Paxton Swedes defeat Royal Giants 4-3 in game one of EI League Tournament championship series

PAXTON -- The Cinderella story is one step away from completion.
 
The Paxton Swedes, who entered the six-team Eastern Illinois Baseball League's Tournament championship series as the fifth seed, is one away from claiming the title after defeating the second-seeded Royal Giants 4-3 in game one of the best-of-three series on Saturday.
 
“Who would have thought that, midway through the season, that we would be in this situation? It's a testament to these guys who have showed up this last month," Swedes player/manager Mark Prina said. 
 
"It has pretty much been this same group, and they're just competing and playing hard. We're having fun. It's important to have fun at this game. It's a fun game, and we're having a lot of fun playing with each other.”
 
The game involved a bit of a comeback for the Swedes (11-13), as Roberto Gonzalez and Thomas Wolken each hit an RBI single to give the Giants (14-9) a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
 
From there, Paxton pitcher Colin Sullivan shut out Royal for the next seven innings. 
 
“I had to settle in," Sullivan said. "I was kind of leaving some balls high in the first inning. I finally settled in and did my thing.”
 
Sullivan pitched a complete game for the Swedes, allowing three runs on seven hits and three walks.
 
“That's just a gutsy performance," Prina said. “We knew that Sullivan would give us a chance and that he would go out there and compete.”
 
It was Sullivan's first outing in two weeks as he missed the Swedes' semifinal win over top-seeded Gifford-Flatville due to being on vacation.
 
“I hate myself for missing that game because I heard it was a pretty good game, but I couldn't do anything about it," Sullivan said.
 
The rest helped Sullivan keep his arm fresh.
 
“I felt really crisp," Sullivan said. "My arm feels great, still.”
 
“I think that helped him," Prina added. "He said his arm was feeling good. He started locating his fastball well. He got them on the hands in the middle innings as they hit the little weak pop-ups, and that started getting the momentum for us.”
 
The Swedes tied the game with two runs in the bottom of the second inning.
 
Hunter Phelps -- who finished the game hitting 2-for-4 -- led off the inning with a double to left field before Cooper Johnson -- who also hit 2-for-4 -- singled to left field. 
 
With one out, Tristan Wolfe reached base on an error that sent Phelps across home plate. With the bases loaded following a hit-by-pitch produced by Jacob Bender, Johnson crossed home plate on a wild pitch.
 
“We were able to have a couple of innings where we scratched a couple of runs across," Prina said. "We took advantage of a couple of their mistakes on defense. In these tight games, you've just got to take advantage of other peoples' mistakes, and you can't make mistakes yourself.”
 
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Paxton took a 4-2 lead.
 
With one out, Noah Darr reached base on an error before Hunter Phelps hit a single that was mishandled by Royal's left fielder, resulting in Darr crossing home plate for the go-ahead run.
 
Johnson singled to put runners on the corners before Stohne Stetler walked to load the bases. With two outs, Bender was hit by a pitch to send Phelps across home plate for what would be the game-winning run.
 
“That's why you play them. They put the ball in play more than we did, and they made the routine plays. We allowed three or four unearned runs," Giants manager Tim Dillman said. "We had some plays we should have made that would have shut them down, and instead of being up 3-0, we were down 4-2. That's baseball. You've got to make plays.”
 
In the top of the ninth inning, the Giants tried to rally back.
 
Gonzalez led off the inning with a single to left field. With two outs, Jake Cribbett was hit by a pitch to put runners on the corners before Hayden Morris singled to send Gonzalez across home plate. 
 
In the next at-bat, Casey Dillman singled to right field, but Mark Miller threw toward the catcher Bender at home plate, catching Cribbett in a pickle between third base and home plate before Bender tagged Cribbett before he could cross home plate.
 
“(Miller) threw a nice strike to home plate, and they made a bad baserunning mistake again, and we took advantage of it and got him in the rundown," Prina said. "It worked out for us, and it could have the other way. We'll take it.”
 
“Jake tried to do too much there instead of just getting back and letting us try to win it with our leadoff guy," Tim Dillman added. "He's a gamer. He tried to do too much and make it happen. Sometimes, it works, and sometimes, it doesn't. You hate to make that last out at the plate with the bases loaded.”
 
It was not the first time a throw toward home plate denied the Giants a run.
 
In the top of the seventh inning, Cribbett walked before Nick Meredith hit into a fielder's choice. Dillman hit a fly ball to second-baseman Tristan Wolfe in shallow right field before throwing to Bender to get Meredith tagged out at home plate.
 
“That makes it fun. Close plays make it exciting," Bender said. "Good throws by the outfield make it nice.”
 
In the top of the eighth inning, the Swedes turned another double play. Flowers was hit by a pitch before Adam Carver popped out to Darr in center field. Royal's next batted lined out to Wolfe, who stepped on first base to force Flowers out for the third out.
 
“We played pretty good defense all the way throughout and made the plays when we had to," Prina said. “It was a good team win. A lot of guys contributed, defensively and offensively.”
 
“Sullivan did his job," Bender added. "He threw strikes and made them put the ball in play. We made plays. That's how you win ballgames, and we did it.”
 
The Swedes almost turned a double play in the top of the sixth inning.
 
Carver walked with one out before Blake Hoveln hit a ground ball to the shortstop Prina, who threw to second-baseman Tanner Regez to force Carver out at second.
 
Regez threw to Wolfe to try to force Hoveln out at first base, but to the disagreement of the Swedes' players and fans, Hoveln was ruled safe by the umpires.
 
Gonzalez singled to right field to put runners on the corners, but Wolken lined out to Prina before Nick Bates hit a fly ball that was caught on a sliding effort by Johnson in shallow left field.
 
“That'll happen in any sport you play. You're not going to get every call," Bender said. "You have to be able to adjust and keep your cool. Sullivan did a great job. He calmed down. He didn't get a call he thought he should get, but he came right back at it. You can't let it get to your head, or it's just going to crumble.”
 
The safe call on Hoveln's fielder's choice ball was not the only disagreement Paxton had with the umpires.
 
Regez was caught looking on what the umpires ruled to be strike three for the second out of the bottom of the sixth inning, after which he was ejected for throwing his bat in disagreement.
 
Despite the ejection, Regez is eligible to play in game two of the EI League Tournament championship series, which will be played at 1 p.m. Sunday in Gifford.
 
A win in either game two or game three -- which, if necessary, will be played immediately following the second game -- will give the Swedes their first championship since 2007.
 
“That was the end of a run where we had a really good team back then. This team is kind of coming together here at the end," Prina said. “We'll take the win and enjoy it today, and then come back tomorrow ready to go. We'll give it everything we've got one last time. Hopefully, we can bring a championship back home.”
 
“This is my second year playing, and we're already in the championship. That's great. I'm happy about that,” Sullivan added.
 
“I'm very excited. It's been 10 years, and it's fun," Bender added. "This is what I play for. It's exciting. I'm ready for a good day of baseball tomorrow.”
 
Cam Robinson is set to start game two for Paxton while Adam Carver, the EI League's Most Outstanding Pitcher Award recipient for this year, will start for Royal. Jake Hensgen, who gained the win in the semifinals against the Giflats, will be available for the Swedes in either a relief role for game two or for a game-three start, Prina said.
 
“We'll see what happens tomorrow," Prina said. "Winning the first game puts definitely puts you in the driver's seat. They'll have (Adam) Carver on the mound, which will be a tough task. We know that, but they've got to beat us twice tomorrow now, so hopefully, we can put some pressure on them and, maybe, steal this thing.”
 
“We'll be ready to come back tomorrow," Tim Dillman added. "I'm pretty sure Carver will get us to game three, and then we're going to battle it out in the third game, and we'll see who wins. I'm confident Carver will get us there.”
 
Paxton Swedes 4, Royal Giants 3
ROY 200   000   001   -- 3   7    4
PAX 020   020   00x   -- 4   9    0
W -- Colin Sullivan, 9 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 0 K, 3 BB. L -- Colton Carr, 7 IP, 6 R, 4 H, 6 K, 2 BB. 
Royal -- Blake Hoveln 1-3. Roberto Gonzalez 3-4, RBI. Thomas Wolken 1-4, RBI. Hayden Morris 1-1, RBI. Dillman 1-4. 
Paxton -- Tanner Regez 1-4. Noah Darr 1-2. Hunter Phelps 2-4, 2B. Cooper Johnson 2-4. Tristan Wolfe 1-3. Jacob Bender 1-2, 2 HBP. Mark Miller 1-3.  
Categories (3):Prep Sports, Baseball, Sports

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