Blake Salek didn’t know how much gas he had left in his tank before he even fired his first pitch in the title baseball game of the Primetime National Championship on July 25, but he was willing to take the ball for as long as he could.
The Yorkville resident, who played for Yorkville Christian in the spring, turned in a brilliant performance for Reds Baseball Academy 17U, firing strikes on 60 of his 90 pitches in a complete game effort to lead the Reds to a 4-1 victory over Illinois Premier Popiwchak 17U.
“Before the game I told him to give us a couple innings and he went all seven, Reds coach Brian Sisler said. “The most impressive part was his efficiency. He was only at 47 pitches through five innings.”
Salek acknowledged that he wasn’t sure how well he would throw the ball but felt his confidence grow as the innings added up.
“Before the game my arm was a little bit iffy and not feeling well, but coach said he needed a couple innings out of me so I went out,” Salek said. “Getting a couple batters on first pitches really helped me. That helped me keep my pitch count low and helped with keeping my arm from hurting as much.”
Pitching to contact, Salek surrendered an unearned run in the sixth, scattered six hits, walked one and fanned four.
“I remember talking to my centerfielder (Plano’s Mason Accidentale) about how we didn’t have much pitching left and I thought if I could throw slow enough, but not too slow, but strikes and not allow good contact, I could get ground balls and outs,” Salek said. “The first four innings I was not giving 100%, but the last three innings I turned it up a notch.”
Pitching was key for the Reds throughout the tournament. That was quite a turnaround from where the team started earlier this summer where the inability to throw strikes with consistency and keep base on balls to a minimum plagued a Reds team whose roster features kids from primarily Plano, Sandwich, Yorkville and Ottawa.
“Our first weekend we had 50 walks in 26 innings of baseball and then this past weekend we had five walks total on Sunday,” Sisler said. “The best part about coaching is seeing the improvement. We threw a lot of strikes and our pitching and defense have gotten progressively better this summer and we’ve also been playing a lot more aggressive.”
The philosophy of the Reds allows for the kids to truly play the game.
“Letting the kids play baseball is the easiest way to coach,” Sisler said. “Our catchers and pitchers call their own game. We don’t have too many signs as an organization. We’d rather see the guys play the game than be micromanaged.”
The Reds arrived at the stadium at 9 a.m. on July 25 but didn’t walk off the field after celebrating until around 7 p.m. And it didn’t come easy as it took a brilliant pitching effort in the morning to keep them alive in a 2-1 victory over Michigan’s Lansing Area Express.
Ottawa resident Aiden Thompson (Marquette) tossed a three-hitter while striking out four. He didn’t issue any walks while Accidentale smacked a pair of doubles to support him.
The Reds then got a two-hour break as the other semifinal was played. The brief respite worked wonders as they bombed away on the previously undefeated Bombers, 10-4. A few days earlier the Bombers had beat up on the Reds, 11-5, at Marist in Chicago.
Accidentale and Brady Ewers each had a double among their two hits apiece while Accidentale drove in a run and Ewers broke out of a slump with three big RBIs.
“I went to a hitting instructor recently because I was hitting .160 and he helped me fix my bat,” Ewers said. “It was all about my hands. I wasn’t getting them through the zone, but I had a big weekend and finished out the year strong.”
Ewers’ twin brother Beau said the title was a culmination of talented players putting it all together, finishing 6-1 in the tournament. The Reds surrendered one run or less in five of their tournament victories.
“We were making a lot of mistakes early in the season, but then we started to pitch and hit and get it rolling,” Beau Ewers said. “We have a fun group and I’ve played with most of these guys since I was younger. We knew this was going to be one of our last summer seasons together so we figured let’s do it again.”
Among that group were Yorkville’s Logan Abens and Aiden Drew, Ottawa’s Jackson Olson, Plano’s Sean Earwood, Sandwich’s Andrew Golinski, Somonauk’s Brendan Roberts and Sheridan’s Hayden McKenna.
“It was a long day but we had a lot of fun and got the job done,” Accidentale said. “It’s cool to win. It’s the first one for our new facility so we’re all hyped that we’ve got a banner to put up.”