JOLIET – As a baseball conference, the Southwest Prairie is strong and deep.
The schedule-makers got it right as Minooka and Plainfield South, tied for the lead entering the final day, met Thursday afternoon at South to decide the conference championship.
When Indians coach Jeff Petrovic said, “This was a classic area baseball game,” he was spot on.
Minooka scored twice in the eighth inning, and South scored once and had the tying run on base in the bottom of the eighth when the Indians’ thrilling 6-5 victory ended.
Minooka (22-9, 14-4) had to sweep Oswego East and Plainfield South down the stretch to claim the championship. Oswego East is the No. 2 seed in the Class 4A Oswego Sectional. Plainfield North, another SPC heavyweight, is seeded third, and South (22-9-1, 13-5) is fourth.
The Indians, meanwhile, are the ninth seed. That speaks to how well they played down the stretch.
“We knew we had to win those four straight to win the conference, and we did it,” Indians senior catcher Nick Airola said.
“We hadn’t won one in a while, and the whole conference was good this year, so this really makes us feel good,” senior center fielder Jon Butler said.
Besides the defense they contributed, Airola and Butler came up big offensively Thursday.
Airola cracked a three-run homer to right-center field off Cougars starter Jordan Mikel in the fourth inning to erase the 1-0 lead that South had grabbed on Trey Stewart’s homer in the second, his third long ball in the two-game series.
“South has all Division I pitchers, throwing about 90 [mph], so I just had to make sure I took a good shot at it,” Airola said. “I stuck the bat out, it got in the wind, and it was gone.”
Butler doubled home an unearned run in the fifth to give Minooka 4-1 lead, then lifted a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth to give the Indians a 5-4 lead. Luke Faifer followed with a run-scoring single to make it 6-4.
“[The coaches] told me to hit something from the waist up to get the ball to the outfield,” said Butler, who had three hits in each game against South. “I hit it good off the barrel, and Nick [Airola] had the wheels on third. I knew he would score.
“Then Luke got that big, big hit to give us the other run.”
Minooka left-hander Devin Smith was allowed 90 pitches by the pitch-count rule, and his final batter was South’s leadoff man in the eighth. He retired Nick Enloe, and right-hander Seth Gutknecht relieved.
After Stewart flied out to Butler for the second out, Antonio Gutierrez was hit by a pitch for the third straight at-bat, advanced on two wild pitches and scored on AJ Manucci’s single to make it 6-5. Pinch-hitter Brad Roberts flied to Butler to end it.
“I haven’t pitched any bigger games than this,” said Smith, who allowed Stewart’s homer in the second, Mikel’s two-run double in the fifth and the tying run in the sixth when Nick Enloe doubled and eventually scored as Manucci, who had doubled to set up Mikel’s two-run double in the fifth, hit into a fielder’s choice. “This was one of my better ones, for sure.”
“Devin was incredible,” Airola said. “You could not ask for anything better from him. He struggled some last year. This year he is in our top three, for sure.”
Gutknecht was roughed up in the seventh inning of the Indians’ 12-9 wind-plagued victory Wednesday over South.
“After the struggles Seth had yesterday, it was great to see him come in and get it done tonight,” Petrovic said.
Smith, meanwhile, worked ahead of the South hitters all afternoon. He walked only one – it was intentional – and hit Gutierrez twice. South had an opportunity to win it in the bottom of the seventh when Marco Escobar and Nick Mayerhofer singled with two outs. But cleanup hitter Konnor Ash grounded to third baseman Cherokee Lebeau for an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
“All I know is I had to throw inside to Ash,” Smith said.
“Devin has done great all year,” Petrovic said. “Really, we’ve had four guys all year who have gone out there and given us a chance to win.
“I’m so proud of all our kids. We played the underdog role, and every one of them has proven they can step up and beat anyone. And, they handle themselves so well. They’re a classy group. Sometimes conference championships are maybe not the highest priority. But with the strength of our conference this year, that makes this all the better.”
Petrovic then complimented the Indians’ rival.
“Plainfield South also is a team that has a ton of guts and heart,” he said. “A lot of credit goes to them as well.”