Coming off a 12-2 victory Monday over Grayville, the North Clay bats were at it again early yesterday afternoon against South Central. The Cardinals tacked on four runs in the first inning, taking advantage of a number of walks and timely hitting.
Not another North Clay run was scored from there, but with Nick McKnelly on the mound, it didn't matter. McKnelly pitched seven innings of shutout baseball, striking out six batters to guide the Cardinals to a 4-0 win over the Cougars.
"We're lucky that Nick threw a great game," North Clay coach John Frech said. "That's probably one of the best he's had in his four-year career."
McKnelly was in complete control for the duration of the game, never facing more than five batters in one inning. By the end of the seven-inning contest, McKnelly had faced just 25 batters at the plate, four above the minimum.
Even more impressive, the Cardinals' ace finished the day with no walks. South Central had three hits on the afternoon, and McKnelly hit one batter for a free bag.
"He pounded the zone," Frech said. "It's something that we've been working on with him, just a phenomenal game. I told him, 'We're not going to give them freebies.'"
Pitching with the lead also helped Frech's starter, as the Cardinals were able to score early and often. South Central pitcher Daniel Diss started the first inning with walks to North Clay's Lawson Britton and Nate Micklautz. Adam Cox sent Britton home one batter later on a sacrifice fly to left field, and another walk to Logan Hilderbrand loaded the bases with one out.
"It's unusual from Diss," Cougars coach Curt Jones said. "He's so consistent."
Diss rebounded by striking out Hunter Clifton, but Dylan Walker sent two runs home with a single to left field that snuck past Austin Schwarm to allow the runner to coast into second. Two batters later, McKnelly delivered at the plate, dropping a single short in center that plated Walker for the 4-0 lead.
"It was just key hitting," Frech said. "That's what the game of baseball is all about. Everything has got to be on time."
The three-run, two-out rally in the first provided all the offense North Clay needed and more. The Cardinals cooled off for the remainder of the game, finishing with four hits, none coming after the end of the third inning.
"It was real huge playing with the lead," Frech said. "We characteristically don't score until late. In a perfect world I'd like to have kept tacking on, I think we lost our focus."
McKnelly didn't lose his, and the pitcher's determination propelled the Cardinals to yet another big win. Pitching equally as strong at the end of the contest, McKnelly got South Central to go 1-2-3 in each of the last three innings, appropriately ending the game by fanning the Cougars' Shawn Meyer.
North Clay improved to 11-3 on the season with the win, and Frech's squad is back in action today against visiting Fairfield.
The Cougars were able to make some solid contact on the ball, but couldn't seem to get their offense rolling and generate any sort of rhythm.
"We put the ball in play a lot," Jones said. "Some of the hard ones we hit right at them."
South Central fell to 5-7 with the loss, and will try to get back on track today when the Cougars host Ramsey.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
South Central 000 000 0 0 3 2
North Clay 400 000 x 4 4 0
WP - McKnelly LP - Diss
South Central: Tharp (1B); Bray (1B); Schwarm (2B).
North Clay: Britton (1B, R); Micklautz (R); Cox (RBI); Hilderbrand (R); Walker (2 1B, R, 2 RBI); McKnelly (1B, RBI).