The postgame huddle chant — We’re Not Done Yet, Boys! — said it all for Evanston’s baseball team Thursday night at the Class 4A Loyola Academy Sectional tournament.
The Wildkits scored their second straight come-from-behind postseason victory and kept their season alive with an improbable 9-7 triumph over Lane Tech in the sectional semifinals.
Pinch-hit singles by Sawyer Brown and Charlie Gruner accounted for 4 runs in a 7-run fifth inning and three innings of scoreless relief pitching by Jay Moore and Henry Haack were enough for the No. 3 seeded Wildkits to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship game.
Coach Frank Consiglio’s squad, now 23-9-1 overall, will face Loyola Academy at 10 a.m. for the sectional title. Loyola eliminated Maine West 12-6 in the other semifinal at the rain-delayed sectional and owns a 7-0 regular season win over the Wildkits.
Finding some way to win has always been an ETHS trademark since Consiglio took over the program 11 years ago, but Thursday’s outcome wasn’t characteristic of the way the Wildkits have performed during the regular season. This time, starter Joe Epler couldn’t hang on after leading 2-0 in the fourth, as the No. 7 seed Indians chased him by erupting for 7 runs of their own before reliever Will Peterson finally put out the fire.
And the Kit rally in the fifth inning, when they sent 10 batters to the plate, featured a long list of unlikely heroes led by Matt Barbato, Brown and Gruner.
“I know I keep saying the same thing over and over, but it’s the playoffs and it’s all about playing hard for 21 outs,” Consiglio pointed out. “We had a lapse there in the third inning, but once we got that home run from Barbato (leading off the home fifth) we got back in it.
“Fletcher Brown had one of the biggest at-bats in that inning, flipping a single to right to keep the inning going, and with Sawyer and Charlie we got half of our runs off the bench in that inning. How often do you see that happen? Everything we preach to them about understanding their roles and preparing for the moment paid off.
“I went with Sawyer (a right-handed hitter) because their pitcher was nasty and struck out our two lefties (Adam Geibel, Noah Leib). Sawyer is a really good 2-strike hitter, and after his hit Charlie came in and got us another big hit. I’m really proud of how they all picked each other up tonight.”
Barbato’s solo home run — his second of the season and only the sixth all spring for the Wildkits as a team — put a dent in Lane’s big lead and proved to be the beginning of the end for Indians’ starter Mike Neil. He surrendered back-to-back singles by Jake Snider (2-for-4) and Fletcher Brown and was yanked in favor of James Lyman, who whiffed both Geibel and Leib and appeared to restore order for the visitors.
But Evanston wasn’t finished yet.
Epler, who moved over to first base after his mound stint, was hit by a pitch and Sawyer Brown grounded a single up the middle that plated two runs. Lyman then hit Nadav Sered-Schoenberg with a pitch, re-loading the bases, and Gruner came off the bench to deliver a two-run single to left that knotted the score at 7-7.
With runners on second and third, Barbato hit a cue shot that first baseman Eric Lucchessi booted as both Sered-Schoenberg and Gruner dashed home to put the Kits ahead to stay.
Gruner, who also played a key role as a pinch-hitter in the regional championship comeback versus Fenwick, entered the contest hitting just .175 on the season.
“I knew there’d be a hole in the lineup where we’d need a pinch-hitter , and I knew I’d get a shot,” said Gruner. “For me, the golden rule as a pinch-hitter is to simplify everything even in a huge moment where everything is on the line in front of a big crowd. I tried to treat it like just another at-bat. Don’t press and you’ll find success, that’s what I always think. I just didn’t let any doubt slip into my mind.
“We were in a tough situation tonight, and the comeback really started with Barbato. Once he put that one over the wall, that was the spark we needed. All it takes is one guy to do something like that.”
Barbato, a senior shortstop, has come to life offensively over the past couple of weeks after struggling for much of the regular season.
“We were noticeably flat the inning before (when a double play snuffed out an ETHS threat), and Coach told us we weren’t going to win with the energy level we had then,” said Barbato. “But when I came back to the dugout after hitting that home run, it was there again.
“We had some great at-bats after that, and we just kept rolling. I still can’t believe it! On the last ball I hit, I knew it wasn’t hit hard, but it was spinning off the end of the bat and I thought the first baseman might bobble it. So I busted it to first and I put on an extra burst when he bobbled it.
“We have some incredible leaders on this team, guys who make each other better. It’s a super selfless group of seniors and they’re always super positive, always picking each other up.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.