MOUNT CARMEL -- Monday halted potential history, but the trade off is one that Wabash Valley College head baseball coach Rob Fournier would surely take.
His Warriors faced Olney Central College in an elimination game for the Blue Knights and lost 7-4, snapping their nation-best 49-game win streak. Losing a streak of that magnitude is unfortunate, but it may be best for the long run. With some pressure alleviated, the Warriors bounced back in a winner take all Region 24 Championship game and defeated the Blue Knights 9-1.
Olney had given Wabash Valley fits in two of their previous meetings this season, so the result of the first game wasn't a surprise. What was surprising is how the Blue Knights limited the Warriors bats.
Major League scouts were on hand for the first game, meaning Wabash Valley freshman southpaw Antoine Kelly Jr. was set to take the hill for game one of the elimination game. The 6-foot-6 flamethrower lefty encountered some trouble in the first inning after allowing a pair of walks and two runs (both unearned) in the inning as a result.
After his first inning troubles Kelly got into a groove, fanning 14 Blue Knight batters and allowing just one hit after the first inning in his six frames of work.
"Antoine, he threw as well as a guy I could see throw," Fournier spoke of Kelly. "We didn't give him much help, but I was so impressed with his maturity and composure. So happy with his progress and he gave us a chance to win. That was the first time all year that we didn't hit for him but to his credit, he's such an unselfish kid. The sky's the limit for that kid, I'm just happy we have him pitching the way he knows how to pitch right now."
Unfortunately Kelly didn't receive much run support while he was on the mound. Olney pitcher Jonathan Pacheco had the Warriors stifled, a feat not many can claim this year against their vaunted bats. Pacheco battled out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the second and escaped unscathed -- a common theme for Olney pitchers in game one.
"We really got out of our approach in the first game," Fournier spoke of his hitters in the first game. "We were missed under way too much and really not taking what the game was giving us. As the good team that we are, we made some adjustments that second game. We had made adjustments later on [in the first game], but it was a little too late. That was the biggest thing, our guys are smart, they've been through this, they've been behind and they're just a really composed and confident bunch.
Freshman shortstop Savier Pinales would knock in the first run of the game for the Warriors in the fourth inning, scoring freshman left fielder Kirk Liebert from second and reducing the margin to 2-1.
Fielding wise, it was surely a day the Warriors -- who committed six errors as a team in the game -- would like to have back that would cost them once again in the seventh inning. Sophomore righty Jon Beymer was called upon to replace Kelly and allowed a pair of singles to begin the inning. He forced the fourth hitter of the inning to flyout but sophomore second baseman and sophomore right fielder Sam Wilson collided going for the ball, allowing a run to score. Olney followed it up with an RBI single by Chase Hug, increasing the lead to 4-1 after the inning.
In the bottom half of the seventh the Warriors led off the inning with a double by freshman Freylin Mineyte. Minyety was enthusiastic, rallying his troops after his double and trying to increase the Warriors' energy. Mineyte would eventually score on a sacrifice fly by Fuentes, a ball that he just missed on a possible homer. The sac fly set the stage for a 4-2 Warrior deficit heading into the final two innings of work.
Mineyte's infectious enthusiasm appeared to have spread -- at least momentarily. Wabash Valley began the bottom of the eighth and quickly had the bases loaded with one out after three walks. The very guy who did his best to kickstart the potential rally, Mineyte's, was now up with possibly the biggest at bat of the game in his hands. He hit a liner at the second baseman which was snagged and flipped to second for the double play, a devastating turn of events for the Warriors.
A couple more errors allowed Olney to tack on three additional runs in the top of the ninth, pushing the lead to 7-2.
To Wabash Valley's credit, they didn't quit. The Warriors battled against the deficit and quickly had the bases loaded once again. Sophomore DH Miguel Rivera walked with the bases loaded to score a run, followed by an RBI single by freshman catcher Zade Richardson. Richardson's ball was one that likely should have scored two runs, but the Warriors coaches were surely wary of the situation and the couple previous double play balls in the game that ended Wabash Valley scoring opportunities. With the bases still loaded and one out, Olney summoned reliever Thomas King to face the final two batters of the game. He retired Liebert and Wilson to end the game and snap the streak.
After their two previous games, it was surely a relief for Olney to topple the Warriors. Although game one wasn't a winner take all, Olney almost treated it as such (likely due to the circumstances of their previous games against Wabash Valley and with their season on the line). The Blue Knights erupted in celebration following the victory, almost as if they were oblivious to the impending game two for the title.
Game two fared significantly better for the Warriors, who jumped on the Blue Knights early in the ballgame thanks to a pair of homers by sophomore first baseman Cael Baker and Rivera. Their contributions helped the Warriors take a 7-1 lead after five innings of play.
"It just shows the mental toughness of this team," Fournier said. "How deep we are, how everybody matters. I was so impressed with how we stayed so composed. We obviously struggled and didn't deserve to win the first game, that's part of it. When you have a team that's really tough, really hungry and really unselfish, that's what happens. I couldn't be prouder of our guys."
Their pitching continued to stay strong as well. Freshman Mason Vinyard started and hurled 4 1-3 innings of four hit baseball, allowing just one run and fanning five batters. Vinyard was supplanted by sophomore Ryan O'Connell, who won MVP and threw 1 2-3 innings of no-hit baseball, and subsequently freshman Burrell Jones, who hurled two innings of one-hit baseball, while fanning five to close the game.
"I think that's why we gave MVP to O'Connell, he came and gave us that lift right there, stretched it out for us," Fournier spoke of O'Connell and his bullpen. "Just so happy with our bullpen, that's why I think we've been so successful this year. We're so deep, especially on the mound and with our position guys. Ultimately I think we grinded on them and wore them down, that's a credit to us and our mental toughness."
The Warriors coasted the remainder of the way and run ruled the Blue Knights on a walk-off RBI by Fuentes to give the Warriors a 9-1 victory and advance to the Northern District Baseball Tournament. The Warriors rushed the field following Fuentes' hit to celebrate the victory and gave Fournier a celebratory gatorade bath before posing for pictures with their trophy.
"That's what it's all about," Fournier spoke of the gatorade bath. "Next time it'll be a dog pile."
After going 0-for-4 in game one, it was expected that Baker would break out of his slump and bounce back in the second game. He did, posting a 3-for-4 line with two runs, a double, a homer and three RBIs in the final game. Rivera posted three RBIs with his three-run shot and sophomore Noah Myers posted a 2-for-3 line with a pair of runs scored, an RBI and a stolen base in game two as the trio highlighted the Warriors hitting.
Now, No. 1 ranked Wabash Valley (52-2) will turn their attention to Northern District play, which they'll host and it will begin this Friday (May 17). First, they'll face Rend Lake in district play on Friday at 3 p.m., followed by a potential matchup with No. 9 ranked Iowa Western (45-8), who helped end Wabash Valley's season last year. If the Warriors can defeat Rend Lake and win their second round matchup (with a win they'd play at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, with a loss they'd play at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday) against the winner of Iowa Western/Triton, the Warriors will have advanced to the championship game unscathed. The District Championship will be on Sunday at noon and there'll be a second championship game if needed at 3:30 p.m. A full schedule can be found on the Register's Facebook page.
"We start the season over again and we're going to play here to play in the Super Region and a chance to go to the World Series again for four straight years now," Fournier said. "Can't wait to get back here home and do what we do."
Fournier wouldn't commit to who he's set to start on Friday. He mentioned O'Connell as a possibility, but said he has to monitor how he feels during the week prior to naming a starter. If O'Connell's not ready, one would expect freshman lefty Cameron Tullar to take the mound. Tullar (9-0) has enjoyed tremendous success in his first season as a Warrior and boasts a 1.60 ERA.
"We're just going to have to wait and see." Fournier said on naming a starter.
Game one scoring:
OCC -- 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 3 -- 7
WVC -- 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 2 -- 4
Wabash Valley notable game one hitting: Rivera 0-for-2, RBI.. Richardson 1-for-4, RBI. Pinales 2-for-4, RBI. Fuentes 0-for-4, RBI.
Warriors game one pitching: Kelly 6 IP, 2 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 14 K. LP -- Beymer (5-1) 3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K.
Game two scoring:
OCC -- 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 -- 1
WVC -- 0 2 2 0 3 1 0 1 -- 9
Wabash Valley notable game two hitting: Myers 2-for-3, 2B, 2 R, RBI, SB. Fuentes 2-for-5, R, RBI. Baker 3-for-4, 2B, HR, 2 R, 3 RBIs. Rivera 1-for-4, HR, R, 3 RBIs. Mineyte 1-for-4, 2B, RBI.