Evanston’s offense took a hit — and the Wildkit baseball team can’t get enough of those lately — when sophomore outfielder Noah Leib was sidelined with a strained hamstring for perhaps as many as two weeks.
But the loss of the team’s second-best hitter with a .383 batting average just means that the pitching staff will likely have to pick up the slack.
The Kits were up to the task Tuesday in Skokie, as Will Lucas provided a quality start and Jay Moore added a quality finish on the mound in a 3-2 triumph over Niles West in Central Suburban League South division action.
Like Monday’s 2-0 loss at Glenbrook South, the contest featured outstanding pitching on both the winning and losing sides. It looks like the 2018 version of the CSL South is a pitching-rich league that could feature numerous 1-run nail-biters even when the weather warms up.
That’s OK with Evanston head coach Frank Consiglio.
“This is the deepest pitching staff I’ve ever had and I really think we’re built for these 1-run games,” said Consiglio after the Wildkits improved to 11-6-1 on the season. “I enjoy these 1-run games, I really do. These are the games that prepare you for the postseason.
“The loss of one of our top hitters is a big one and I hope it doesn’t put more pressure on the pitchers. We haven’t been hitting at all, and it can only go up from here. It is an issue.”
Lucas struck out 7 in his 5-plus innings and Moore chalked up a 6-out save, while on offense the Kits scored all 3 runs without benefit of a hit in the fifth inning against Niles West starter Kyle Robertson. Lucas improved to 3-2 on the season, tied for the team lead with Joe Epler despite the fact that the left-hander hasn’t had much offensive or defensive support when it’s been his turn on the mound. Of the 21 runs Lucas has yielded this spring, only 8 have been earned in 23 and two-thirds innings.
“He’s been our bad-luck guy and he’s been out there in games where we’re not fielding the ball,” said Consiglio. “Nobody wants to be the hard-luck guy on a pitching staff. He really needed a clean (errorless defense) game like we had today.
“His pitch count was low and he wasn’t losing anything on his fastball when we took him out. I wanted him to see what it’s like to pitch in a gut-wrenching game like this one, to learn about the mental part of it. He was really good today. He executed his pitches up in the zone, spotted them away and also executed his curve ball against some really good hitters.”
The lefty was dealing right from the start and his ability to repeat the same delivery again and again led to four scoreless innings to start the game.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge because we’ve struggled when I’m out there,” Lucas said, “but I just have to come out with the same focus every time I go out there. All I can do is control what I can control and pick up the others if they need it.
“I learned a lot from the guys last year about the way they handled their business. I know my stuff is good, so I just have to stick to the basics and let the hard work I did in the off-season show on the field. We know the pitching will be there (as a team) and we just have to throw strikes and do the best we can to give us our best shot at winning.
“This year, I’m more focused on my mechanics and trying to stay consistent with my upper body. I just try to repeat my motion, stay sound and get as much extension as I can.”
Evanston turned in a rare errorless performance on defense and both hurlers benefited as a result.
In the West fifth, Lucas walked leadoff hitter Diego Acosta and Brandon Kalhara followed with a line single to left, only the second hit of the day for the Wolves. After a sacrifice bunt, Myles Derbigny scratched an RBI single off the glove of third baseman Charlie Gruner and the hosts had a major threat going with first and third and one out.
But Lucas picked Derbigny off first, and in the ensuing rundown shortstop Matt Barbato fired a strike to the plate to nail Kalhara for the second out. Lucas then retired the next hitter on a popup to end the inning.
Lucas allowed a single and a walk to the final two batters he faced in the sixth and Consiglio called on Moore to come out of the bullpen. He walked the first hitter on four pitches to fill the bases, but then Tommy Barbato — who just took over as a defensive replacement at third base — turned Sam Butera’s grounder into a clutch double play.
West did plate another run on that play, but Kalhara lined out for the final out and Moore retired the side on 12 pitches in the bottom of the seventh.
Evanston’s “rally” consisted of three walks, a sacrifice fly, two errors and two wild pitches in the fifth. Nadav Sered-Schoenberg and Gruner coaxed walks to start the inning, and Matt Barbato’s sacrifice moved both runners along.
Jake Snider, inserted in the leadoff slot in a revamped lineup without Leib, drove a sacrifice fly to right on an 0-2 pitch to knock in the first run. After another walk, this one to Harry Porter, Adam Geibel’s ability to make contact on another 0-2 count brought results when third baseman Kalhara’s throw pulled the first baseman off the bag to score the second run.
A throwing error charged to catcher Acosta on Geibel’s delayed steal bluff brought in what turned out to be the winning run. Evanston’s only hits on the day were singles by Snider, Geibel and Fletcher Brown, plus a double by designated hitter Chris Wolfe.
“I think the issue for us as hitters is, how can we be better with two strikes?” asked Consiglio. “And when we get to our pitch, we’re not doing a good job mentally. We have the mentality of just putting the ball in play, not hitting it hard and staying aggressive.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.