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BUCKLEY — In a cloud of dust Grant Meyer lay, punched out by the home plate umpire, having given it his all trying to score the go-ahead run from second for Paxton in the eighth inning of the opener of Sunday’s doubleheader in Buckley.
As the Dutchmasters faithful rose to their feet and catcher Barry McDonley pumped his fist, you had to wonder: What do these Swedes have left? Finally with an ace of its own to match its rival, Paxton had battled so hard against favored Buckley and Paul Phillips, chasing the splendid right-hander and then tying it on a didn’t-see-that-coming pinch-hit two-run double by Meyer, a relief pitcher by trade.
But after Meyer was gunned down at home and Buckley did what you’d expect out of team that’s won three straight Eastern Illinois Baseball League regular-season crowns — get a lead-off base hit from reigning player of the year Brandon McFarland, who would soon plate the go-ahead run for a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the eighth — you had to figure Paxton had reached the threshold of magic an underdog can summon.
Right? Think again.
Eschewing the idea of being just another footnote in a rivalry dating back to 1968, Meyer became the central figure of the newest chapter, one-upping his eighth-inning heroics with a game-winning two-run single in the top of the ninth that lifted the Swedes to a come-from-behind 8-6 win in Game 1. That preceded another thriller in Game 2, with Paxton outlasting Buckley, 3-1, in 11 innings and sending a message for all to hear.
The Swedes have risen again.
Game 1: Meyer comes through in a pinch
Sunday’s opener started off innocently enough. Paxton sent its newest and much-needed pitching gem, Jordan Richardson, to the hill for his EI debut. The righty threw well for most of the day, but Buckley still found a way to get to him, scoring three runs in the fourth inning, the last two driven in by Keaton Zirkle on a bloop single to right field that put the hosts up 3-1.
After the teams traded a run apiece, the real dramatics started in the top of the eighth. Mark Prina led off with a walk, and after Drew Locascio’s one-out single, Phillips was pulled to a hearty ovation from the Buckley crowd. Brock Niebuhr came on in relief, the Dutchmasters’ plan in perfect position: Get the three years running EI saves leader the ball late with a lead.
Only there would be a different hero. With lefty Brett Leischner due up against the left-handed Niebuhr, Paxton decided to pinch hit the right-handed Meyer. Seemed reasonable enough, except that Meyer is a relief pitcher who estimated that he’s only had 10 plate appearances in his six-year EI career.
“Leischner doesn’t hit left-handers very good,” Prina said. “We didn’t really have anybody else. What people don’t know is that Grant Meyer was a good high school hitter, and he’s got a little pop in the bat. He can hit a fastball, and he can hit it hard.”
That’s exactly what Meyer did. Working the count against Niebuhr, Meyer ignored the curveballs and sliced a fastball on the outside half just inside the right-field line. By the time it was relayed back into the infield, Meyer was standing on second with a game-tying two-run double.
“Mark told me to be ready, and I didn’t really take him serious (at first). I’m glad I was,” Meyer said of pinch-hitting.
“You roll the dice, and it works out,” Prina added.
Not twice though, right? Again, think again.
After Paxton’s rally was stemmed when Meyer was gunned down at home on Luke Krippel’s bloop single to left, Buckley retook a 5-4 lead when McDonley drove in McFarland with a broken-bat single to center off reliever Mike Grant in the bottom half, setting up another wild frame in the ninth.
This time, Niebuhr worked himself into trouble, walking lead-off batter Andy Elson on a borderline 3-2 pitch (as you might expect, Elson would say after the game the pitch was “way down,” while Buckley was still mystified he wasn’t rung up just for not protecting the plate). Then the Swedes tied the game without hitting the ball further than 30 feet.
On his sacrifice bunt, Jacob Bender pushed the ball down the first-base line. Buckley first baseman Mark Walther tried to tag Bender but dropped the ball as he ran by. Upon recovering, Walther’s tough-angle throw for the forceout at first deflected off Bender’s back, putting runners at the corners. Adam Hayes (two hits, RBI) was then directed to safety squeeze, and did even better, pushing the ball toward first into no man’s land for a bunt single that tied the game at 5-5.
“They didn’t get any outs on the bunts, and that cost them the game,” Prina said. “If they get an out on a bunt, it’s a little different inning.”
Two batters later Meyer pay Buckley pay by again coming through in the clutch off Niebuhr. With the bases loaded and one out, he dropped a two-run single just in front of Buckley right fielder Ryan Morefield that proved to be the biggest hit of the game.
“He threw me a couple curveballs, but they were both in the dirt. He knows I never get to hit, so I think he was trying to throw me a curveball over and see what I can do with it,” said Meyer, who finished 2-for-2 with four RBIs. “But he couldn’t get one over the plate, so he had to come with a couple fastballs.”
“Game 1 is completely on me. I didn’t throw strikes and didn’t get it done in the eighth inning. Give Grant Meyer credit. He got it done for them. I had a chance again there in the ninth and I walked two guys,” added Niebuhr, who took the loss after allowing three runs, one earned, on four hits in 1 1/3 innings. “That’s on me. I’ve got to be better."
With the help of three walks from eventual winner Grant (two innings, one run, four strikeouts), Buckley plated a run in the bottom of the ninth to give the game its final margin. But with the bases loaded, Grant struck out McDonley on a pitch in the dirt, with Prina making a nice scoop at first to end the game.
Game 2: Better late than never
While the Swedes and Dutchmasters were locked in a scoreless battle early in Game 2, Tanner Harris was traversing the roads of the greater Paxton area. As outgoing and nice of a kid as they come, the recently graduate of Paxton-Buckley-Loda had been making the rounds at his friends’ graduation parties. He felt it was important to get to all of them after they’d come to his the night before, so he wasn’t available to play in the opener.
At a gathering west of Paxton, Harris had spotty cell phone coverage. When he finally got service, he saw he had a several missed calls and text messages from his parents, who were at the game watching his older brother, Sawyer.
“At first, I was like, ‘Sawyer must’ve got hit, he’s in the hospital,’” said Harris, fearing something bad might’ve happened.
Fortunately, nothing like that.
“I was going crazy. I went to like five different parties and then got a call: ‘Hey, you need to come here, we might need you to throw,’” Harris said.
So Harris grabbed his jersey and made the trek to Buckley. It proved to be a wise decision to call him. The righty arrived in the fourth inning, was dressed and in the dugout by the fifth, then warmed up and was on the mound in the sixth. With the score knotted at 1-1 after Paxton veteran Craig Pinley and Buckley fireballer Drew Watts kept the offenses at bay through five, Harris relieved Grant and worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth to keep Paxton alive.
Then Harris escaped a hairy two-out, two-on situation in the bottom of the seventh by striking out McFarland, Buckley’s star and the last person Paxton wanted to see at the plate.
“My curveball was kind of hanging, so I was thinking, ‘Keep that fastball low, maybe he’ll go after it.’ I had him 1-2 and he just missed a change-up. He almost sent it over the fence. I left it up,” said Harris, pointing out one of many instances on the day where an inch made all the difference. “I just kept going low fastball, and he fouled off a good three or four pitches. Then our catcher called curveball, and I was like, ‘Let’s throw it low and not give him a chance to actually hit it.’ Threw it in the dirt, and luckily enough, he swung at it.”
“I was really thinking about intentionally walking him with two outs,” Prina said. “I was not going to let him beat us today. But we decided, well, we’re in the second game and already won the first game, we’re playing with house money. Let’s see what (Harris) can do … He hit his spots and made (McFarland) get himself out.”
That was just one of many golden chances Buckley missed out on. Two innings later, the score still locked at 1-1, Harris again retired McFarland with two on and two outs, this time on a pop fly on the infield. In the last of the 10th, with the winning Buckley run on second, Eshleman lined a shot to center, but Hayes made a nice running catch to send it to the 11th, when he would come through himself with the game-winning two-run single to right center after Krippel and Elson had reached on hits.
“You got to give them credit. They found a way to get it done and we didn’t. They made the plays when they had to. We didn’t,” Niebuhr said.
“We didn’t play good fundamental baseball today. We didn’t bunt well, and we just couldn’t come up with that big two-out hit today. That’s baseball. That’s one of those days, where that stuff happens.”
Hayes’ hit made a winner out of Harris (2-0), who threw six scoreless innings, allowing four hits and walking two while striking out five. The wins gave Paxton (6-0) a two-game lead on Buckley, Gifford-Flatville and Royal, which all sit at 4-2 in the season’s early going.
“I was like, ‘I’ll just get here and sit in the dugout, probably won’t even play,’” Harris said.
“I’m glad I came.”
EI League standings
Central Illinois 3-3
Mattoon (DNP) 0-6