LA GRANGE PARK – Ryan Smith’s gutsy performance on the mound spilled over to another aspect of his game on Wednesday.
The Nazareth senior pitcher had a masterful outing in one aspect — 10 strikeouts in five innings — but struggled with his command and tallied two pickoff throws for errors and allowed a run to score via a wild pitch.
But Smith compensated for any shortcomings with a vital base running play in the bottom of the sixth inning against Lemont.
After exiting the mound in a tied game in the top of the sixth, Smith set up the winning run in the bottom half. He singled to left field, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a single by Sebastian Gutierrez in a 5-1 win over Lemont in a Class 3A sectional semifinal at Nazareth.
With the score tied at 1-1, Gutierrez, who finished with two hits in three at-bats and drove in two runs, drilled a line drive to left field. Smith, an Illinois-Chicago recruit, elected not to stop at third base. The throw beat him to home plate, but took a bad hop, allowing the sliding Smith to score the eventual decisive run. Freshman shortstop Cooper Malamazian drilled a two-out, three-run double to ice the victory.
The Roadrunners (27-10) play at St. Laurence in a sectional final on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
His jersey filled with dirt from his slide at home, Smith said he not stopping at third base.
“When Sebastian hit that, I knew it was going to be bang-bang at the plate,” Smith said. “I knew I had to get there, and was coming in on the inside. My mind was racing the whole time. I was so hyped when I scored. We’ve been waiting for this moment for two years, to be a sectional game. There’s no better feeling than to win this.”
Smith, a right-hander, said the intense heat affected him throughout the game. He struck out the side in the third and fourth innings, but hurt himself by throwing two errant pickoffs to first base and walked four despite not allowing a hit until the fifth inning. Lemont (22-8) managed just three hits all game, including just two off the hard-throwing Smith.
“It was so hot and humid and I was dying out there,” Smith said. “It was kind of a battle the whole game for me. I felt I was dehydrated, and just trusted my defense to make plays.”
Smith and left-hander John Hughes, who picked up the win with two scoreless innings, combined for 14 strikeouts.
“They got bunts down and executed and we didn’t, so that’s baseball for you,” Lemont coach Brian Storako said. “We couldn’t get that big hit or big opportunity, but credit to their pitchers for keeping us off-balanced and they did their job.”
Batting in the clean-up spot, Gutierrez also smacked an RBI single in the bottom of the first inning to start the scoring.
“It felt great to hit the ball and make a great play and (Smith’s) running around the bases,” Gutierrez said of his sixth-inning single. “I just knew I had to put the ball in play, for they might make an error or a bad throw and we would score.”
Malamazian, a freshman, is an X-factor in the Roadrunners’ quest for a state trip. His stellar play at shortstop and clutch hitting helped the Roadrunners knock off Lemont. Malamazian kept the game tied at 1-1 with a great relay throw to toss out a runner at home plate in the fifth inning. One inning later, Malamazian capped off his day with a three-run line drive to left-center.
“It was a really weird game,” Malamazian said. “This is super exciting, especially since I’m a freshman. I’m just having fun. I just wanted to do it for my teammates, at the plate and in the field. I was comfortable and confident (today). It’s been hard since I’m so young, and there was a lot of pressure on me, but I’m getting used to the pressure now.”
Lemont senior left-hander Luke Guenther (6-2) limited the Roadrunners to two hits in the first four innings, but gave up four hits in the bottom of the sixth. The Indians scored their first run in the fourth via two walks by Smith followed by a wild pitch.
“It was one of the best he’s had this year,” Lemont coach Brian Storako said of Guenther. “He threw great. He battled and they only had a few hard hit balls. He kept us in the game, and just had a few unlucky bounces. We battled. They came and worked every day, and are a great group of guys. I’m really proud of them.”