New Athletic Feature Story - Joliet Central Baseball Update Through Friday, March 24
By Randy Whalen
There hadn't been too many opportunities for the Joliet Central baseball team to get outdoors to either play or practice.
Thankfully that changed last week and the last two results were good for the Steelmen as they played four games and went 2-2.
The two victories put Joliet Central (3-2) above the .500 mark and there are more good things to come this season.
"There are things to clean up but this (was) only our fourth or fifth day outside so we will get there," Joliet Central baseball coach Kevin Fitzgerald said following a 6-2 loss to visiting Bolingbrook on Tuesday, March 21. "I'm very optimistic, especially with our junior class. We still need some time and some experience. But we are headed in the right direction."
Yes, they are. But last week got off to a rocky start with a 9-0 loss to an always excellent Providence (2-0 through March 24) team on Monday, March 20 in New Lenox.
The next day (Tuesday, March 21) brought the home game against Bolingbrook (1-2-1), which tied Naperville North 7-7 the following day.
Junior lefty Noah Bagby started for Bolingbrook against the Steelmen. He gave up two first inning runs on four walks. Junior third baseman John Stasiak (1-for-2, 2 walks) had the first of the walks and scored on a wild pitch. Junior second baseman Nathan Maldonado coaxed the fourth walk of the frame with the bases loaded for an RBI.
Those runs gave Joliet Central a 2-1 lead. But that would be all the runs the hosts would get.
Raider junior right-handed pitcher Holden Burokus came in with two outs in the fourth and got a ground out to end the inning, stranding a runner at third. He fired 3 1/3 shutout innings, allowing only one infield single to senior right fielder Marcus Hill (1-3) with two outs in the sixth. He walked one and struck out three.
Senior starting pitcher Zach Riley (4 ING, 2 R, 2 H, 3 K, 3 BB) and senior left fielder Jonathan Salazer each added singles for the Steelmen. Bolingbrook took the lead in the sixth. The score was tied 2-2 with two outs and no one on, senior center fielder Jonny Carrera (2-for-4, RBI) smacked a single off the leg of Steelmen senior relief pitcher Robert Fitzpatrick. An errant pick-off throw moved Carrera to second and he raced home when senior designated hitter Jack Vodvarka (1-for-3) lined an RBI single to center
The Raiders, who scored single runs in the first and the third added three more runs in the seventh. With one out, senior right fielder Connor Hennessy (1-for-3) and junior catcher Julian Rosales (1-for-2, 2 runs) had back-to-back singles. They both scored when leadoff hitter Marvin Guzman (1-for-4) ripped a two-run double to deep left. With two outs, Guzman scored when junior first baseman Tommy Corley (2-for-4) clubbed an RBI single to left center.
"We took an early 2-1 lead and Zach Riley threw a solid four innings letting up only two runs," Fitzpatrick said of the Bolingbrook game. "After the first inning, our offense shut down. I came in for relief In the fifth and started off strong but in the seventh, I missed some spots and hung a few curveballs that got hammered. A tough loss 6-2 but we are still early in the season and looking forward to seeing our offense heat up."
Riley knows that the team will get better and get closer.
"Bolingbrook was a tough game, but it's still the beginning of the season and I know we will become a stronger team," Riley said. "In order to have a successful season, we need to communicate more, as baseball players and as friends. Talking on the field and having greater team chemistry will give us a better hand than we have right now.
"You can tell the difference between a tight-knit team and a distant team. I think once the Steelmen become closer, we will have more confidence and be able to pull out some more wins."
Senior Rafael Gutierrez believes that those close games will be a common theme this season.
"In terms of the (Bolingbrook) game, of course, the result wasn't what we wanted," He said. "But it exemplifies how I believe this season is going to pan out, close gritty games from start to finish."
Not only are Fitzpatrick, Gutierrez, and Riley standout baseball players, they are all finalists for the Mr. J award.
Mr. and Ms. J is the tradition of selecting two high school seniors who best represent the ideal students of Joliet Township High School (now Central Campus), began in 1958. The selection process starts with seniors who have achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or above. The 10 Mr. J and Ms. J finalists are then selected by faculty based on school involvement, community service and demonstration of the JTHS character attributes. Finalists are interviewed by a panel of community members and staff whose scores determine who receives the prestigious title of Mr. and Ms. J and the first and second runners-up.
"Yes, I am in the running for the Mr. J award as well as two teammates of mine," Gutierrez said. "I believe it goes to show how much our program has pushed its athletes in their academic careers."
Riley thinks so too.
"I was nominated as a Mr. J finalist and I believe the interview went well," he said. "I would be absolutely honored to represent such an amazing school."
There is a lot of Steelmen pride throughout the historic school.
"I am blessed to have been nominated to be a Mr. J finalist," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a huge honor to be selected for this award and to be able to represent my school and I'm proud to embody what it means to be a Steelmen."
On Thursday, March 23, Joliet Central defeated Eisenhower 5-1 in a game that was moved to Joliet because of field conditions. Maldonado (5 ING, 1R, 2H, 4K) got the win on the mound. Riley was 2-3 (2B, RBI). juniors Jose Leal and Jay Zepeda, along with Maldonado, and Salazar added hits for the Steelmen.
"We played well but left several runners on base," Fitzgerald said of the Eisenhower game. "We need to find a way to put the ball in play with runners in scoring position."
Although he didn't have a big hit, Fitzpatrick was happy with how the team played in the win over Eisenhower (0-2).
"Nathan Maldonado went through five great innings, letting up only one run with solid defense backing him up," Fitzpatrick said. "My at-bats have been cold but starting to see the pitching better and putting the ball in play and I know they'll start falling for hits soon. It was a great win."
An even more exciting victory came the next day, Friday, March 24. In a game that was moved up a day, because of the cold and rainy conditions that were slated for Saturday.
Playing at home, Joliet Central defeated Crete-Monee 7-5. After being down five runs in the first inning the Steelmen put up their own five-spot in the fifth, and another two in the sixth to come away with the win. Fitzpatrick went four innings giving up one earned run on four hits. Stasiak took over in the fifth and pitched two scoreless innings to pick up the win.
Zepeda came in and picked up the save in the seventh. With the score tied 5-5 in the sixth, Leal made a fantastic diving catch in right field and doubled off the runner at first base. The Steelmen offense was led by Salazar who went 3-4 with an RBI. Gutierrez had a two-RBI double in the sixth which gave the Steelmen the lead and eventual win. The Warriors (0-3) remained winless.
"I started on the mound," Fitzpatrick said of the Crete-Monee game. "It was a tough first inning letting up five runs on a few walks and errors. From there we dialed in holding them to those five runs for the rest of the game. Our offense came to life in the fifth where we put up our own five runs.
"It was a great 7-5 win. I'm proud of our guys for staying in the game after such a rough first inning and fighting back for a great comeback win."
So was Fitzgerald.
"I'm very proud of our guys for battling until the end," Fitzgerald said. "The first inning was ugly and we made several little mistakes that led to a 5-0 deficit. We have to do a better job of limiting those mistakes. We took good at-bats at the end of the game and a huge diving catch by Jose Leal gave us some energy we desperately needed."
The Steelmen opened the season on Wednesday, March 15 by rallying for a 9-6 win over Bloom Township (1-3 through March 22) in Joliet.
In what seems to be a theme, Joliet Central gave up six runs in the first. But the Steelmen rallied behind big hits by Stasiak, Fitzpatrick, Gutierrez, and Maldonado all with hits. Maldonado picked up the win with five strong innings in relief.
The next game for the Steelmen is scheduled for Monday, March 27 at 4:30 PM with the Southwest Praire Conference opener at Plainfield North.
Then on Thursday, March 30, Joliet Central travels to face defending Class 2A State Champions, Joliet Catholic Academy at 4 PM in the opening game of the WJOL Don Ladas Tournament. Play continues in the tourney through Saturday, April 1, with the final games scheduled to be at Duly Health and Care Field.
"We are on the right track but we have to keep our heads down and keep working to make this season successful," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm looking forward to getting outside in the spring weather and getting to work."