LEMAY • The Comeback Kids were at it again on Tuesday night.
For its third consecutive playoff game, the Johnny Mac Thunder fell behind, this time giving up three fifth-inning runs to the No. 1 seed Stallions.
But as they have done for most of the postseason, the seventh-seeded Thunder came roaring back. Johnny Mac answered with seven runs in their half of the fifth on only two hits, and advanced to the SLABA 18 tournament championship game on Friday night with a 7-3 victory at Heine Meine Field.
“This ride has been incredible,” said Johnny Mac starter Ted Rule, who struck out 11 in five innings of work. “We’ve been the underdogs all year. Everybody overlooks us.”
Rule wasn’t the only Thunder pitcher blowing the ball past the normally hard-hitting Stallions. Cody Murphy walked the bases loaded, but struck out the side in the sixth and Kurt McGuire fanned two in the seventh, as 16 Stallions went down on strikes.
“They were chasing a lot,” said Rule, a Vianney graduate. “I was up in the zone. That pitch looks good coming in, and they just swung and missed.”
The game was scoreless until the top of the fifth. After the Stallions' Jacob Holtgraewe reached on a fielder’s choice, Jake Unnerstall, a reserve who came into the game after Spencer Wilmes went down with an injury, singled to right-center. Cleanup hitter Tim Livingston then plugged the gap in right-center.
Both runners scored, and Livingston flew around the bases and beat the relay home, giving the Stallions a 3-0 lead.
Johnny Mac manager Steve Braun knew his team’s next at-bat would be critical.
“The biggest inning in any game is right after somebody scores,” Braun said. “For them, they needed to throw up a zero and we needed to score something. We didn’t need seven, we needed one. But we’ll take seven.”
With one out, Stallions starter Joe Illgenfritz hit Koby Klar. After Kevin Grempler walked, Brandon Zufall hit a hard grounder that took a bad hop on second baseman Livingston, scoring Klar and sending Grempler to third.
On a pick off throw to first, Zufall took off for second. First baseman Tyler Schulte threw home to try and cut down Grempler, but his throw was too late. After Austin Kretzer was hit by a pitch, Jack Williams bunted the runners to second and third. Illgenfritz walked Matt Regan to load the bases, then walked Arthur Brinkmann, forcing in the tying run. Two more runs scored when Josh Giegling reached on an error by Stallions shortstop David Dyer.
McGuire followed with a double to right-center, scoring Brinkmann and Giegling. McGuire tried for third, but was gunned down.
Stallions manager Eric Nickens was surprised his hitters swung and missed so often.
“I’ve got to give credit to their pitcher,” Nickens said of Rule. “That’s a rarity for us at the plate to have a drought like that.
“I think they just got a little excited. ... As good a hitting team as we are, you see that fastball coming in and you can hit it a long way. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
Illgenfritz, the tough-luck losing pitcher, allowed just five hits, struck out six and walked three, all in the fifth.
“Our defense is what killed us tonight,” Nickens said. “I don’t think they beat us. We beat ourselves.”
Wilmes, who had been on a tear of late, turned his ankle at second base in the top of the third while running on a ground out to second off the bat of Livingston.
Wilmes left with a sprained ankle, and did not return. It is not known whether he will be ready for Wednesday night’s 8 p.m game against the Stars. The winner advances to Friday's championship game.
In other SLABA 18 postseason tournament action. ...
SOUTH-WEST STARS 10, BARNSTORMERS 0 • Pitcher Kevin Smith, a Brentwood graduate, was one of six Stars chosen for the SLABA 18 all-star game. And he showed why in Tuesday’s consolation bracket game at Heine Meine.
Smith tossed a three-hitter and got plenty of offensive support from teammates Arjun Patel, Jake Beckwith and Zach Johnson, as the No. 4 seed Stars improved to 25-15 overall. The eighth-seeded Barnstormers finished the season 12-18.
The Stars advanced to Wednesday’s losers' bracket final at 8 p.m. against the Stallions (27-7) at Heine Meine. The winner faces Johnny Mac in the championship game at 6 p.m. Friday at Heine Meine.