Paxton upends top seed Giflats in Eastern Illinois semifinals, sets up championship series with Royal

GIFFORD ― With a 5-4 win in Sunday's Eastern Illinois Baseball League Tournament semifinals, the Paxton Swedes will play in the championship series for the first time since 2009.

"It has been a long time coming," Swedes player/manager Mark Prina said.

The Giflats, meanwhile, were hoping to reach the championship series for the first time since 2011 after winning this year's outright regular-season league title.

"It's a little bittersweet without the tournament (trophy) as well, but we've been in this position before where we've been a No. 2 seed and lost the first game. I think, over the last few years, that's the most frustrating thing the guys have voiced," Giflats player/manager Dan Plecki said.

We were playing so well throughout the season and putting ourselves in a good position to be in that championship series, but we're falling short of that. Those are things to address in the future, but we'll be OK, and we'll get the guys we want and the guys who are going to compete and play hard."

The Giflats ended their season with a record of 15-7.

"I really enjoyed coaching these guys all season. They're a good group of guys. They earned that league (regular-season) championship. We just came up a little short today," Dan Plecki said.

"I believe our guys always play hard. Sometimes, you win. Sometimes, you lose. Sometimes, it rains. It's unfortunate. It's not the outcome we wanted. It's a little bit disappointing based on how well we played this year, but that's baseball. That's why you play the game."

 

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Earlier that Sunday, the Swedes (10-13) received, in more ways than one, a gift as the Champaign Dream forfeited to them in the tournament quarterfinals.

"We got a break today not having to play the first game," Prina said. "That's the first break we've had in a long time that's gone our way."

Along with his team's automatic victory, Champaign's forfeiture allowed Prina to start Jake Hensgen in the semifinals against the Giflats, whereas Hensgen would have otherwise started Hensgen against the Dream.

"You've got to get to the next game, and he's our best chance to get to the next game. We probably would have ended up starting Charlie (Due in the semifinals)," Prina said. "Charlie probably would have kept them off balance for a few innings, but I don't think he could have gone all nine (innings), and I think he would say the same thing."

Hensgen and Due were the only pitchers on the Swedes' lineup card -- which included subsitutes -- for their semifinal game who pitched more than nine innings through the regular season.

"We got lucky," Prina said. "That was the break we needed, and Jake came through for us."

According to Plecki, the tournament supposed to played with quarterfinals on Saturday and semifinals onSunday, but "Paxton and the Dream both felt like they weren't going to get enough guys to play on Saturday."

"The league did everything it could to accomodate them," Plecki said. "It didn't really benefit us, but it didn't hurt us at all, either. The forfeit certainly hurt us more than anybody else. They would have already played nine innings and would have been tired, and our guys would have been fresh."

"We probably would have had nine (players), but it would have been tough. It worked out," Prina added. "Champaign was in a worse boat. It wouldn't have helped them any (to play on Saturday). It worked out in our favor, and we'll take it."

Two-and-a-half hours passed between the scheduled 10 a.m. start of the Swedes/Dream quarterfinal game and the start of Paxton's semifinal game against the Giflats. Hensgen, along with some of his teammates, took a nap during during the free time.

"I laid down and took a little nap. I wasted some time," Hensgen said. "I was tired, but your teammates just give you that momentum by making good plays. It helped me out a lot. I just had to battle through."

Hensgen overcame the delay by pitching a complete game against Gifford-Flatville, allowing four runs on six hits and eight walks with seven strikeouts through the nine-inning game.

"Give credit to Jake," Prina said. "He battled and didn't give in at the end. He threw a lot of pitches, but he competes, and he competed the whole game."

"I think if the Dream doesn't forfeit, we're in a much better position," Dan Plecki added. "That pitcher was, for the most part, pretty lights-out all day, and we didn't really hit much going against him. It was unfortunate that that's how that played out."

 

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The Swedes held onto a 5-4 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning in the semifinal game.

Hensgen walked Marty Mennenga and hit Howard Fisher with a pitch. From there, Swedes manager Pat Prina walked to the mound to meet with Hensgen.

"He was saying, 'Just keep going. You've got to battle through it. Keep going toward the batter, and don't worry about the baserunners,' and that's really good advice," Hensgen said. "You've just got to face the batter and throw strikes."

"That was just to keep him focused and give him a little breather. He was starting to labor, and that was just to keep his mind focused, and to tell him to just keep competing and leave it out on the field, and he did a good job of that," Mark Prina added. "He took a little more time in between pitches, which is the smart thing to do. He collected himself, and made some really good pitches."

Dan Plecki sent the runners into scoring postion via a sacrifice bunt before Josh Oliveras reached base via infield single as a throw from the shortstop Mark Prina to the third-baseman Hunter Phelps was ruled by the umpires to be not in time to tag Mennenga out.

"We might have got a bad break on a call, but we stayed with it. We didn't let the umpires take us out of the game," Prina said. "We just kept competing. We were upset with some calls, but we just played through it, and that's what you've got to do. You can't change it."

The Giflats' next batter, Matt Banaitis, hit into a double play as Phelps threw to the second-baseman Tanner Regez, who threw to Alan Paul at first base to end the inning.

"That's a big play," Hensgen said.

Through the first three innings, Hensgen pitched a one-hit shutout as the Giflats' only hit -- a single by Mennenga to lead off the second -- resulted in an out as he was thrown out at second on the hit.

The Giflats scored three runs in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Kaleb Denault and Storm Joop each walked before Cade Sestak and Mennenga hit an RBI single. After Fisher drew another walk to load the bases with nobody out, Dan Plecki flied out to Paul and Oliveras hit a ground ball to Hensgen, who threw to catcher Jacob Bender to force Sestak out at home plate.

Banaitis was hit by a pitch to send Mennenga across home plate, but Hensgen caught Mike Plecki looking at strike three to end the inning with three runners left on base.

"We had more than enough chances. We should win those games," Dan Plecki said. "We've won those games all year, but we didn't come out on top today."

Denault singled to center field to lead off the fifth inning, but after Joop flied out to Miller at right field, Sestak hit another fly ball to Miller, who caught the ball and threw to Paul to force Denault out at first base to complete the double play.

"Those are the game-changing plays," Hensgen said.

In the first inning, MIke Plecki led off with a walk before a ground ball hit by Denault led to Plecki being tagged out at third base.

"We made some baserunning mistakes," Dan Plecki said. "We left a lot of guys on base, and didn't get the timely hitting we're used to."

Mennenga flied out to center-fielder Noah Darr to start the bottom of the sixth inning before Fisher drew a walk. Hensgen struck out Dan Plecki before Oliveras grounded out to Regez.

"Defensively, we were really good today," Prina said. "Tanner Regez had an amazing game defensively. He threw a couple of guys out today trying to take bases."

After Banaitis struck out to begin the bottom of the seventh inning, Mike Plecki drew a walk. Denault grounded out to Mark Prina, but Joop hit an RBI single to right field.

Sestak grounded out to Hensgen to end the inning.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Mike Plecki grounded out to Paul and Denault was caught looking at strike three for the first two outs before Joop reached base on a throwing error.

"That was on a tough play at the end trying to make a play to win the game," Prina said. "You can live with those."

After Sestak walked, Hensgen forced Mennenga to fly out to left-fielder Cooper Johnson to end the game.

"That was a really nice pitch," Prina said. "I can't be more proud of (Hensgen)."

"I just knew I had to battle," Hensgen added. "I know I had a good defense behind me. We had a lot of people show up, and they helped me out a lot."

 

***

The Swedes scored all five of their runs in the top of the fourth inning.

Darr led off the inning with a single and Phelps singled to put runners on first and second base. With one out, Stohne Stetler hit an infield single before Paul drew a bases-loaded walk to send Darr across home plate.

"We gave up too much defensively," Plecki said.

Bender hit a sacrifice fly ball to right field to send Phelps across home plate. Miller and Prina each hit an RBI single in the next two at-bats before the Giflats' starting pitcher, Austin Tabeling -- who took the loss as he allowed five runs on six hits and one walk with four strikeouts through 6 2/3 innings -- was relieved by Sestak.

"We just kept tacking on," Prina said. "That's what you've got to do when you've got a team on the ropes. We needed every one of those (runs).

Miller crossed home plate for what would be the game-winning run on a wild pitch. After that, Sestak and Joop allowed only one hit for Gifford-Flatville.

"We put the ball in play," Prina said. "To their credit, they shut us down from there on out, but we got enough in one inning. We just kept tacking on. We haven't had a five-run inning in a long time. We got a lot of two-out hits there, and we need every one of them."

 

***

The two wins on Sunday improved the Swedes' record for the 2018 to 10-13, an improvement from their 4-18 mark in 2017.

"At the beginning of the year, I thought we were going to be much better, and we proved that we were much better," Prina said. "We made vast improvements over the last couple of years, and I still think we're going to continue to get better now that we've got these young guys. They'll keep bringing more new bodies in that are college-level kids."

"The guys we've had the last three or four weeks have competed. They may not be our best nine, but it was a good enough group that came out and competed and pulled for each other. We're all in it for the right reasons, so I'll take guys like that all the time. That's a good step in the right direction for the Swedes as a program."

Paxton will host the Royal Giants in game one of the EI League Tournament championship series at 2 p.m. next Saturday. Game two will be played at Franzen Field in Gifford at 1 p.m. the following Sunday, with game three -- if necessary -- to follow immediately afterwards.

"We'll go out and compete," Prina said. "We get to get some championship experience with these young kids. You never know. Every team is beatable, and that's been proven all year long. We kind of have nothing to lose now.

"We'll just now go out and compete and see if we can steal one at our place, and just try to find a way to win one on the road. No matter what happens, I know that the group of guys we'll have there will compete, and that will be fun."

Two wins over the Giants next weekend will give the Swedes their first EI League Tournament championship since 2007.

"It's good for the town. We haven't had it in a while," Hensgen said. "It'd be good to bring a championship home."

arosten@news-gazette.com

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