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|Oswego Cats defend title, win qualifier to head to regional tournament |
|by Laura M. Medina|
In postseason competition, there are no easy routes to victory even though all circumstances seemingly lead to that conclusion.
For the Oswego Cats, facing familiar foes Westmont and Addison - against which they had posted a combined 4-1 record during the regular season - in the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) Illinois State Tournament could have distracted them from their playoff goals.
Instead, however, Oswego played three impressive contests versus these teams, winning each game and capping the stretch with a 6-3 decision over the Red Sox on Saturday afternoon to clinch its second straight Illinois AABC title and sixth overall in the team's 26-year history.
En route to that championship, the Cats (24-15, 17-12) had defeated Westmont and Addison on Thursday and Friday, respectively, by identical scores of 5-2 in the first two days of the tournament at Jackie's Field of Dreams.
It was a great way for the team to turn things around following a three-game skid to end the regular season.
Aside from that, the tournament success sets up Oswego's postseason trip to Battle Creek, Mich., this weekend, when it is set to face the No. 2-seeded Muskegon Marlins - winners of the Muskegon Regional - at 2 p.m. and the Detroit Jet Box at 5:30 p.m. later that day as part of the North Central Regional.
Matching up with the Jet Box would be a rematch of last season, when the Cats lost a heart-breaking 3-2 matchup in the regional final, which would have provided them with a berth to the Stan Musial World Series, which they have not reached since 2004.
Before Oswego was even thinking about Michigan, however, it was busy trying to hold off visiting Westmont on Saturday.
Right-hander Brandon Thielk (University of Arizona) may have struggled on the mound, but his team's effective offense and nearly perfect defense helped him stay on track.
After shutting the Red Sox down in the top of the first, Thielk watched as the Cats' lineup put four runs on the board in the bottom half.
Third baseman Anthony Amedei III (Aurora University) led off with a single and came around to score on a double to left-center by second baseman Clay Schuler (Valparaiso University).
Schuler advanced to third on a single by designated hitter Ryan Prinzing (University of Alabama-Birmingham) and then came home on a passed ball by Westmont catcher Ernesto Irizarry.
Two batters later, first baseman Kevin Loukota (Northeastern Illinois University) brought Prinzing home with a double, and after reaching second on a balk, he came home on a single by catcher Jay Clark (North Central College) to make it 4-0.
"We hit the ball well, and our defense was outstanding," Cats player-assistant coach Todd Miller said. "That's the big difference."
Thielk was in control in the second, but in the third, things weren't looking great, as he walked the first batter he faced. Clark immediately eliminated the threat by catching third baseman Steven Brewer off of first.
Thielk then walked second baseman Damon Softcheck but used his move to first for the second out, completing the rare feat of catching two runners stealing in back-to-back at-bats.
"They were pretty lazy on the basepaths," Thielk said. "They were taking big leads and were taking their time getting back."
That didn't seem to rattle Westmont too much, as it was patient through a walk of center fielder Mike Bolling and watched him cross home on left fielder Anthony Kaskadden's double to cut the deficit to 4-1.
Though the Red Sox finally cracked the scoreboard, they continued making mistakes on base, as Thielk caught Irizarry stealing after walking him earlier in the fourth inning.
"(Thielk) struggled a little bit- he had six walks and a hit by pitch, so that's seven free base-runners, but then he picked off three of them, so that helped out big time," Miller said. "When it came to it, they hit some balls pretty good, but our defense came through for us and got us where we wanted to be, which was the goal."
In the fifth, Thielk got two early outs before walking the next two batters. Both came around to score on hitter Jake Murray's double, making it a 4-3 game.
But that's when the Cats' offense turned it back on in support of their starting pitcher, as Schuler's RBI triple brought center fielder Tony Jandron (St. Norbert College) home. Schuler then came around on Prinzing's sacrifice to provide a bit of insurance for Thielk, who turned in perfect sixth and seventh innings to preserve the 6-3 win.
"We gave them two runs, and then, we came back and got the two right back from them, which is big," Miller said. "They gained a little bit of momentum, but we took it right back from them."
Thielk, who earned his first win of the summer in just his fourth appearance (first start), conceded four hits on the day but walked six and hit one.
"I was a little shaky," said Thielk, who also had six strikeouts. "I had some struggles with control, but I was able to gather myself and get through it and finish strong.
"I just like to take it one pitch at a time. When I'm struggling, I just have to take a deep breath, gather myself and stick to the plan."
Like Thielk, Oswego, which previously secured AABC state titles in 1997, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2011, stuck to its postseason plan to return to Battle Creek.
Pitching is among the Cats' many strengths heading into the qualifier, with a solid staff that has a combined 4.29 ERA this summer. What's more is that their starters have secured 23 of the team's 24 wins and posted six complete games, with right-hander Rob Currie (Tusculum College) leading the pack with four.
Currie, whose 1.34 ERA is second best in the league, leads the CSBL with 75 strikeouts and has 86 in 13 appearances this summer. It's possible that he will start one of the Cats' games on Friday afternoon.
"We have a week to prepare," Thielk said. "It's nice to get some extra rest for our extra arms and keep those guys fresh."
At the plate, the Cats - the fourth-best team in the CSBL with a .298 average and third with a .417 slugging percentage - look to continue their hitting ways behind Schuler (.386), Prinzing (.368) and Amedei (.341).
Schuler paces the team with 51 hits and 40 runs scored but is second with three homers and 23 RBIs - one fewer than Amedei's four and 24, respectively. Prinzing and Schuler are tied for the team lead with six triples each, while Prinzing and Amedei are knotted at 11 doubles apiece, giving the Cats a variety of offensive weapons.
Oswego will also have to rely on the bats of shortstop Bobby Wilson (.307) and right fielder Mike Foley (.299) - both of Aurora University - as well as Jandron (.296) in the likely absence of first baseman Josh Axelsen (St. Andrews University), who was sidelined for the AABC qualifying tournament by a concussion.