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BUCKLEY — Some of the most clever banter started a good 10 or 15 minutes before first pitch of Game 2 between Paxton and host Buckley on Sunday.
“That the preacher?” asked a Dutchmasters fan behind the home dugout.
You couldn’t tell if it was his poor eyesight or the beer dizzying his focus, but yes, he was informed, that was the preacher some 300 feet away warming up in the left-field bullpen.
“If his sermon wasn’t good, his fastball won’t be good,” chimed another Buckley supporter.
If the inverse of that is a truism, then the Sunday morning message at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Paxton must have changed lives for the better. Because the preacher was at his best on the mound later in the afternoon.
Summoning every last ounce of wherewithal in challenging one of the Eastern Illinois Baseball League’s better lineups, defying his 48 years of age, veteran Swedes lefty Craig Pinley relied on good movement and wisdom in limiting the Dutchmasters to one unearned run in five innings of work. He left with the score knotted at 1-1, his outing keeping Paxton in a game it wasn’t supposed to be in yet would later win 3-1 in 11 innings.
After all, the pitching depth that made Buckley the favorite was the exact reason Pinley was wearing the dark blue and yellow threads in the first place. Adding to the drama of a day that ended in a Swedes doubleheader sweep was that just two years summers ago, Pinley was a Dutchmaster himself. The talkative Buckley fans will quickly tell you he was let go because he wasn’t good enough to pitch for their team. Paxton supporters will gladly respond that it was a shrewd move by their brass to pick him up.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Pinley, who said he “enjoyed” his time with Buckley, only threw 12 2/3 innings in his two seasons as a Dutchmaster; the team with some of the best pitching in the EI didn’t really need any more arms. So the man who loves pitching so much that he sometimes travels to the Chicago suburbs to see action in what he calls “old-guy leagues” was more than happy to find a spot in the rotation last summer for the Swedes, who were in desperate need of arms.
Pinley put together a respectable 2011, going 3-1 with a 5.25 ERA and most importantly — to him and the Swedes — throwing 24 innings. But none of those outings were as important as Sunday’s, when his performance helped Paxton move to 6-0 and re-establish itself as one of the EI’s top teams after four seasons of middling baseball.
“I don’t have a whole lot of tread life left on this arm, so every chance I get to pitch is a gift,” Pinley said. “There aren’t a lot of these days left. But for 80-90 pitches, I still feel I’m pretty good.”
As Paxton player-manager Mark Prina put it, “I knew he’d keep us in the game, I didn’t know he was going to pitch that good.” Pinley allowed just three singles and walked two in his five innings of work, also striking out three. The only real trouble he got into was in the fourth, when a Paxton throwing error helped Buckley load the bases with no one out.
Pinley escaped with minimal damage though, inducing a groundball for a forceout at home, giving up a sacrifice fly to Drew Schrodt and then retiring Jay Eshleman on a grounder. Paxton would tie it in its next at-bat on an RBI groundout by Prina, then win it in the 11th when Adam Hayes delivered a two-run single.
“He still throws it. The guy’s taken care of his arm his whole life, and he loves to compete,” Prina said of Pinley. “And he knows how to pitch. He doesn’t leave the ball in the middle of the plate ever, and his ball moves.”
“Early I had a good curveball. I got a couple outs on changes, and I thought I had a good fastball,” Pinley added. “I was throwing strikes.”
Even after throwing a couple scoreless innings to open Game 2, the playful jabs kept coming preacher Pinley’s way. The man spinning the between-inning tunes rued not having “Amazing Grace” on the Ipod, vowing that next time may be different. Another delivered a loud one-liner even Pinley heard, saying, “Turn your hymnal to page 327.”
But as Pinley kept carving up the Buckley order, recording 15 outs in all, the tune changed. In this rivalry, there will never be straightforward praise to an opponent, at least not in the heat of battle. So you take what you can get, cherishing even the most backhanded of compliments.
And Pinley finally got one.
“We should have started at 9 instead of 4,” said a Buckley fan, pointing out Pinley still would’ve been behind the pulpit.