CARMI -- Mount Carmel pieced together a late rally to push themselves past a quality Johnston City team 4-2 on Thursday evening in Cami -- but the victory wouldn't come without a cost.
The Aces will be depleted for the remainder of the postseason as (yesterday's) junior starting pitcher and everyday center fielder Cade Newkirk exited the game and the outlook isn't good for Newkirk.
Prior to the injury, Newkirk was pitching one of his best starts in quite some time. The junior lefty encountered some trouble in the first inning, allowing the first three batters of the game to reach before finally settling. The damage had been done at that point though, the Indians tagged two runs to Newkirk to take an early 2-0 lead. To Newkirk's credit though, he recomposed himself in the dugout and put the first inning behind him.
"I felt pretty good," Mount Carmel head coach Shea Smith spoke of Newkirk on the mound. "Cade's been pitching really well, he's thrown well against Illinois teams so we had the speed. We talked before the game, we see a lot of guys that throw hard but not a lot of teams see a guy that does the same. It kind of the showed that game. Getting down early Cade could have really struggled there but he came back."
As Newkirk cruised through the next few innings, the Aces bats really struggled against Johnston City's (20-9-1) Josh McPheron. McPheron was retiring Aces with ease, that is until the fifth inning. Newkirk and senior Drew Arnott began the inning by each being hit by a pitch, then junior Connor Lane would walk to set a bases loaded opportunity for the Aces with one out. Junior Aden Gill was the one up with the runners in scoring position opportunity and to his credit, put the ball in play. Gill hit into a fielder's choice, but a run scored and the Aces escaped from a potential double play. The next two batters, sophomore Rayce Loudermilk and senior Bret Doan each reached on an error by Johnston City's shortshop and allowed a run to score on Doan's grounder, tying the game at 2-2.
From the second inning to his point of exit, Newkirk was absolutely electric on the mound. The junior had fanned eight batters since his rocky first inning, 11 total in the game. With two down in the bottom half of the fifth, Newkirk was looking to retire the side and continue the cruise, that is until the Indians batter hit a sharp liner at Newkirk off a fastball. Newkirk tried to distance his body out of the way of the liner while also making a play on the ball and ended up awkwardly planting with his right leg, which then buckled. Early indications were of a knee injury and Smith already ruled out Newkirk for the remainder of the season. It's a tough break, especially when he was pitching at an outstanding level.
"Sam evaluated him, his PCL doesn't look good, he's going to get xrays on it," Smith said. "He's done for at least the rest of the year and back hopefully by the time football starts is what it looks like right now. It could be shorter, could be longer. He got hit on one leg but actually hurt the leg that he landed on. The landing leg buckled, he couldn't even feel the ball hitting him so that's almost worse."
With Newkirk hobbling off the field and putting little to no pressure on his leg, Smith called upon sophomore Kaleb Applebey to come on in relief. Fortunately for the Aces, they didn't miss a beat with Applebey on the mound. He struck out the final batter of the fifth to end the inning and finish what Newkirk started.
It's hard to tell if Mount Carmel rallied in Newkirk's honor or what, but the Aces bats woke up in the top of the sixth. Senior Logan Durham led the inning off with a single, followed by a double off the bat of Arnott. That set up junior Adam Stoneberger with runners on second and third with none out and the Indians made a pitching change prior to the at bat, summoning Justin Clark in relief. After a brief break in action, Stoneberger grounded out but Durham bolted for the plate as soon as Stoneberger had hit the grounder. Johnston City retired Stoneberger at first and quickly threw down to the catcher looking to gun out Durham as well. It appeared as if Durham was about to be handily out, but the Johnston City catcher dropped the ball and Durham was ruled safe. Every Aces fan in attendance breathed a massive sigh of relief and Mount Carmel now had its first lead of the day at 3-2.
Looking to continue the scoring, Lane stepped up to the plate looking to provide a big insurance run. He came through with a double to right-center, scoring Arnott and putting the Aces ahead 4-2.
"I give it to them, their pitching's really good," Smith said. "The two guys we saw, one's going to Frontier and one's going to SIC, so they're both playing next level. We just weren't squaring up well at first, finally made something happen. Logan and Drew had some big hits later, Connor had that huge one that really helped there and opened it up."
As excellent as Newkirk was, Applebey may have been even more untouchable on the mound. The sophomore righty struck out six batters of his seven outs in Newkirk's stead, helping the Aces put the finishing touches on a wild comeback victory.
"Kaleb's fun to watch," Smith spoke of Applebey. "When he's on, he's on and he's hard to hit. When he finds that groove you know early with Kaleb how it's going to go."
Astoundingly between Newkirk and Applebey, the Aces recorded 17 strikeouts in seven innings of baseball, meaning all but four outs converted by the Aces in the game were strikeouts. Newkirk's day ended after 4 2-3 innings, having allowed three hits, three walks, two runs and the aforementioned 11 strikeouts. Applebey tossed 2 1-3 no-hit innings to close it out and picked up the victory.
Mount Carmel's bats were highlighted by Doan's 2-for-4 outing with an RBI, Lane's 1-for-1 performance with an RBI double and each Gill and Stoneberger picking up RBIs.
The victory moves Mount Carmel (10-10) to a 9-4 mark against Illinois schools, a record that bodes well for postseason success for the Aces after emerging from grueling Big Eight Conference play -- but also earned them a date with a tough opponent.
Having defeated Edwards County 17-7 in the nightcap of the Regional Semifinals, Fairfield (22-3) lingers on the horizon. Mount Carmel faced the Mules back on March 21 and lost 8-1 at Dee White Field. Comparatively, Johnston City handed Fairfield two of their three losses this year, so it should be a game Mount Carmel can win if they play well. Smith expects Durham to take the mound for the Aces and he'll be hoping for another quality outing from the Mount Carmel ace. First pitch for the Regional Championship game is slated for 10 a.m. on Saturday at Eckerle Park in Carmi.
As to what to expect? Expect a dogfight, as the season's on the line for both teams.
"It'll be interesting to see, we saw Fairfield but that was like fourth game of the year, two totally different teams since then," Smith said. "It should be a good game."
MC -- 0 0 0 0 2 2 0 -- 4
JC -- 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 -- 2
Mount Carmel notable hitting: Doan 2-for-4, RBI. Lane 1-for-1, 2B, RBI. Gill 0-for-4, RBI. Stoneberger 0-for-3, RBI.
Aces pitching: Newkirk 4 2-3 IP, 3 H, 3 BB, 2 R, 2 ER, 11 K. WP -- Applebey 2 1-3 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 6 K.