BY LOUIE KORAC
A game of inches didn’t go the way of the Danville Vikings on Thursday afternoon.
And in the end, senior Chase Thurston will have a lasting impression of a hard-hit ground ball bound off his glove that ultimately decided the Vikings’ season.
Wil Lewis’ two-out infield single in the bottom of the sixth brought home pinch-runner Logan Spiller from third base as the second-seeded Alton Redbirds rallied past the third-seeded Vikings 3-2 Thursday in the Edwardsville Class 4A Regional semifinal at Tom Pile Field.
The Redbirds (26-9), winners of eight in a row, move on to face conference rival Edwardsville (27-9) Saturday with a regional championship at stake. Danville closes its season at 10-20.
With runners on second and third and two outs, Lewis got a 1-2 fastball from Thurston, hit a hard come-backer up the middle that Thurston got a glove on, but the ball bounded far enough away to Thurston’s left where Lewis could leg out the infield hit. Spiller was able to score on the play, which turned out to be the deciding run.
“He got me the first time, struck me out looking,” Lewis said of Thurston, who’s headed for Eastern Illinois next season. “All that matters is I got him in the end. It was just a straight fastball right down the middle. I hit it hard, back at him.
“I thought it was getting over his head at first. I couldn’t believe he got a glove on it. I saw it go off his glove and I just took off sprinting and I made it to first base. Great feeling.”
It was a dejected feeling for Danville and Thurston, who settled into the game after an inauspicious beginning to throw 121 pitches. But a leadoff walk to open the sixth would up costing Thurston and the Vikings from pulling the upset and facing the host Tigers on Saturday.
“A leadoff walk in the sixth, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Danville coach Gary Gritton said. “We preach it ... you can’t walk the leadoff guy. And then of course, it’s just tough luck.
“Baseball’s a game of inches. We talk about it all the time. An inch or two, it’s in Chase’s back pocket and we’re hitting (in the seventh) with the top of the order up. Frustrating, disappointing, but I’m proud of the way our kids competed.”
Danville was able to strike early off Alton starter Brad Henry, who didn’t get out of the first inning after spotting the Vikings a 2-0 lead on one hit (a run-scoring single from Mike Vascura) and four walks, which included a bases loaded walk to Brady Watkins.
“We’ve struggled to score runs all year,” Gritton said. “We’re a little limited offensively, but get two early, some guys have a little confidence.”
That confidence quickly evaporated when the Redbirds were able to get the two runs back in the first off Thurston, who was off a bit himself to start the game before settling in. He finished with four hits allowed and two earned runs with six walks and seven strikeouts.
“He’s the ultimate competitor on the mound,” Gritton said of Thurston. “He’s been a bulldog for three years at the varsity level for us. He was not very sharp in the first inning. A really high pitch count (43), he struggled command-wise early, but he just competes and he got better as the game went on.
“I feel bad for him because he and Chuckie (Robinson, bound for Southern Mississippi) have been such great pillars of our program that you really wanted to see them playing for a regional title on Saturday. They’re two high-character kids. They’re kids our other guys look up to. I really wanted to get this win for them. Just wasn’t meant to be today.”
It was also a case of a key missed opportunity for the Vikings in the fifth, who put their first two runners on in a 2-2 game but failed to score.
Third baseman Austin West led off with a double off reliever Charlie Howard, who then walked Robinson intentionally. Alton coach Todd Haug again went to the bullpen, and Ray Bailey was summoned into the game. The Redbirds senior responded with back-to-back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning and keep the game tied.
Vascura and Nolan First were caught looking and then Bailey ended the frame by getting Tristan Wolfe swinging to end the inning.
“I thought about bunting there with Mike,” Gritton said. “It comes down to who are we bunting for? If we do bunt Mike there, and he’s one of our guys, so it’s a tough call. I seriously considered it, but at the same time, he had a nice hit the first inning. He’s been hot lately, so we let him swing there, but unfortunately, three strikeouts to end that inning, it’s very disappointing.”
Haug said it was key for Bailey, who improved to 7-4, to shut the door down when he did.
“He made the pitches that he needed to against a quality opponent,” Haug said. “I don’t care what they say their team average was. They have some boppers in the middle of that order, especially Chuckie.”
Thurston would walk Nick Droste to lead off the home half of the sixth before retiring Clint Cress on a fielder’s choice bunt and Austin Stilts with a strikeout. A wild pitch moved pinch runner Spiller to third and Thurston then walked Bailey. After pinch-runner Tyler Kohler stole second, Lewis came up and was able to execute to give Alton its first and only lead.
“One thing that we try to instill in these boys, and we’ve really hit William hard with this, is out of that nine-hole, he might get you early on, but you keep battling and battling and battling,” Haug said. “I looked right at him in that team huddle right afterwards and I said, ‘What happened at the end?’ He said, ‘I got him when it mattered.’ That’s the mentality you have to have even out of the nine-hole … somebody that’s going to compete for the entire seven innings on each pitch. It turned out in our favor today.”
Given the lead, Bailey slammed the door shut in the seventh despite allowing a two-out single to Robinson. Bailey struck out Vascura to end the game and finished the game with three innings of work, allowing one hit and six strikeouts.
“My last high school season’s on the line,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to try and make the pitch when you can. Luckily I got a few good pitches in there.”