Written by Ken Karrson
SSC Red-letter day
Sweep of Spartans assures Astros of crown
By Ken Karrson
For a baseball coach, all weeks should be like Frank DiFoggio’s was last week.
From a personal standpoint Shepard’s veteran leader reached a milestone. When the Astros defeated Oak Lawn 9-2 last Tuesday, they gave DiFoggio his 300th career victory, although he quickly shrugged off that achievement.
“All it means is I’m getting old and I’ve had good players,” he said. “I tried to keep it quiet [beforehand]. It’s not a big deal in the whole scheme of things.”
A bigger deal to DiFoggio was what the triumph meant for Shepard in 2015. With it, the Astros moved ahead of the Spartans and into the South Suburban Conference Red penthouse.
And that was only the beginning. Shepard went on to edge Lemont 3-2 in an SSC crossover on the road last Thursday and then met Oak Lawn for a return engagement in Palos Heights on Friday. The Astros prevailed again, although eight innings were required to pocket a 6-5 win.
That latter success gave Shepard 20 victories for the first time in seven years and, better still, assured it of at least a share of the SSC Red crown. Beating Eisenhower either this past Monday or Tuesday would award an outright title to the Astros, whose last conference championship came in 1995 with John Harasen as coach and major-league draftee Craig Taczy as their mound ace.
“Who would have thought it?” DiFoggio said of this year’s title, which materialized largely because of a seven-game unbeaten streak that enabled his club to overcome a 2 ½-game deficit in the span of two weeks.
“This is a special group of guys we have and they’re resilient. The boys did a really nice job. They’ve been able to handle everything that’s been thrown at them.”
That included earlier injuries to Kevin Carmody and Brett Smith, which stripped Shepard (20-7, 14-3) of two of its top hitters plus, in Smith’s case, a starting pitcher. When those occurred, DiFoggio admitted to “thinking we were in trouble.”
Not so, however, and he cited the main difference between his current squad and the numerous conference runner-up teams he has coached.
“The one thing I realized in this is that your stars had to play like stars, but you needed your bench to put you over the hump,” DiFoggio said. “Some of those other teams when we finished second or third, we didn’t have those surprise one or two kids that jump into a spot and run with it. [This season guys] took their opportunities and contributed in a big way.”
One player who might have been overlooked a bit at the beginning but has proved capable is Rob Marinec, whose single and double on Tuesday drove in four of the Astros’ runs. Kyle Longfield collected two RBI with his pair of singles while Mark Albrecht (single) and Kenny Gorski (groundouts) each knocked in one teammate.
That was ample support for Adam Gregory, who silenced the Spartans on four hits. While Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny was quick to give Gregory his due, he also felt his own players weren’t as up to the task as he had hoped.
“We came out flat,” Gerny said. “[There was] nothing too exciting. We just didn’t have it, which was disappointing because we were at home. It was kind of hard to put your finger on it [in regard to the cause].
“Shepard came out on Tuesday, they got a couple runs in the second [and] once they got that momentum it seemed like they fed off that and built off it. Shepard put the bat on the ball and their two-strike hitting was tremendous -- they were using the whole field.”
The Spartans (16-14, 12-5) did little against Gregory outside of the third inning. That frame featured Oak Lawn garnering its only runs as Liam Blake, Patrick Slattery (RBI) and Joe Dodaro (RBI) all singled.
“The movement on his pitches [was good],” Gerny said of Gregory, who was backed by a defense that turned three double plays. “It was hard to pick up.”
DiFoggio spoke afterward about how there is “something special about that field at Oak Lawn” to him.
“The last game my father saw me coach before he died was there in July 2004,” DiFoggio said. “I vividly remember where he sat. We were making eye contact [because] I could see him from the third-base coach’s box.
“And then in the spring of ’05 we won my first regional there. That place is very memorable for those things.”
And now, of course, something else as well.
Friday’s rematch was more like what one would expect when two contenders go at it. The Spartans got up 3-0 in the top of the second, Shepard countered with five runs between the second and third stanzas, Oak Lawn pulled even in the seventh on Slattery’s homer after Bobby Beard had closed the deficit to one with his sixth-inning double and the Astros finally got the last say when Travis Pruim poked an RBI single.
“I told him, ‘Look for the first outside pitch they give you and throw your hands at it,'" DiFoggio said of Pruim.
John Roberts’ single put the Spartans ahead in the first, but the inning could have been more productive. An incorrect count listed on the scoreboard led an Oak Lawn baserunner to think a walk had been issued and his somewhat leisurely move toward second resulted in a putout.
“You preach all year about attention to detail,” Gerny said. “What seemed like an inconsequential thing turns out to be a bigger deal in a one-run game.”
But when Ivan Georgelos, Boo Quillin (RBI double) and Slattery (RBI double) all hit safely in the second, the Spartans seemed none the worse for wear. DiFoggio, in fact, referred to Slattery as “the one kid that was scaring me to death offensively.”
The Astros bounced back with a game-tying three-spot in their next at-bat with Marinec’s two-run double serving as the critical blow. Shepard’s other marker resulted from an errant relay.
“I firmly believe that changed momentum for a couple innings,” DiFoggio said.
It did as Bobby Peterka stroked a two-run single in the third to hand the Astros their first lead. He doubled in the fifth, but neither that nor Albrecht’s two-out triple in the seventh amounted to anything for Shepard, which nearly proved costly as Oak Lawn fought its way back into a tie.
But Gregory returned in a relief role to hamstring the Spartans in the eighth, something that came as no surprise to one of Gerny’s assistants.
“You think momentum’s on your side [at that point], but Nick Chigas, our pitching coach, said, ‘Home runs are really killers because everyone tries to hit one after that,’” Gerny said. “[The loss] was disappointing because it was one of those things where they took advantage of our mistakes.”
He was referring to the Astros’ portion of the eighth, which started with an Oak Lawn error and was aided by a passed ball that set the table for Pruim.
“I know a lot of guys were disappointed,” Gerny said. “We need a lot of help [for a title share], but we had a good run. I like the makeup of our team and I’m happy how we competed the whole season.”
Gerny said the Spartans’ primary goal of winning the school’s first regional championship remains intact, and he thought Friday’s experience could be a help in that regard.
“There were a lot of people at the game and it was a loud game,” he said. “To get a little taste of that [atmosphere] before the playoffs was a good warm-up act.”
In between conquests of Oak Lawn, the Astros managed to beat the Indians in an SSC crossover on Thursday. Peterka’s two-strike infield single in the seventh gave Shepard its winning margin.
“It was a very competitive game,” DiFoggio said. “We had baserunners on a lot and we made three key defensive plays to make sure they didn’t score more.”
One of those was a putout at the plate when Lemont tried to tally on a passed ball in the fifth. The Astros also escaped a bases-loaded predicament in the fourth. In the top of that frame, Gregory’s double, Albrecht’s bunt single, Peterka’s sacrifice fly and Ricky Mundo’s RBI single worked in unison to supply Shepard with a pair of runs.
Eric Horbach, who very nearly defeated the Indians a year ago, did it this time by scattering six hits and fanning four.
Before the season DiFoggio had projected that the eventual SSC Red champion might have as many as five league losses. In the case of his own club, he said gaining splits with Richards, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn and losing to no one in the Blue Division other than Lemont and Oak Forest would give it “a very good shot to win conference.”
Even DiFoggio wasn’t counting on the Astros’ seven-game win streak coming at the expense of the Spartans, Indians and Bengals, among others.
Oak Lawn 10
TF South 5
The Spartans made sure Friday’s clash with Shepard still mattered by rallying to top the Rebels Thursday in Lansing. After spotting TF South a 4-2 edge, Oak Lawn plated eight runs over its last three at-bats.
“Our guys really came to life in the later innings,” Gerny said. “We did some lineup shuffling [for this game] because we needed a wake-up call that the team is more important than any individual. We’re all in this together and guys busted their humps.”
That included the trio of Blake, Ryne Melnik and Beard, all of whom delivered RBI hits in the Spartans’ four-run seventh. Both Blake and Melnik belted doubles while Beard knocked in another runner with his sacrifice fly in the sixth.
“The bottom of our lineup woke up and took charge,” Gerny said.
Other RBI people for Oak Lawn were Slattery (fifth-inning triple), Dodaro (fifth-inning single) and Roberts (sacrifice fly in the third, RBI single in the first). The Spartans’ sixth-inning uprising also featured some nifty baserunning as Billy Dunne’s two steals set up a double theft on which he tallied from third.
Chad Cwik, who had fired a two-hitter at the Rebels as a freshman, wasn’t quite as dominant here, but he still went the distance to record a win. He struck out seven and gave up eight hits.
“It was an efficient outing,” Gerny said. “He was just as strong at the end as he was at the beginning.”
Oak Lawn wrapped up its SSC Red slate with two games against Argo. Also on the docket were nonconference tilts with Stagg and Leyden.