MARION — For the 2,649 fans who witnessed it Friday night, Cletis Avery’s game-winning single in the bottom of the 11th was a simple bouncer up the middle that easily made its way through a drawn-in infield.
For the Miners’ infielder, it was something altogether different.
“Being in that situation, it was surreal,” he said after he walked off Windy City 3-2 in the home opener at Rent One Park.
It was only the second professional hit for Avery. His first came in the bottom of the eighth, when he pinch-hit for designated hitter Alex Santana with the bases filled and chopped a tie-breaking RBI single off the glove of second baseman Joe Becht.
Avery’s first pro hits and RBI were supposed to happen last year. But after making the Southern Illinois roster out of spring training, he tore his patellar tendon in the final exhibition game. His rookie season was postponed for a year.
The kid from Snellville, Ga. who had been used to playing baseball his whole life now had to sit for an entire summer.
“Last year was full of ups and downs,” Avery said. “I had to be relentless with my rehabilitation. It was my first season-ending injury … I have learned not to take simple things for granted like being able to walk. Thank the Miners for giving me another opportunity.”
Avery’s hits did more than provide validation for his year of hard work to return to the field. They also gave the Miners (3-4) a victory after trailing 2-0 with two outs in the eighth, their offense shackled by starter Tyler Thornton for six shutout innings and by reliever Connor Mayes in the seventh.
And for manager Mike Pinto, Avery’s singles evoked the part of baseball which was once beloved by casual sports fans before their attention drifted towards the NFL and NBA.
“It’s why baseball is so romantic,” Pinto said. “He lost an entire season and he could have easily walked away, but he worked to come back. How appropriate it was that he came up with the big hits in two scrappy at-bats.”
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Even with his team locked in a taut pitcher’s duel, Pinto took a moment to view the big picture as Avery stepped into the box against ThunderBolts closer Dylan Prohoroff in the eighth.
“He took a big breath and you could see him saying, ‘Whew!’ And when he stepped in, he looked like the confident Cletis we know,” Pinto said.
Avery worked a full count, spoiling a tough 2-2 pitch and spitting on the next one to run the count full. Then he produced the tying hit, although Anthony Brocato was thrown out by about 10 feet trying to score the go-ahead run.
Given equal footing, Southern Illinois’ bullpen produced three scoreless innings. Jordan Brink and his 97 mph fastball worked the ninth and 10th, while Kelvin Rodriguez and Gabe Gentner (2-0) combined for three quick outs in the 11th after Windy City (3-5) started with a man on second via the Frontier League’s international tiebreaker rule.
The Miners wasted little time cashing in their man on second in the 11th. Justin Miller walked Brocato and Kyle Davis on nine pitches to set the stage for Avery’s walkoff.
The rally enabled Southern Illinois starter Steven Ridings to salvage a no-decision from an outstanding start that appeared headed for a loss. Ridings permitted just four hits and two runs in eight innings, walking two and fanning three.
But his one big mistake was an 0-2 pitch in the third to Brynn Martinez with Shane Carrier at first. Martinez turned on it, pulling it into the ThunderBolts’ bullpen in right for his first homer.
However, Brocato got the Miners on the board with an RBI single in the eighth, setting the stage for Avery to write a script that might get rejected in Hollywood.
“Those were my first at-bats at home,” he said, grinning.
It will be hard to top them.