DU QUOIN – Ashton Smith avoided a double play that would have ended the fifth inning to drive in the winning run as Du Quoin came from behind to beat Benton, 3-2, in the debut of new Indians coach Kyle Geiger and the season opener for both teams on a cold and windy Monday at The Ballpark at Du Quoin High School.
“I just knew with a guy on third I had to do my job,” Smith said. “I couldn’t pop it up on the infield, so I just did my best to put the ball into play and try to beat out the double play. I couldn’t let my teammates down.”
With the score tied 2-2, Hamilton Page took over the pitching duties from Ian McMahon. Alex Zimmerman led off with a single to right field. Charlie Mercier followed with a high hopper to third and beat out the throw to first to put the runners at first and second with no outs.
Tevin Lee then lined a 2-1 pitch to deep right field sending Zimmerman to third where the sophomore rounded the bag while Mercier had already rounded second and was three-quarters of the way to third when Zimmerman pulled up and returned to the bag causing Mercier to be caught in a rundown for the first out leaving runners at the corners.
“We had our opportunities with the bases loaded with one out in the second, but didn’t score and they got some hits when they needed to,” said Benton coach Brett Blondi. “They played better than we did.”
Smith, who had grounded out back to the pitch in the second and had singled and scored in the fourth inning, hit a ground ball to Dillon Poe, who had just replaced Page at short, and beat out the attempt for a double play allowing Zimmerman to score the winning run.
“I couldn’t be prouder for the first game,” Geiger said. “I told these guys I was proud of them for staying in the it bearing the weather and first-game jitters and all that kind of stuff. There was a lot going on and we kept everybody in it.”
Hank Stewart (1-0) pitched four scoreless innings using just 33 pitches in relief of Bryzyn Witcher to pick up the win. The senior right-hander pitched around a leadoff walk in the fourth and a one-out throwing error by the Zimmerman followed by a double in the fifth with the help of a base running mistake before setting down the final seven batters he faced.
“I only threw two curveballs in those four innings and let our defense make plays,” Stewart said. “The outfield made some great plays and the infield made a nice double play at the end.”
Stewart finished the game tying a major league, collegiate, high school, Pony League, Little League and every other baseball league game record by retiring the side in the top of the seventh on three pitches against the top of the Ranger batting order.
“I think both Hank and Bryzyn pitched really well for first outings,” Geiger said. “It’s been our focus on keeping the ball down and good things will happen.”
Gehrig Wynn led off by flying out to center on the first pitch. Hamilton Page then singled up the middle on the first pitch before Parker Williams also swinging on the first pitch grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game.
“I kept it down in the zone and let our defense work,” Stewart said. “I knew there was a possibility that me and Bryzyn were going to switch third base pitching. But I’m going to be honest with you I didn’t pick up a baseball a whole lot in the offseason, so it was nice to throw some strikes and that’s what I was worried about.”
Du Quoin fell behind 1-0 in the top of the first inning, but tied it up in the bottom of the frame on a leadoff single by Stewart and a two-out passed ball. Benton regained the lead in third and the Indians tied the score again in the fourth on a leadoff single by Smith and a one-out hit-and-run by Will Woodside.
Benton took advantage of some wildness by Witcher in the first inning to the take the lead. Page got it started with a one-out infield single to deep second and Witcher added to the rally by walking Williams on five pitches.
The inning began to turn Witcher’s way when Smith picked off Page at second on a 1-2 pitch to Brett Bonenberger for the second out. However, Witcher then threw three straight balls to work the count full and before the payoff pitch attempted to pick Williams off first, but his throw was wild and first baseman Lee’s throw to second also got away allowing Williams to advance to third where he scored when Boneberger doubled off the fence in right center.
The Rangers regained the lead in the third when Williams led off with a double of the fence in the right field corner and scored one batter later on a sacrifice fly to center by Bonenberger.