Written by Ken Karrson
RedHawks zeroing in
String of shutouts keeps Marist rolling
By Ken Karrson
Marist reached zero hour last week and Kevin Sefcik couldn’t have been happier about it.
Sandburg did the same but to much less acclaim from its coaching staff.
When late May arrives it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think of the RedHawks and Eagles being among the last area baseball teams still standing. After all, both programs have storied histories on their side, not to mention some pretty fair talent once again this year.
But for the moment they’re going in opposite directions. While Marist extended a winning streak that had begun with a five-game sweep through a tournament in South Carolina, Sandburg suddenly hit a brick wall.
Winners of nine of their first 10 contests this spring, the Eagles seemed to be flying high. Before last week’s action got underway, however, Sandburg assistant coach Chuck Peters had put up a warning flag.
“We’re going to find out what we’re made of,” Peters said prior to the Eagles tackling a docket that included a pair of SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue games against Homewood-Flossmoor plus nonconference matchups with the RedHawks and Lincoln-Way North.
He simply did not want anyone declaring Sandburg a finished product just yet, but Peters’ words proved prescient as the team indeed struggled. Not only did the Eagles endure a rare winless week, but they failed to score in three of their four outings.
And while that was happening, Marist found itself at the other end of the spectrum as it was particularly stingy in regard to surrendering runs. Not only was Sandburg a shutout victim on Friday, but so was Notre Dame twice in East Suburban Catholic Conference play on Saturday and Montini last Tuesday.
The RedHawks gave up five runs to Oak Lawn on Wednesday but still prevailed by two. The lone blemish was applied by Mt. Carmel on Sunday, but pitching remained a strong suit for Marist as the Caravan squeezed out a 1-0 win in a Steve Bajenski tournament game in Mount Greenwood.
“Our defense was very good [last week] and our pitching staff was great,” said Sefcik, the former major-leaguer who’s in his first year at the RedHawks’ helm. “The kids throw strikes.”
The ability of someone like Rich Kairis, a three-year varsity player, to produce on the hill isn’t a big shock. But Marist’s mound corps extends well beyond the senior.
“Jack Snyder has kind of come out of nowhere,” Sefcik said of the junior who went the distance in Game 1 versus the Dons after working five innings against Montini. “He’s throwing 84 to 86 [miles per hour], which is a good high school fastball.”
Pat Meehan collected a win and save last week, Ben Chaffee and Brandon Hanik joined forces to silence Sandburg and Brian Wood stepped forward at the end of a busy week to handcuff the Caravan for most of Sunday.
“It’s a different guy [coming through] every day,” Sefcik said. “I think you need to have that. In our conference, I think you need four [reliable] pitchers because of the Saturday doubleheaders. This was my first experience with that.”
The RedHawks’ pitching excellence came at an opportune moment, seeing as how the robust offense that Marist (12-2, 2-0) had put on display during Easter break was missing in action.
“Hitting’s the hard part to stay consistent with,” Sefcik said. “We took a step backward offensively after facing better pitching.”
Maybe so, but five times the RedHawks had enough to get the job done. Snyder and John Carmody provided RBI against the Eagles to fuel a 2-0 triumph while Carmody (RBI), Jake Powers (RBI) and Wood (two hits, one run) were the mainstays versus Montini, which fell to a 3-0 defeat.
In truth, nobody except Mt. Carmel really slowed Carmody, who already has 19 RBI this season. Two more were delivered in the opener against Notre Dame as well as opposite Oak Lawn.
Kairis (two hits, two runs), Meehan (RBI) and Grant Kenny (RBI) were other key figures in the initial 4-0 victory over the Dons. Kairis also had two hits in the nightcap, which Marist won 1-0 when Eric Hansen drew a bases-loaded walk.
Chaffee and Hanik outdueled the Eagles’ tandem of Trevor Faille and Kenny Michalowski but not by much. Had Jimmy Roche’s hard-hit grounder gotten through the Marist infield in the third, Sandburg would have gone in front; instead the play resulted in the third out that stranded two runners.
“We pitched OK, but we just couldn’t get anything going offensively,” Eagles assistant coach George Fear said. “They’ve been really good games [against the RedHawks] the past few years. They’re a tough team.
“They have three really talented guys and they surrounded them with guys who are solid. They’re [all] really aggressive at the plate and had good at-bats.”
Oak Lawn 5
The RedHawks raced out to a 5-0 lead on Wednesday, but the Spartans refused to fold. They got four of those runs back in their half of the third and then pulled even with Marist in the sixth.
“We had them on the ropes and couldn’t put them away,” Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny said.
The RedHawks capitalized on a Spartans error in the seventh to pin a loss on Yunis Halim, but Gerny felt his hurler did a credible job.
“You look at five runs [given up] in the first two innings, but he really settled down and took charge after that,” Gerny said. “When you look at who we were playing, I’ll take that [performance]. He took a very positive step forward.”
Joe Dodaro (two), Patrick Slattery, John Roberts and Ivan Georgelos all provided RBI on base hits for Oak Lawn. Kairis (two hits with a double, two RBI and one run), Zach Sefcik (two hits, one RBI) and Tyler Haizel (double, three runs) teamed with Carmody to spearhead Marist’s attack.
Notre Dame 0-0
After limiting Montini to two hits over five innings on Tuesday, Snyder returned to the mound to toss a complete game at the Dons in Saturday’s opener. Meehan, who earned a save Monday, was the Game 2 victor opposite Notre Dame.
While Coach Sefcik said his squad “got lucky” against the Dons and admitted the RedHawks “can swing the bats better,” he also pointed out that despite the low-scoring nature of last week’s encounters Marist still boasted a team batting average of .290, 80 points higher than its 2014 effort.
“One of our goals is to walk as many times as we strike out,” Sefcik said. “We’re not quite there, but we’re still putting [plenty of] balls in play. We’re just not getting a lot of hits.”
Mt. Carmel 1
Caravan ace Nelson Munoz stymied the RedHawks on Sunday, but Wood was his equal through five stanzas. Mt. Carmel got the last say in the top of the seventh when an RBI single followed a balk called on Marist.
Zach Sefcik and Meehan (two hits) both doubled, but Coach Sefcik counted only four balls that were hit hard by his batters.
“You’re not going to win many games doing that,” he said. “[But] I think [elite pitching] is something we need to see.”
Sefcik praised Wood’s work, particularly since the latter was pressed into service primarily because the RedHawks were running short on arms. Slamming the door on as potent a club as Mt. Carmel made Wood’s exhibition especially satisfying.
“They’re a great team -- there’s probably nine or 10 Division I players on their roster,” Sefcik said. “On other days they’re going to hit, but [Wood] got a lot of popups.”
Lincoln-Way North 3
The Phoenix began the Eagles’ tough week by riding Northern Illinois University-bound Jake Mutter’s five-hit, nine-strikeout pitching performance to success last Monday. Griffin Kazmierczak and Andy Gaytan evenly split four of Sandburg’s hits between them.
“Again we couldn’t string anything together,” Fear said. “We had a couple at-bats with guys in scoring position, but we couldn’t get the big hit. They’re tough.”
Marco Babic threw well for the Eagles in a losing cause. He lasted five-plus innings and, according to Fear, had 20 first-pitch strikes.
The Vikings extended the Eagles’ scoreless streak over seven more stanzas last Wednesday as they tallied four times in the top of the first to take control of the contest.
“It took us out of our game [of] bunting and moving runners along,” Fear said, referring to Homewood-Flossmoor’s rapid getaway. “We swung the bats all right. We had a lot of competitive at-bats, but we’re really not built [to come back] that way.
“We’re not really disappointed except for that first inning.”
One bright spot was the relief work of Jake Tablerion, who entered for Eric Nelson in the first inning and pitched the remainder of the game. He was supported by an error-free defense.
Thursday’s rematch was more difficult for Fear and Sandburg (9-5, 0-2) to accept. The Eagles were ahead 4-1 after scoring three times in the fifth, but the Vikings immediately answered with a four-spot that allowed them to complete a sweep.
“We felt pretty good about ourselves up 4-1,” Fear said. “That was a tough loss.”
Ben Kociper (two-run single) and Roche (RBI single) had given Sandburg its advantage with their fifth-inning hits. Roche was also responsible for the initial tally when he singled in Gaytan, who had doubled in the first.
Fear said that despite the recent struggles, nobody in the program is worried.
“It looks bad getting shut out three out of four ballgames, but we’ve run into some tough outs,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s panicking. Our general energy and attitude has been good and we didn’t give things away.
“We caught some breaks early in the year, but we’ve actually played all right [lately too]. This is just kind of where we’re at.”
One thing Fear wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles improve on is their ability to retire batters in the lower portion of opponents’ orders.
“The last three years it feels like every time we walked the [No.] 9 hitter, we’ve given up runs,” he said. “You can’t put that guy on base [because] nothing good ever comes from that. He’s got to earn his way on.”