ROMEOVILLE – Entering Wednesday’s Class 4A Romeoville Sectional semifinal, Plainfield North baseball coach John Darlington mentioned that his team had lost eight games this season in which his team was either tied or leading in the seventh inning.
Wednesday’s game was tied after seven innings, and after eight, as North’s Brandon Bak dominated the Neuqua Valley lineup to the tune of 19 strikeouts against one walk and two hits. Neuqua’s Mike Menneke and reliever Danny Smid were just as stingy, as neither team had scored in the first eight innings.
That changed in the top of the ninth in the Tigers’ 4-1 win.
North’s Aiden Zelenski led off the inning with a ringing double to right, only the fourth Tigers hit of the day. Dylan Evans followed with a bunt, and Smid tried to get Zelenski at third, but Zelenski slid in safely to put runners on first and third. Aiden Simmons, who had doubled earlier in the game, was walked intentionally to load the bases for Joe Guiliano.
Guiliano smacked a pitch through the drawn-in infield, and Zelinski and Evans came around to score for a 2-0 lead.
“I was just trying to go up there with confidence,” Guiliano said. “I wanted to get a big hit for the team. I didn’t take it personally when they walked the guy ahead of me. It’s part of the game.
“It feels good to be moving on. We want to keep it moving on and win it all.”
The Tigers (21-13) continued to score in the ninth, as Colin Pomatto and John St. Clair hit back-to-back sacrifice flies to center to make it 4-0. With the win, the Tigers advance to the championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s Downers Grove South-Oswego matchup.
Bak, meanwhile, was on cruise control from the start. The left-handed Illinois-Chicago committ only got into trouble once. In the bottom of the fourth, Trevor Morris led off with a single for Neuqua and Bak then walked Josh Wenz to put runners on first and second. Bak then retired the next three hitters on strikeouts, beginning a string of 15 consecutive batters retired, 12 by strikeout.
“That was probably the best stuff I have had all year,” Bak said. “Everything was working. Fastball, curve, change. I was able to throw any of those pitches in any count for a strike.
“It was definitely a stress reliever to see four runs in the ninth. The first two runs were great, but to get those other two was a great feeling.”
Bak had thrown 112 pitches through eight innings, so he was relieved by Pomatto in the ninth. The Wildcats scored a run, but Pomatto got all three outs on strikeouts, giving the Tiger staff 22 whiffs for the game.
“I definitely had another inning in me if I hadn’t reached the pitch count,” Bak said. “I knew I had a lot of strikeouts, but I didn’t know I had 19. That’s my high this season.”
For Darlington, it was a pleasure to see his team win a game in the late innings.
“We finally got one late,” he said. “Brandon Bak, what a game. If he’s not one of the top five pitchers in the state, I don’t know who is. This is his 10th outing this year, and he has somewhere around 130 strikeouts.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better start in the ninth than when Zelenski doubled. Then Evans got the bunt down and the sophomore, Guiliano, got up there and hit the ball hard.
“I’m happy for the kids. We play tough games in a tough conference, and we schedule tough nonconference opponents. Eight of the teams on our schedule won regionals. That’s why we schedule those teams. We are used to a game like this where it’s low scoring, and that helps us.”