Jake Snider’s dream since he was 4 years old was to win a baseball game with a walk-off hit.
Dreams come true in the postseason. The Evanston senior delivered in a big way Saturday afternoon in what could have been the last at-bat of his high school career.
Snider lined a bases-loaded single to right field, and chased home the tying and winning runs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to rally Evanston to a 4-3 victory over Fenwick in the championship game of the Class 4A Evanston Regional tournament.
The Wildkits, who were within one strike of seeing their season come to an end, will take a 22-9-1 record into next Wednesday’s sectional semifinal game at Loyola Academy. Coach Frank Consiglio’s squad will play the New Trier-Lane Tech winner at 7 p.m., with Maine West meeting the Loyola-Notre Dame survivor in the other semifinal contest.
Snider was the latest in a long line of ETHS heroes in what was another team effort. Teammates Chris Wolfe and Charlie Gruner contributed key at-bats to set the stage for Snider’s game winning blow, while shortstop Matt Barbato and catcher Fletcher Brown made run-saving plays on defense that kept the No. 3 seeded Kits within striking distance.
Not to mention a two-run single by Adam Geibel that finally got ETHS on the board in the bottom of the sixth.
Fenwick, seeded 5th in the sectional complex, was eliminated with a final mark of 14-10 after holding the hosts to just 1 hit over the first 5 innings.
But down doesn’t mean “out” to this group of ETHS seniors.
“I have done everything in my power to get the kids to understand that we have to be a 21-out team,” said Consiglio after being mobbed in the postgame celebration. “If other teams are going to knock us out, they’re going to have to punch hard.
“We thrive as a team in close games like this one. We don’t beat a lot of teams 7-1, but if the other team gives us just a little opening, we’ll come through. The kids’ mindset and their work ethic is what prepares them for games like this.
“Their kid (losing pitcher Joey Atkins) went out there and just threw the ball down our throats for the first 5 innings. But the team that makes the in-game adjustments is the team that wins championships, and I could see our at-bats turning around in about the fourth inning. And when Jake came up there I just told him to look away --- hard --- and he flipped the ball into right field.”
Snider’s single down the right field line plated Harry Porter, who had reached on a 1-out error, and Wolfe, who drew a walk from Atkins after falling behind in the count 0-2 with 2 outs in the inning.
The senior outfielder fell behind reliever Ken Stepicka and made the Fenwick hurler pay when he tried to locate another pitch on the outside corner.
“The first pitch was a slider,” Snider recalled, “and I knew I should look hard away after that. I just thought about driving the ball to the right side. He threw it in the same spot and I controlled the barrel (of the bat) and drove it to right.
“That was easily the biggest hit of my career. I just knew I had to put the ball in play and at least tie it up. I had my batting gloves and my helmet on right from the start of the inning, because I had a feeling it would come down to me.”
Snider’s game-winning shot delivered a mound win for reliever Joe Epler, who hadn’t pitched in 2 weeks due to an aggravated nerve in his arm but wriggled out of a 1-out, bases-loaded jam in the top of the 7th.
“I’m just stunned right now,” Epler admitted after replacing starter Henry Haack in the 6th. “It’s so incredible, the way we came back today. We did this against New Trier, so I thought there was no reason we couldn’t do it against anyone else. It really feels good.
“I knew I’d be closing today, and I knew it probably wouldn’t be in a clean situation (no baserunners), either. Matthew (Barbato) made a great play behind me, and so did Fletcher (Brown).”
Epler inherited a bases-loaded, 2-out situation from Haack in the 6th and Barbato’s big play came on his third pitch of the contest. The ETHS senior shortstop made a brilliant dive to knock down a hard-hit grounder by Alex Pup that pushed the lead to 3-0 in the Friars’ favor, but another run would have crossed if the ball had eluded Barbato. Epler then retired Sam Kure on a tap to the mound.
With the bases filled again in the 7th, Brown backhanded an Epler fastball in the dirt to prevent a run and Epler eventually whiffed Slepicka on a 3-2 fastball, then put out the fire by retiring Tim La on a routine fly ball to right.
A pinch-hit single by Nadav Sered-Schoenberg with one out in the sixth finally helped the Kits break through against left-hander Atkins. One out later, Brown grounded a double down the third base line and Geibel came through with a single to center that cut the deficit to 3-2.
“That was a special win,” Consiglio added. “What made it so special was not the way it happened or that we won a regional on our home field. This is a group of seniors who understand the program and helped create a family atmosphere here. It’s always special when you get a bunch of kids who love the game as much as you do.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.