By Andy Colbert
Inclement weather put an end to Byron’s hopes for a state championship in baseball, but the real culprit in the 2A IHSA title game was an opportunistic Pleasant Plains team.
Trailing 7-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Tigers had the bases loaded with two outs when the infield tarp came out. They would never get a chance to cut into the lead as the rain kept falling and four hours later; the IHSA ruled the game to be complete.
Actually, the final score became 7-1 in favor of Pleasant Plains, based upon five full innings being played.
“I wasn’t real happy. The field was still playable,” Byron coach Ray Bielskis said. “I felt they should have at least let us finish the inning. We had been playing for the last half hour in the same conditions.”
Considering Byron (36-6) was senior-laden and Pleasant Plains (31-11) was primarily freshmen, sophomore and juniors, it seemed to reason that the Tigers would have the edge in experience.
That was not the case, as the Tigers uncharacteristically committed five errors and the aggressive base-running Cardinals took every advantage of each one.
“It’s the worst game we had in the post season,” Bielskis said. “We make those plays (errors) in practice.”
Byron’s only run also came on an error. In the bottom of the first inning, designated hitter Ben Reibel hit a routine pop up to right field that bounced off the glove of Aaron Hand. Austin Carlson, who had singled up the middle and advanced to third on a steal and fielder’s choice, scored to give the Tigers an early 1-0 lead.
“At that time, I liked our chances,” Bielskis said. “It gave us a run in what I thought would be a low-scoring game.”
In the top of the second, Alex Jacobs doubled to left field to start the inning out for Pleasant Plains. Pinch runner Daultin Settles scored on a sacrifice fly to tie the game 1-1. With two outs and no one on base, it appeared that’s the way the score would remain.
Daniel Lowe even began walking off the mound after he thought he retired No. 8 hitter Chad Weller on a third strike, Instead Weller, the opposing pitcher, drew a walk.
“I thought it was a strike,” Bielskis said. “That was tough to take.”
Then Daulton Nibbe hit a hopper down the third-base line for a single.
With runners at first and second, leadoff batter Cole Hamilton had an RBI single. Another run came in when freshman Cole Greer, the coach’s son, hit a bloop single over Tyler Nunez at shortstop.
“That inning changed the tempo of the game and we lost our momentum,” Bielskis said.
Lowe finally got the strikeout he wanted, but the Cardinals almost batted through the order and held a 3-1 lead.
That’s where the scored stayed at in the top of the third inning, as catcher Jack Fleeger and Nunez combined to nab a Pleasant Plains runner attempting to steal second.
Byron had its best scoring opportunity in the third inning, as Base Byers and Nunez led off with consecutive singles. With the heart of batting order up and no one out, the Tigers were poised to cut into the lead.
The speedy Austin Carlson tried to advance both runners on a bunt attempt that barely went foul. Facing two strikes, he hit a sharp grounder right at the shortstop, resulting in a 6-4-3 double play.
“If that bunt stays fair, we probably have the bases loaded and nobody out,” Bielskis said. “You can’t fault Austin at all. He’s an all-conference player and been great all year for us.”
Byers advanced to third, but Fleeger popped up to end the inning.
In the top of the fourth with two outs and no one on base, the Cardinals struck again. Nibbe, the No.9 hitter, singled the left, stole second and advanced the third on a throwing error. Hamilton brought him home on a shot down the third-base line and lead went to 4-1.
“It seemed like they were getting all their runs after two outs,” Bielskis said.
Tyler Rowland, the only non-senior in the starting line-up for Byron, singled through the right side with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. Nathan Peterson reached base on an error and again, it looked like the Tigers had a chance to score. A fly out ended the inning, though.
“It seemed like they were getting all the breaks and we weren’t getting any,” Bielskis said.
It was still anybody’s game going into the fifth inning, but the Tigers began to self-destruct.
After Lowe’s fifth strikeout of the game to start the inning, the second Cardinal batter was hit by a pitch. Alex Edwards then hit a hard-to-field single to Nunez. A throwing error by the shortstop resulted in Edwards advancing to second and Jacob Cronister scoring.
Trailing 5-1, Bielskis brought in Dennis Reedy to relieve Lowe.
“Dan wasn’t as effective as he’s been. They were hitting his fastball,” Bielskis said. “If he had made it through the fifth, we were going to bring in Peterson.”
On Reedy’s first pitch, more problems ensued.
T.J. Steinwart bunted and what should have been a routine out turned into two more runs scored. Two infield throwing errors not only allowed Edwards to score, but Steinwart also crossed the plate.
Suddenly it was 7-1 and the prospects did not look good for the Tigers, both from a game and weather perspective.
The rain started to fall in the bottom of the fifth inning and Pleasant Plains knew they would need to retire the side as quickly as possible to make the game official. And, that’s exactly what Weller did, throwing two strikeouts and also benefitting from a nifty foul-ball basket catch by first baseman Dylan Bee.
With the rain beginning to come down steadily and fans (843 announced) scrambling to drier areas, Byron held the Cardinals scoreless in the top of the sixth.
In Byron’s half of what would turn out to be an unofficial inning, Fleeger beat out a grounder for a single, Lowe singled to right and Rowland walked. A fielder’s choice scored Fleeger and Garbutt was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
With the hot-hitting Byers (3-for-4 in the tourney) on deck and the top of the order to follow, Pleasant Plains made a pitching change.
“That pitcher had pitched the day before and I liked our chances against him. I’ll put the top of order up against anyone,” Bielskis said.
It was then that Craig Anderson of the IHSA ordered the game into a weather delay at 3:22.
“In my mind, I knew it was over when the they put the tarp on,” Bielskis said. “That hit me hard, but I tried to keep my spirits up for our players.”
The game was originally scheduled for 5:30 pm, but was moved up to a 1:40 because of the weather forecast. The third-place game between Westmont and Freeburg was not played.
“We didn’t find out until 11:30 that morning our game was being moved up,” Bielskis said. “I wish they could have let us know the night before. They (IHSA) met until midnight discussing how to handle the weather. If we had bad weather coming, why couldn’t the 2A title game been played before the 1A third-place game.”
With the second-place finish, the Tigers added another state baseball trophy to what has been one of the premier small-school baseball programs in northern Illinois.
“This group will go down as one of the greatest teams in school history,” Bielskis said.
With the title, Pleasant Plains, improved upon last year’s runner-up finish when it lost to Lisle 10-1 in the championship game.