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GIFFORD — Sitting in a shady dugout, enjoying the last touches of a Sunday summer evening after splitting a pivotal Eastern Illinois Baseball League doubleheader with fellow league leader Royal in Gifford, the Buckley Dutchmasters came to a realization.
This, of all the recent ones, has been an organizational run to the top of the EI standings.
Consider that, on the biggest day of the season to date, entering tied for first with Royal at 13-4, Buckley slotted two Paxton-Buckley-Loda juniors-to-be (Jay Eshleman and Drew Schrodt) and a recent Iroquois West graduate (Keaton Zirkle) into its starting lineup. That’s three starters 18 years or younger registering big at-bats as edgy opposing fans hurl insults. That’s three teenagers playing in what Eshleman himself termed “the men’s league,” the one where you don’t complain like the Giants did Sunday when someone goes in spikes high, because this league has been around since 1936, and along the way, there have been countless infielders who’ve received nastier gashes on takeout slides than you, and they got back up and dusted themselves off without a word.
So the best explanation of how the Dutchmasters have battled into a first-place tie with the Giants at 14-5 may just be this: It’s Buckley being Buckley. Age aside, pieces are plugged in, and they discover the way of the Dutchmasters.
“We got a bunch of young guys. They’re still learning, learning to play the game the right way and learning how to do things the right way,” Buckley player-manager Brock Niebuhr said after his team fell 3-2 in 10 innings in Game 1 before earning a 4-0 victory in Game 2. “To respond and keep playing and keep battling in Game 2, it says a lot about our character. We’re going to keep pushing forward and try to give ourselves as good of a chance as we can in the tournament.”
Perhaps illustrating the Dutchmasters way better than anyone this summer is Drew Watts. The Watseka native is entering his senior season at Kentucky Wesleyan University, where he’s a pitcher. That’s in contrast to these parts, where he’s whatever Buckley needs him to be.
At various times in this season that’s seen Buckley have a different lineup almost every game, Watts has been an outfielder, an infielder, a pitcher and even a substitute catcher for one weekend. After a stomach-punching extra-inning opening loss Sunday, though, Watts needed to be a shutdown arm.
That’s exactly what he was, the hard-throwing right-hander tossing 5 1/3 shutout innings of five-hit ball to earn the win while striking out nine and walking three. It was a critical outing for a team that had dropped three of its past four.
“With fastballs, I was hitting the strike zone a lot,” Watts said of the key to his success. “If you don’t hit the strike zone, you won’t be successful. I had a little trouble with it, but for the most part the fastball was working, and that’s a lot of what I used today.”
Buckley grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when Eshleman drew a bases-loaded walk, then stretched the advantage to 3-0 in the third when Trey Russell (2-for-3, run walk) scored on a wild pitch and Brandon Moyer (1-for-4, double, RBI, run) scored when Rob Winnicki hit into a double play.
That was more than enough for Watts and Brock Niebuhr, who earned the save and struck out three in 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
The Giants’ best scoring opportunities came in the third and sixth innings. The first threat, which saw runners at second and third with one out, was quelled when Watts then induced a pair of flyouts, the first to center field, where the Giants didn’t run on the arm of Dutchmasters’ Brandon McFarland. In the sixth, Niebuhr recorded a pair of strikeouts to end a first-and-second, one-out rally by Royal, preserving the shutout Watts had started.
“He looked really good,” Niebuhr said of Watts. “We made the decision that no matter what, he was going to throw Game 2 because he just needed to pitch. He hadn’t pitched in four, five weeks, and he was obviously fresh. It was good for him. He threw strikes and got ahead of hitters, and when he does that, he’s tough to beat.”
Watts’ outing was much needed because of the tough manner Buckley lost Game 1 in. After Schrodt (1-for-3, RBI) tied the opener at 2-2 in the eighth inning with an RBI single, Royal grabbed the win when a two-out single in the bottom of the 10th found life just past the outstretched glove of Buckley third baseman Moyer, allowing the winning run to score.
That spoiled a stellar outing from Buckley starter Paul Phillips, who threw 9 2/ 3 innings, allowing three runs, all earned, on 10 hits and a walk while striking out eight. Jesse Remington started for Royal, allowing two runs, one earned, in 7 2/3 innings before Chris Beard picked up the win with 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. Russell had two hits and a run for Buckley, and Gentry Van Allen doubled, tripled scored a run and knocked in one for Royal.
With the split, the Dutchmasters and Giants each sit at 14-5 with one weekend of regular-season play left. Royal, however, will earn the top seed in the postseason tournament regardless of what happens this Sunday because it is earning two forfeit wins against Mattoon and it already holds the tiebreaker with Buckley by virtue of beating the Dutchmasters two out of three times this season. Buckley can earn a share of the regular-season crown — which would be its fifth in a row — if it sweeps Watseka. Though the Dutchmasters can’t earn the tournament bye that goes to the top team, there is seeding to play for. Third-place Gifford-Flatville is just a game behind at 13-6 and could be a factor should Buckley slip up.
In part because Sunday didn’t seem to resolve who the EI’s top team was, the Dutchmasters were left wanting another shot at the Giants.
“That’d be great if we get them again,” Watts said. “They’re the other best team, and you want the two best teams going at it.”
“We’d love to get another crack at them,” Niebuhr added.
Central Illinois 9-10
Mattoon (DNP) 0-19
Sunday, July 29
• Watseka @ Buckley
• Colfax @ Paxton
• Central Illinois @
Note: All games are doubleheaders starting at 1 p.m.
• Royal 3, Buckley 2 (10)
• Buckley 4, Royal 0
• Gifford-Flatville 4, Paxton 3
• Paxton 3, Gifford-Flatville 2
• Central Illinois 17, Colfax 10
• Central Illinois 13, Colfax 9