Spartans in the driver’s seat
Their SSC Red lead grows after more wins
By Ken Karrson
Hertz didn’t need to put Oak Lawn in the driver’s seat. The Spartans did it themselves.
What placed Oak Lawn in control of the South Suburban Conference Red race was a continuation of its recent play. The Spartans have hit only minor bumps over the past few weeks and Evergreen Park was unable to alter that trend last week.
Oh, the Mustangs certainly tried, particularly in the opener of a two-game series on Monday. Senior Brian Pall, fresh off a dominating performance versus Shepard in which he struck out 15 and allowed only a bunt single, was strong again as he limited Oak Lawn to four hits while fanning eight.
“It seemed like his curveball got sharper as the game went along,” Spartans coach Bill Gerny said. “After starting at our knees, it was biting right into the dirt and it was tough for our guys to lay off that. We swung at a lot of bad pitches.
“Nothing was going our way offensively. The way we were swinging the bats, we were fortunate to get that last run off him.”
But that was the one making the difference for Oak Lawn, which stayed in the hunt thanks to a masterful exhibition by its own hurler, Matt Witkowski. Witkowski was nicked for a run in the first but no others, so when the Spartans capitalized on an Evergreen error in the sixth to scratch out a score, they were able to bag a hard-fought 2-1 triumph.
And with that one in its possession, Oak Lawn finished off the Mustangs with far less difficulty on Tuesday as it captured a 9-0 victory. With a 10-0 rout of TF North in a Thursday crossover also factored in, the Spartans entered the current week with just one loss in 12 SSC encounters and, more importantly, a 2 ½-game advantage over second-place Shepard.
“Our guys are playing looser and more relaxed,” Gerny said. “We haven’t had this hot a start [in conference play] since I’ve been here.”
And Gerny didn’t want to risk anything by taking struggling TF North for granted. Instead of letting pitcher Chad Cwik be used in a lower-level meeting with Evergreen, Gerny put the sophomore on the hill versus the Meteors varsity, where Cwik delivered three innings of one-hit, four-strikeout ball.
“We didn’t want to have a 5-3 win over them, where guys are starting to doubt themselves a little bit,” Gerny said. “They’re playing with so much confidence [that] we want to keep it rolling into the tougher part of our schedule. If our guys take their foot off the gas even a little bit, we could be down 4-0 right away.”
Gerny wasn’t referring to TF North with that statement, but to the Mustangs, who were obviously seeking to make amends for Monday’s gut-wrenching setback with a winning performance the next day. But with their coach’s reminder that another success against Evergreen could pretty much remove the latter from SSC Red title contention ringing in their ears, the Spartans didn’t give the Mustangs a chance to gain their footing.
Instead, Oak Lawn piled up six second-inning runs to seize command of the proceedings. No. 9 hitter Yunis Halim’s check-swing RBI single signaled the start of the Spartans’ rally and Boo Quillin knocked in two more teammates with his hit. Other RBI men in the frame were Joe Dodaro (single), Liam Blake (single) and Patrick Slattery (groundout).
“Our guys aren’t hitting home runs, but everybody’s making real solid contact and having good at-bats,” Gerny said. “Our guys came out with a lot of energy.”
By Gerny’s estimation, Quillin didn’t have “his best stuff” on the mound, but the latter still was good enough to hamstring the Mustangs in several key instances. Quillin, who struck out seven while scattering seven hits, turned Evergreen away three times after it had loaded the bases.
“[If] we get a couple runs there in any of those innings, it changes the momentum,” Mustangs coach Mark Smyth said. “We’re not swinging the bats [well] right now so we’re not going to catch anyone from behind.”
The one inning Smyth particularly rued was the fourth. Evergreen had filled the sacks with less than two outs, but Quillin slipped a called third strike past the Mustangs’ No. 9 batter and then retired dangerous Mark Martin on a fly ball.
“We’ll take that [scenario] any day of the week,” Smyth said, referring to Martin’s presence at the plate then.”
Martin garnered hits on two other occasions and matched Mike Rizzo for the team lead. Quillin and John Roberts both stroked three hits to pace Oak Lawn (14-10, 11-1), which totaled 13 to go along with eight walks. Roberts and Dodaro both had later RBI for the Spartans.
“We still felt that even if we got one [win], we could be in the [divisional] race,” Smyth said. “Now we need a lot of help.”
Monday’s clash wasn’t resolved until the sixth as Ivan Georgelos’ sacrifice fly for Oak Lawn and Sean Miller’s double for Evergreen represented the only scoring prior to that.
“It was a great ballgame, but both [of the Spartans’] runs could have been prevented,” Smyth said. “We could not support [Pall] with enough offense. Witkowski threw a couple nice changeups [to us].”
“He’s developed a changeup that’s been working and locating his pitches real well,” Gerny said of his senior mound man. “He’s been lights out.
“You thought one of us was [eventually] going to score a run we didn’t deserve. That first game [against the Mustangs] gave us momentum going into the second game.”
Witkowski went the distance on 92 pitches to pocket his fifth win in seven tries. All of the victories have come in succession even though he is regularly squaring off with the opposition’s top hurler.
Oak Lawn 10
TF North 0
It took the Spartans just a couple innings on Thursday to bury the Meteors in a deep hole. Five runs in the second gave Oak Lawn a 6-0 lead and Cwik took it from there.
Quillin went 4-for-4 with a double, three runs and two RBI to lead the Spartans’ onslaught. Roberts and Georgelos both added two hits, Dodaro drove in three runs and five players in all were credited with at least one RBI.
The Spartans’ only encounters this week were against SSC Blue heavyweights Oak Forest and Lemont. Earning success against that duo might make Gerny believe his club has cleared another hurdle.
“We’re having a real nice season, but we haven’t beaten any of the established [powerhouse] programs yet,” he said.
Evergreen Park 24
The beleaguered Hawks popped up at a good time on the Mustangs’ schedule as Evergreen (10-6, 4-5) felt much better after taking out some of its frustration in Thursday’s SSC crossover.
Eleven Mustangs had hits, a group paced by Miller, who totaled three hits, four RBI and four runs. One of his safeties went for two bases. Other multiple-hit performers included Martin (double, triple, four runs, two RBI), Ronnie O’Toole (double, triple, three RBI), Will Doran (two hits, two RBI, three runs), Rizzo (two hits, two RBI, two runs) and Joe Piet (two doubles, two RBI, one run).
Jimmy Segura logged his first pitching triumph by firing a three-hitter, striking out 10 and walking only one.
In its last outing of the week, Evergreen pummeled Urban Prep with a 12-run first inning and went on to claim a 12-0 win.