in a downward spiral by doling out an SSC crossover loss on Thursday. The setback was Shepard’s seventh in a row.
The two clubs exchanged scoring during each of the first three innings, but Bremen had a pair of two-run uprisings that helped it build a 5-3 edge. Three runs in the fourth stretched that lead out, then the Braves applied the finishing touches with a four-run sixth that was aided by two Astros errors.
“We went down early and it was in our eyes — ‘Here we go again,’” DiFoggio said. “It was one of those things this [past] week where things didn’t go our way. We were snake-bit.”
One plus for Shepard (5-11, 3-6) was that it got its offense on track well enough to pound out 12 hits. Half of those were evenly split between Peterka and Knoerzer, each of whom had a double and at least one RBI.
Offsetting that good work, however, was a little shakiness in the field. Besides the aforementioned miscues in Bremen’s half of the sixth, the Astros also gave their foe an unintentional boost with a dropped third strike and error in the second stanza, which set up a score.
“It’s routine plays that are hurting us and I just can’t figure it out right now,” DiFoggio said. “It’s not for lack of practice, but it’s not translating on to the [game-day] field.”
Joliet West 4
The Astros pushed the Tigers into extra innings on Saturday, but they couldn’t avoid an eighth consecutive loss, which represents the longest skid Shepard has endured since DiFoggio’s inaugural campaign. He is now in his 17th season as Astros coach.
“We’ve lost eight in a row, but in five of the eight we had a good shot to win it,” DiFoggio said. “It just didn’t work out for us one way or the other. We just didn’t get out of our own way.”
On Saturday, Mark Albrecht’s single gave Shepard an early 1-0 lead, but Joliet West responded with three runs in its first two plate appearances. Not until the fifth did the Astros answer, but they finally pulled even on a Tigers throwing error and Horbach’s single.
Shepard had an opportunity to strike one inning before that, but a runner was thrown out at the plate.
“It was my bad read,” DiFoggio said. “I was trying to push the action to try to get us out of our funk.”
Joliet West loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the eighth and then notched the deciding marker on a short fly ball.
“This kind of has become an albatross,” DiFoggio said of his team’s bad luck over the past couple weeks. “But the moment we get that [next] ‘W’, I think we’re going to take off. It would not surprise me if we go 11-5 in our next 16 games.”
Besides their rout of the Astros, the Eagles picked up two SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue victories last week over the Raiders.
Martinez poked another three hits and drove in one run for Sandburg (12-4, 4-0) in its first win against Bolingbrook. Dan Santiago chipped in two hits and Mike Jenteo smacked a two-run single as part of the Eagles’ momentum-shifting four-run third inning.
Matthias Dietz handled the pitching chores with little difficulty, save for a long homer he surrendered in the late going, a ball Peters deemed the hardest hit off the big hurler thus far this season. Dietz whiffed 12 batters and now has 47 strikeouts in 35 innings.
The only flaw, although it didn’t prove fatal here, was four errors committed by Sandburg.
“It wasn’t our best defensive game, but if we score some runs with [Dietz] pitching, we’re going to win,” Peters said. “Baseball’s a crazy game sometimes, but if we play defense and hit a little bit, I like our chances against just about anybody we play [at any time].”
Sean Leland logged the victory in the second matchup with Bolingbrook, doing so by tossing a four-hitter and fanning nine. That improved his ledger to 3-1 and dropped his earned-run average to 0.80 over 26 innings.
The Eagles accumulated just six hits, but they scored five times in the fourth stanza. Dan Dziadkowiez claimed one of Sandburg’s RBI.
Richards 324 413 — 17
Shepard 020 030 — 5
Richards 2B: Natividad, Sanchez. 3B: Estrella, Mallo. RBI: Castro 4, Sanchez 3, Mallo 2, Natividad 2, Zeschke 2, Chiaramonte, Estrella. WP: Sanchez (3-0).
Shepard 2B: Carmody, Smith. RBI: Smith 2, Carmody, Hart, Hermann. LP: Gregory (1-3).
Shepard 100 100 2 — 4
Richards 050 002 x — 7
Shepard 2B: Hermanas. RBI: Gorski, Horbach, Knoerzer, Peterka. LP: Smith (2-3).
Richards 2B: Mills. RBI: Chiaramonte 2, Mallo, Sanchez, Zeschke. WP: Thompson (4-0).
Tinley Park 000 00 — 0
Richards 310 8x — 12
Richards 2B: Castro, Mallo. 3B: Mallo, Marchione. RBI: Castro 3, Marchione 2, Mejia 2, Zeschke 2, Mills, Sanchez. WP: Smith (3-0).
Hillcrest 000 03 — 3
Richards (12)31 2x — 18
Richards 2B: Chiaramonte, Natividad, Sanchez, Thompson. HR: Schramm. RBI: Thompson 3, Castro 2, Schramm 2, Avery, Chiaramonte, Estrella, Natividad, Sanchez. WP: Thomas (3-1).
Shepard 000 10 — 1
Sandburg 371 2x — 13
Shepard RBI: Gregory. LP: Hermann (0-1).
Sandburg 2B: Landgraf. RBI: martinez 3. WP: Pall (2-1).
Bremen 212 304 0 — 12
Shepard 111 000 2 — 5
Shepard 2B: Knoerzer, Peterka. RBI: Peterka 2, Albrecht, Gregory, Knoerzer. LP: Horbach (2-1).
Shepard 100 020 00 — 3
Joliet West 210 000 01 — 4
Shepard 2B: Peterka. RBI: Albrecht, Horbach. LP: Hermann (0-2).