BLOOMINGTON – Back-to-back extra inning games in the postseason doesn’t do a team’s pitching staff any favors in the era of the pitch count.
But that’s exactly the situation the Plainfield North baseball team faced at the Illinois Wesleyan Supersectional on Monday as they prepared to square off against Edwardsville.
Those back-to-back extra inning games required some creative attack plans from Plainfield North, and they nearly worked as Edwardsville escaped a plucky Plainfield North group by getting a walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh inning to secure their place in the Class 4A State Tournament with a 3-2 win. Edwardsville will play either Brother Rice or Lincoln-Way West on Friday afternoon at Duly Field in Joliet.
Plainfield North (22-14), who was a No. 8 seed in the regional, finished an epic postseason run one step of short of state.
“I’m not disappointed in our season or our kids,” Plainfield North coach John Darlington said. “I thought our kids battled.”
Edwardsville pounced early in the game getting a two-run double from Adam Powell to take a 2-0 lead. And it looked like Edwardsville was on the brink of doing more early damage by getting the first two runners on base in the second inning against Plainfield North starter Kash Koslowski.
Darlington went to his bullpen and selected sophomore Ryan Mickenbecker, a pitcher who hadn’t thrown any innings in either of the previous two rounds of the postseason. He then proceeded to make a strong case for the fact that maybe he’d been overlooked.
Mickenbecker got himself out of trouble in the second without giving up a run, and despite allowing baserunners to Edwardsville in about every inning, as it had at least two base runners on in every inning from the second to the fifth, it couldn’t actually score any of them.
“What a great job by a sophomore to get out there in a supersectional,” Darlington said of Mickenbecker. “He hasn’t pitched in three weeks. He didn’t throw in the regional or the sectionals. We played so many innings on Saturday that we burned one of our relief guys and he had to do it, and what a great job.”
But while Mickenbecker was doing yeoman’s like work to keep Plainfield North in the game, the offense wasn’t really delivering much. Plainfield North went hitless until the third inning off of Edwardsville ace Spencer Stearns, finally getting a clean two-out single from Joe Guiliano.
Stearns departed after another hitless inning in the fourth, with Edwardsville possibly trying to do their own pitch-count manipulation dance, and he gave way to Alec Marchetto, who promptly struck out the side in the fifth.
Plainfield North went quietly in the sixth inning as well.
“You gotta give yourself a chance at the plate, and we really didn’t do that very well today,” Darlington said. “We’ve struggled putting the ball in play all year.”
But Mickenbecker kept Plainfield North in the game, as he did with a clean sixth inning to give his team one more crack at breaking through.
Brandon Bak led off the seventh inning with Plainfield North’s second hit of the game, a clean single, and Ryan Nelson’s fly ball to left field was misplayed into a two-base error, setting up a second and third situation for MJ Ansari.
Ansari delivered, driving a clean single through the infield, which allowed Bak and Nelson to score and tied the game. And on the throw home, Ansari moved up to second base. He moved to third on a tag up that accounted for Plainfield North’s first out and appeared to be on his way home on Dylan Evans’ sinking liner to right field that came next. But Edwardsville’s Caleb Copeland made a shoestring grab and snow coned the ball in the top of his glove to send Ansari scampering back to third. Plainfield North then flew out to end the threat, but did manage to tie the game at 2.
“We battled at the end there and got a big hit from MJ. We had our opportunities,” Darlington said.
Mickenbecker appeared to be on his way to another magician’s act in the seventh. But after retiring the first two batters, Edwardsville’s Cade Hardy reached on an error and stole second. After a walk, Cole Funkhouser punched a single up the middle to provide the game winner.
“We had a shot. We got a guy on third with an opportunity to drive that run [in] on it, and we just didn’t get it done,” Darlington said. “I really don’t have any complaints, they are a good team, we battled. I was happy with our kids, and we stayed in there. Sometimes that’s baseball. Sometimes you get it done and sometimes you don’t.”