BY AARON PATTERSON
If Danville baseball coach Gary Gritton and his Vikings could take back one thing from Tuesday’s 7-3 home loss to Mattoon, they wouldn’t have to think twice about having a second chance at the first inning. They have lost games previously this season, and four runs is by no means a blowout. But the way the Vikings lost didn’t make suffering the defeat any easier.
With ace pitcher Chase Thurston on the mound, Gritton expected a competitive contest, and his prediction was correct — for six innings. But it was the first inning that ultimately held the Vikings back from picking up their eighth win of the season.
In an uncharacteristic performance, Thurston (4-1) and his defense surrendered six runs on four hits, two walks, and an error as a total of 10 batters stepped to the plate.
“He has been lights out every game he’s thrown,” Gritton said. “This was uncharacteristic. His breaking ball was just a little flat today. It didn’t have the same hard bite that it normally does. Then, the command of the fastball wasn’t there all day. It was up, it was down, a lot of three-ball counts. Just really kind of a surprisingly uncharacteristic day for a kid who has been lights out all year.”
To Thurston’s credit, he limited Mattoon to only one run and four hits in the following four innings before being relieved by Gabe Garza. In fact, Thurston responded in the second inning with two strikeouts and walked only one in his final three innings.
There was a slight delay before the game that might have thrown off Thurston’s routine, but the senior righthander made no excuses.
“It was a tough first inning,” Thurston said. “Coming out, I didn’t have my best stuff. I was having a little bit of trouble starting off ahead of batters, and I think working from behind the entire game kind of hurt me.
“I felt good warming up. I was having a little trouble getting my curveball over, and I think that’s what started most of it.”
Robinson might know Thurston and his abilities better than anyone else on the team, and he is confident the off day was just that.
“This is baseball,” Robinson said. “He just wasn’t on today. I’ve been catching Chase since we were like seven or eight years old. He has his ups and his downs. He’ll bounce back, no doubt.”
Resilience and the energy gained from bouncing back is what has driven this year’s Vikings team, and by their admission is what will carry them to any further success this season.
Even after struggling on defense in the opening frame, the Vikings’ dugout was lively and as positive as a team that had a six-run lead.
“That’s one of the big things we stress as a team, never getting down, and always believing that we have a chance to win,” Thurston said. “I think that we showed last season that that’s an effective way to approach the game as a whole. I think we’re trying to come back this season with the same philosophy.”
Danville had its share of opportunities for a comeback, but just as it has struggled throughout the season, the team’s situational hitting left it victim of another loss.
As a team, according to Gritton, the Vikings are hitting only .200, but one thing he stresses they can improve on is situational hitting. In Tuesday’s loss, Danville stranded a total of nine runners with five on either second or third base.
“Right now we’re kind of struggling at the plate in situations where we should be putting the ball in play,” Thurston said. “If we have a runner on third with less than two outs, a ground ball to shortstop will score. We’re striking out in those situations right now and not getting the run across. It’s just execution that will result in runs. I think as the season goes on, we’ll start, hopefully, executing and getting better at that.”
Two of Danville’s runs were, however, scored with two outs. Grant Lamar drove in Brady Watkins on a two-out single to right field in the second inning, and in the bottom of the seventh, Austin West scored Robinson on a two-out double to center. Robinson reached on a one-out double down the left-field line.
Fortunately for the Vikings, there will be little time to dwell on the loss as they host Urbana tonight at Danville Stadium in a Big 12 Conference game. Urbana defeated Danville 8-1 on April 24. But just as the Vikings responded late in Tuesday’s contest, they are confident the optimism and resilience of the team will allow them to respond on a positive note.
“That’s the kind of team that we have,” Robinson said. “We have a high-energy team, and that’s how we are going to win games. Not too many people get down on this team. Chase did a good job as a leader getting everybody up. We stayed up, but today just wasn’t our day.”