MORRIS – Usually, when a pitcher releases a pitch toward the plate, his job is done. Either the hitter doesn’t swing, or he hits it into the field of play, where the pitcher has eight players to take care of things.
Sometimes, a pitcher has to take things into his own hands and make the play himself. For Morris’ Matt Walker, a play he made in the game’s second at-bat set the tone early for the Redskins’ 2-0 win over LaSalle-Peru in the title game of the Class 3A Morris Regional, the first baseball regional crown for Morris since 2003.
LaSalle-Peru’s Tyler Brovelli led off the game with a single and No. 2 hitter Erik Milaicki attempted a sacrifice bunt. The ball was popped in the air between first base and the mound. Walker charged off the mound toward it, dove and caught it backhanded in the air just before it hit the ground. Brovelli was well on his way to second, and Walker threw to first to double him off. The throw got away, but second baseman Matt Bernickus, alertly backing up the play, tracked it down and threw to first to complete the double play. Thus, the Redskins went from possibly having a runner in scoring position with one out to bases empty and nobody out.
“That double play made things a lot easier,” said Walker, a sophomore who improved to 4-0 after being called up a few weeks ago. “It was huge. I have all the confidence in the world in my teammates behind me.”
Bolstered by the big defensive play, Walker got out of the first without allowing a run, then the Redskins (28-9) gave him all he needed in the bottom half.
Trevor Lines – who, along with Bernickus, was a part of two brother-sister combinations to win regional titles Saturday – reached base on an error with two outs. He went to third on a hit-and-run single by Tom Cheshareck, then scored when Tim Smyk singled to right.
“They came with a first-pitch fastball,” Smyk said. “I figured as the No. 5 hitter that they would come next with an off-speed pitch. I saw it coming, stayed back and went with it the other way.
“There’s no better feeling than being a senior and winning the regional at home. We have worked for this since Day 1, and the work has paid off.”
“Tim has turned himself into a solid varsity hitter,” Morris coach Todd Kein said. “He didn’t hit much at all for us last year, but he has been coming through in the clutch for us all year long this year.”
Walker then took over. He struck out the side in order in the second and struck out three in the third despite allowing a single. In all, he fanned nine, walked two, hit a batter and gave up four hits.
“It was mostly my curve that was working for me,” Walker said. “I was nervous before the game, but I get nervous every start. To start the regional championship as a sophomore, I didn’t want to be the one that ended the seniors’ season. It helped immensely to be playing on the home field.”
The Redskins, who take on Peoria Notre Dame at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the LaSalle-Peru Sectional, got Walker another run in the fourth, again taking advantage of a Cavalier miscue. With one out, both Grant Schluntz and Geno Persico walked. Kyle Hill then laid down a bunt and beat it out to load the bases. After a strikeout, Lines hit a grounder to short that the L-P shortstop couldn’t field cleanly, allowing Schluntz to score for a 2-0 lead.
“We were able to capitalize on their mistakes,” Kein said. “That’s what you have to do at this time of year. It doesn’t matter how you score. You don’t win a lot of regional titles scoring four runs in two games, but we’ll take it. We’ve grown accustomed to playing tight games, and we expect to be in them.
Walker put a near perfect capper on the game in the seventh. He leaped to stop a hard-hit one-hopper up the middle to get the first out, got the second hitter to ground to Smyk at third and ended with a called third strike.
“One of the underrated things about Matt is his athleticism on the mound,” Kein said. “That double play in the first inning was huge, and credit Matt Bernickus with some great hustle and being heads-up on the play, too. And, the play to start the seventh was a big one for Matt, too. He helps himself on the mound.”