WHEATON – Jake Liska didn’t have much time to think. It was mostly simply react and perform.
Liska, St. Charles East’s senior pitcher, suddenly found himself in a high-leverage situation entering the bottom of the fifth inning Monday.
With East trailing by two runs, starting pitcher Nathan Hayes, who had seven strikeouts, had just concluded his warm-up tosses and then was pulled out of caution because of apparent arm discomfort.
Liska and the St. Charles East offense had their starter’s back. Jake Zitella’s grand slam highlighted the Saints’ seven-run seventh inning to break open a tie game for a 10-3 win over Wheaton North.
“I just know I had to do a job there in that situation,” Liska said of his two-inning relief appearance in which he allowed one single and struck out one. “I was already loose and ready before [the game]. Kept my arm warm. I just had to put on a show out there. Had to be ready for that.
“I just feel like having those quick innings helped the motivation of the team and the energy [got] going.”
With the victory and Geneva’s loss to Lake Park, the Saints (19-5-1, 16-4) clinched the DuKane Conference title.
It also was coach Len Asquini’s 450th career coaching win.
Hayes had five strikeouts in his first two innings and St. Charles East had a 1-0 lead on Seth Winkler’s RBI single in the first, but the Falcons (12-17, 7-13) were able to capitalize on shallow hits and untimely Saints mental errors as the game progressed.
Falcons senior Joe Logan sprayed a two-run single with the bases loaded in the third. Hayes sandwiched the final two strikeouts of his outing around the go-ahead hit to end the threat. Tyler O’Connor had an RBI groundout in the fourth for a 3-1 Falcons lead.
“[Hayes] attacked the strike zone early, then he started falling a little bit behind,” Asquini said. “We made four errors with him on the hill. He’s a good guy to make those errors with because he can bounce back and get you out of there, but that is a definite concern for us.”
Falcons senior starting pitcher Quinn Flanagan (6 innings, 3 runs, 9 hits, 3 strikeouts) limited the Saints’ offense for the majority of his outing, but the Saints tied the game in the sixth.
AJ Gaca and Brett Webbe led off with singles and Eddie Herrera legged out a fielder’s choice on a potential double play. The throw skipped away from Logan, allowing Gaca to score to cut the Falcons’ lead to 3-2. Dom LeBlanc then smoked a hot grounder to short for an RBI single to tie the game.
“I thought Quinn was excellent,” Falcons coach Dan Schoessling said. “[We] just didn’t make one or two plays behind him and that was pretty much the difference. I thought we took good at-bats and I thought we had a pretty good approach against a really good pitcher [Hayes]. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out there for you.”
St. Charles East’s fortunes turned in the seventh, highlighted by Gaca’s go-ahead RBI single and two runs scoring on walks to Clay Jensen and LeBlanc with the bases jammed for a 6-3 Saints lead.
Zitella then smashed his sixth home run of the year, a bases loaded blast to left-center to break the game open.
“I was struggling today at the plate and the last at-bat, [I just thought] I need to relax and go up there and just do my thing,” Zitella said. “I got the pitch, I just swung and it went over the fence.
“We need to get our offense going way earlier. That includes myself, too. We need better approaches. Better at-bats. Better contact. Us swinging at better pitches. Everything was kind of all over the place in the early innings, but we brought it together the last two innings. That’s what gave us the W today.”
LeBlanc pitched a clean seventh to secure the win.
The Falcons celebrated senior night by honoring Matt Buehler, Ryan Burke, Wes Campbell, Sam Cary, Fred Elftmann, Quinn Flanagan, Will Fletcher, Aaron Holland, Quinn Lewis, Joe Logan, Jackson Moore, Casey Morrison and Dillon Slott.
“[The seniors] have been really good for us. All of them are going to go on to college,” Schoessling said. “They’re going to do good things. Some of them are going to play. Some of them are just going to school. A lot of them are two-year starters for us now. We’re still optimistic that we could have a successful season even though, right now, it doesn’t feel that way. We’re looking toward postseason and trying to finish on a high note.”