This weekend was a historic one for the Prairie Fire baseball team: not since 2003 had the Prairie Fire taken both games of a doubleheader from Grinnell. This weekend, they did it in superb fashion, defeating the Pioneers 7-3 in the first game and 3-1 in the second.
In game one, Knox jumped out to a 7-0 lead against the Pioneers, who waited too late for a comeback. The Pioneers scored three runs in the ninth, two of which were on junior Nathaniel Grady, who turned in an 8-inning gem, giving up only two runs on two hits, two walks and six strikeouts.
Unfortunately for the Prairie Fire, those two runs came in the ninth, and things could have easily gone Grinnell’s way. Senior reliever Dustin Armstrong, however, had other ideas, and while he came in with one out and the bases loaded, he quickly shut down the Pioneers’ offense, sitting down the only two batters he faced.
Offensively, Knox was led by junior Jackson White*, who went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, including a two run homer. Senior Michael Schroeder and freshman Mitch Weissenhofer both turned in solid performances as well, combining for three hits and two RBIs.
In game two, junior Paul Mills pitched five innings of one-run ball, and over the next four innings, Weissenhofer and Armstrong allowed only one hit. Armstrong recorded his second save of the day.
The duo of Armstrong and Weissenhofer has collectively been lights-out this year: they have yet to allow a run in relief, and both pitchers’ OBAs are stunning. Weissenhofer has an OBA of .091 through 6 2/3 innings, while Armstrong has an OBA of .196 through 13 1/3 innings pitched.
The Prairie Fire (10-5, 3-1 MWC South) have won six of their last seven games, and their 3-1 MWC South record is good enough to tie Illinois College for the lead in the conference.
Armstrong is confident their success is no fluke: “The MWC South is down this year,” he said. “I think the South is pretty much ours… The North has some better teams, but we can beat them. We will beat them. We may not fill out our jerseys as well as they do, but we hit if, not as well, then better than all teams in the MWC.”
Knox got a chance to further prove themselves against the Illinois Wesleyan Titans Tuesday, on Illinois Wesleyan’s home turf. The 27th ranked Titans were amidst an eight-game winning streak.
The Prairie Fire, however, did not let a ranking intimidate them: through seven innings, the Prairie Fire played back and forth baseball with Illinois Wesleyan, and entered the eighth tied 3-3. Then, Knox chipped away at the lead. They did nothing spectacular: no jaw-dropping home runs, no monstrous extra base hits- just solid baseball, smart play and focus.
A single by senior Matt Lee broke the tie in the top of the eighth, scoring junior Erik Smoy. Continuing the attack, Mills hit a sacrifice fly to score senior Ryan Hoffman, who also reached on a single. Knox then scored on an error by Titans’ second baseman Anthony Lopez, and padded their lead in the ninth, scoring after White took home on a wild pitch.
The Titans could do little against Knox pitching: they racked up 12 hits, but left a whopping 10 runners on base, stranded by a corps of five Knox hurlers. Senior Gabe Ayers got the win after entering with two outs in the seventh, throwing an inning and a third of one-hit ball. Armstrong came on in the ninth, and while he did not get the save, he kept his ERA at zero and gave up only one hit.
The key to Knox’s success lies in that this squad is older, more mature and filled with workhorses. Armstrong says the older guys have been phenomenal examples for the younger players (both on and off the field) and it shows.
White is hitting .439 with 13 RBI and is team leader with 20 runs scored; Caleb Weaver, who, even with off days against Grinnell and IWU, is still hitting .377 and leading the team with 18 RBI, and Ryan Hoffman is hitting .365 with 12 RBI.
All praise, however, does not go to the players. Grady credited new pitching coach Les Hunter on his development of the staff and their ensuing success. “He’s pretty much taught everyone a new pitch,” Grady said. “He’s been focusing a lot on the cutter, which is just an adjustment that a lot of hitters are incapable of making.”
Both Armstrong and Grady alluded to the superb recruiting of recruiting coordinator Steve Hoosen.
“You don’t just get this many quality new freshmen coincidentally,” Armstrong said.
However, the ultimate credit goes to head coach Jami Isaacson for the mentality and instruction he provides each player on the roster.
“He is able to take in players and make them perform in ways they never thought possible,” Armstrong said.
But the most important thing Isaacson has done is to instill the right mindset in the Prairie Fire. They already have the pitching to win their conference. They already have the bats to dominate the MWC. They now have the maturity.
All that remains is to take things “one pitch at a time,” Grady said. “That’s something he [Isaacson] has stressed. If we focus one game, one inning, one pitch at a time, this team can make a run.”
Editor’s note: Jackson White is the Co-Sports Editor for The Knox Student.