Frank Consiglio didn’t mind much when Oak Park-River Forest chose to intentionally walk Ben Wilson with the potential game-winning run at third base Tuesday.
The Evanston baseball coach already knows what Wilson — a .300 hitter last year for the winningest team in school history — can do.
That strategy left things up to junior Jesse Heuer, who stroked a two-out, walk-off game-winning single to rally the Wildkits to a 5-4 victory over the highly-regarded Huskies in the ETHS home opener. The Kits improved to 1-1 on the season.
Heuer’s hit came off OPRF reliever Joe Cundari, the hurler who closed out Evanston’s 11-inning loss to the Huskies in last spring’s sectional championship game at Niles West. The Wildkit junior jumped on the first pitch and sent it into the darkness in right field.
“I really don’t understand my own roster yet, and part of that will be sorted out when we go to Florida (for a spring break trip beginning Thursday),” admitted Consiglio. “As a coach, you want to see kids in moments like that. To see them come out and compete at that level, against a team that good, was extraordinary.
“I haven’t built a trust factor with some of them yet and it might be the middle one-third of the season before we start to see what this team really is. But this is a confident group, and if you take away the fifth innings of both games we’ve played so far, we’ve been dominant. It’s not really payback to beat Oak Park — it’s a new team and a new season — but that’s a top 5 team in the area with almost everyone back, and they’re one of the measuring sticks on our schedule every year. When you look at your schedule in January or February and realize you’ve got Oak Park early, that helps hold you accountable for your preparation for the season.”
Heuer, a junior second baseman playing in just his second varsity game, was ready for a pressure situation.
“When the count went to 2-0 on Ben, I thought they might walk him,” Heuer said. “I had it in the back of my mind that I’d get a shot at it. I was confident going up there, and I looked for the first pitch in the middle half, and that’s the pitch I got.
“I didn’t know what to expect today, but that’s a really big win against one of the top level teams in the state.”
Evanston trailed 4-3 entering the bottom of the seventh inning and had only mustered a total of three hits against Oak Park pitchers Jack McMullen and Luke McMahon. But ETHS designated hitter Andrew Martin drew a five-pitch walk to open the seventh, and all hands were safe when the Oak Park third baseman booted Adam Geibel’s attempted sacrifice bunt.
Alex Moore bunted the runners into scoring position and OPRF walked Dylan Mulvihill intentionally to load the bases. A sacrifice fly to right by B.J. Johnson pushed the tying run across and set up Heuer’s chance to be a hero.
“That’s another kid who came through in a big spot,” said Consiglio regarding Johnson’s at-bat. “That game-winning hit will be what everyone talks about, but it doesn’t happen if B.J. wasn’t successful in his at-bat.”
Consiglio also got a glimpse of a pitcher who might loom larger in Evanston’s mound plans. Junior Chris Brown retired 8 of the 10 batters he faced, although he did walk in the go-ahead run in the fifth inning after inheriting a bases-loaded jam from starter Joe Snapp.
Brown didn’t allow a hit and struck out two while earning the win. He’s coming off an illness that cost him some valuable practice time and Consiglio wants to build him up before possibly inserting him as the No. 4 starter in the rotation.
“I thought he was huge for us today,” said the Evanston coach. “He gave us a chance to win the game. He just has to hit the inner third of the plate to be successful, because his stuff is good enough to get a lot of outs.”
Evanston pushed across two unearned runs in the first thanks to two Oak Park errors, and Wilson tripled with one out and scored on Heuer’s sacrifice fly to build the lead to 3-0 in the third.
Snapp only allowed one hit in the three-run Huskie fifth but a pair of defensive lapses proved costly for the junior right-hander. Brown struck out the first batter he faced on a 3-2 pitch, then issued a free pass to Luke Fitzgerald with a 3-2 fastball that sailed high to force across the fourth run for OPRF.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.