By the weekend, the Prairie Fire baseball team had but one thing on their minds: beat Monmouth.
“It always racks up the intensity a bit,” senior Caleb Weaver said of playing the Fighting Scots. “These are the biggest conference games of the year for us, and so our guys always come in to these games ready to play, and we know we always have a chance to win.”
The Prairie Fire had not lost to the Fighting Scots since a pair of losses at Monmouth in April of 2011. After sweeping the Fighting Scots in 2012, the Prairie Fire came out in the weekend with the right mindset and with momentum on their sides.
“[Six] in a row is huge,” Weaver said. “But you can’t focus on that when you get in the game.”
In the first pair of games on Saturday, Knox kept winning as they have been of late: pitching, pitching, pitching. After the fourth inning in game one, the combination of freshman Jeremy Gogoel, senior Gabe Ayers and junior Dustin Armstrong combined for five innings of no-run ball, allowing only three hits and two walks in the process.
Offensively, the Prairie Fire did just enough to edge out the Fighting Scots 5-4. The eighth inning was the key to the offensive game: after trailing 4-2 entering the bottom of the frame, the first four Knox batters reached base, cutting the lead to 4-3. Senior Matt Lee grounded out to score junior Jackson White* to tie the ball game and senior Kyle Walenga’s RBI single put the Prairie Fire ahead for good.
In game two, it was the starting pitching of junior Paul Mills that shut down Monmouth. Mills gave up just two earned runs over 7 1/3 strong innings, striking out six. After notching his sixth save of the season in the first game of the doubleheader, Armstrong came on again and got the save to close out the Fighting Scots.
Freshman Mitch Weissenhofer only pitched 2/3 of an inning in game two against the Fighting Scots, but his work was pivotal in maintaining the lead for the Prairie Fire: with a runner on second and only one out, Weissenhofer came in to relieve Mills, striking out the only two batters he faced. That was all Knox needed to solidify the win, as Armstrong came in and pitched a near perfect ninth to defeat the Fighting Scots 4-3.
Weissenhofer has been critical in the success of the Prairie Fire relief core this season. Weaver described the pitching staff, especially the relievers as “perhaps the strongest part of our team right now. They’re an absolutely vital part of why we’re winning as much as we are.”
Despite the strength of the relievers, Weissenhofer has stood out amongs the rest: he has yet to give up a run in just under 11 innings of relief, and the batting average against him is a miniscule .086, more than 150 points lower than anyone on the staff who has pitched comparable innings.
It looked as if pitching would again reign supreme in game one on Sunday, as the Prairie Fire led 3-0 through five frames. Weaver, however, had other ideas: with two outs in the top of the sixth shortly after another Prairie Fire run was plated, he belted a grand slam to give Knox an 8-0 lead, adding more padding than necessary. Each team scrapped across two more runs, and the game ended in a 10-2 Knox victory.
Game two got off to an auspicious start, as senior Ryan Stoens was lit up for five runs on five hits and three walks in his first two innings of work. Fortunately for Stoens and the Prairie Fire, the offense came to play, and Stoens exited in the third inning with a 6-5 Prairie Fire lead.
Monmouth, not content with yet another loss, fought back for a 7-6 lead, which they held until the seventh. At that point, Knox proved what they’re capable of. Three innings, nine hits, and a grand slam by junior Erik Smoy later, the Prairie Fire led Monmouth 18-7, with just half a frame remaining.
“It was incredible,” Weissenhofer said. “Everyone was happy, joking around, intensely into the game. We were down a run, but that’s when we play our best. Everyone zones in, and if someone is off, we’ve got a whole team to back them up.”
The Fighting Scots could muster nothing in their half of the inning, and Knox coasted to their tenth straight victory over Monmouth, with a final tally of 18-7.
This Prairie Fire team is different than the ones in years past. This is not the team that went 16-19 last year, 8-26 the year before that. This team is more of a dual threat than any team in the past, and Weaver acknowledged that. “Honestly, I thought from the get-go that our offense was going to carry our team, and we haven’t. The fact that pitching is carrying us right now is somewhat surprising. Awesome, but surprising,” he said.
This weekend provided a day-by-day breakdown of who Knox can be. On Sunday, the Prairie Fire proved they can be the team that produced 28 runs and 32 hits over two games. But, as they showcased Saturday, they can also be the team that gives up just six earned runs over two games, with a variety of different pitchers at their disposal. In this weekend alone, the Prairie Fire threw nine different pitchers on the mound, and still have more depth behind them.
It is not therefore a question of which Knox team can show up. They both very clearly can. It is rather a question of making sure they both show up on the same day. The steps to success in that realm, Weissenhofer insists, are not complicated: pitchers need to focus on throwing strike one, while batters need to focus on waiting back on the ball and get their feet down when in the box.
“It’s really not a technique problem. We have that,” Weissenhofer said. “Now we just need the right mindset, to focus on those things when you’re taking batting practice, before the first inning comes about. We do that, we’ll win. Simple as that.”
Weissenhofer cautions, though, to “just take it one game at a time. You focus on next week when you have a game tomorrow, tomorrow is going to suffer.”
With that in mind, Knox currently sits comfortably atop the MWC South standings at 9-3, the most conference victories for the Prairie Fire since 1997, when the team won 10 games. Knox was scheduled to return home for a non-conference doubleheader against Robert Morris University of Springfield, but those games were canceled. Their next set of games comes this Saturday in a non-divisional matchup against Lawrence University.
*Editor’s note: Jackson White is the Co-Sports Editor for The Knox Student.