HOWARD – Less than 24 hours before East Knox battled Fredericktown in the biggest game of the season, Nate Friel couldn’t stop vomiting.
“I wasn’t feeling too good yesterday,” he understated. The seasonal flu took its toll. He lost calories and expended energy.
But the list of things that would keep Friel – East Knox’s No. 1 pitcher – out against Fredericktown, the defending conference co-champs, is short. And the flu isn’t on it.
Adrenaline took over and Friel turned in a masterpiece on Tuesday evening. The junior pitched 6 ⅓ innings and recorded a game-high eight strikeouts. He balanced blazing fastballs with drooping curveballs – “they’re a good hitting team so I had to move around a lot,” he admitted – and kept Fredericktown off-balance all night.
Frield led East Knox to a 7-2 win over its league rival, giving the Bulldogs (13-0, 9-0 KMAC) a two-game lead in the conference standings. With the loss, Fredericktown (10-4, 7-2) dropped into a third-place tie with Highland.
Friel got some immediate help at the plate on Tuesday, by means of a first-pitch home run. Leadoff batter Caleb Gallwitz took a high fastball 400 feet, past the center field scoreboard and into the trees. It was the first pitch he saw.
“That kid has so many tools. He’s a five-tool dude, he really is,” coach Randy Baugher said. “And then you saw him bunt the next time. He’s so unselfish and he just loves to play.”
The Bulldogs piled on more runs in the second inning, when a walk, hit batsman and wild pitch advanced runners to second and third. Gage Steinmetz slapped a single into right field to score both, making it 3-0 Bulldogs with no outs.
A bloop single and another wild pitch moved runners to second and third once again, and Gallwitz blasted another fastball to the left field fence, scoring both runners. The home crowd hollered as Gallwitz waltzed to second base.
Fredericktown coach Ryan Hathaway pulled pitcher Mason Finnell at that point. He pitched one inning, giving up five runs on five hits. The Freddies brought in fellow sophomore Lincoln Cunningham, who held the Bulldog hitting brigade in-check for the final five innings. But it simply wasn’t enough.
“You can’t give up that many runs to a good team like that,” Hathaway said afterwards. “You can’t dig yourself a hole, basically. I thought after we got through the first couple innings, we kind of settled in a little bit. But it was a little bit too late when you’re playing a good team.”
Down 6-0, Fredericktown found life in the third inning. Caleb Sheriff hit a chopper off the first-base bag, which popped high enough in the air for Nick Cunningham to score from second. Then Clem Cunningham blasted a ball to deep center field, scoring Sheriff from first.
It was the only flawed inning for Friel, who got back to the basics after that. On back-to-back 2-2 counts in the top of the fourth, he struck out Fredericktown batters with high heat. As he walked back to the dugout, he stared coldly into the visiting dugout.
“He did a good job of keeping us off-balance,” Hathaway said of Friel, “but I still thought there was quite a few pitches that we could have at least hit the ball hard or moved the ball.”
East Knox tacked on another insurance run in the fourth, when junior Cade Leach launched a dinger to right field, putting the Bulldogs up 7-2. Friel was able to get out of a jam in the sixth, when Fredericktown got runners to second and third with one out. He got Jake Partington to ground out to the pitcher, then struck out Lincoln Cunningham with an upstairs fastball that brought the crowd to its feet.
In the seventh inning, fatigue set in. Friel began feeling the effects of having retained little to no calories the day before, and on a 75-degree night, things started moving in slow motion. He lost the zip on his fastball. His curveball dragged through the air. Fredericktown took advantage and moved runners to first and second with one out. That’s when Friel exited the game.
The junior took slow, long steps back to the dugout, where he immediately keeled over. He started straight down at a ball bucket, took his hat off and rocked gently back and forth as Weston Melick came in to finish the game.
Friel was spent, but he did his job. He wouldn’t have missed this game for the world.
“Fredericktown… yeah,” he said afterwards, taking a long pause. “It’s a big game.”
TITLE RACE: Fredericktown will host game two of the series on Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. The conference race is still entirely up-for-grabs; East Knox has a two-game lead at the moment, but still has to play Fredericktown again (with reigning co-Player of the Year Nick Cunningham pitching) and Highland twice. Each team has five conference games remaining.
East Knox was in this situation last year. The Bulldogs lost two of their final five conference games and slipped to third place. Meanwhile, Fredericktown won four out of its last five and claimed a share of the conference crown.
East Knox returned nearly all of its starters from last season, and Baugher believes they’ve learned their lesson. The Bulldogs are focused on taking things “one pitch at a time,” Baugher said, in an effort to limit distractions.
“We’ve been here before. And last year, we didn’t finish very well,” Baugher said. “We know it can slip away real quickly.”
WEDNESDAY'S GAME: Fredericktown beat East Knox, 2-1, with Nick Cunningham pitching last year. The win gave the Freddies a conference title and sent East Knox packing. Baugher called Cunningham a “real competitor” and said Wednesday night’s game will be pivotal, just like last year’s.
“You’ve gotta be kind of patient with him, he’s crafty,” Baugher said. “He’s a real talented player, real talented pitcher.”
Hathaway said his club will need to regroup quickly after Tuesday’s loss. Against such a dangerous hitting lineup, Hathaway believes it will be key for Fredericktown to get ahead in pitch counts on Wednesday.
“I thought we got down in the count a lot and put them in some fastball counts where they were obviously sitting on fastballs, ready to hit,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “You just can’t do that against a good hitting team like they are.”
Fredericktown will also need to match the Bulldogs' aggressiveness at the plate early on. Hathaway is optimistic his club – which swept Highland less than a week ago – will be able to bounce back. But in the KMAC, that’s never easy.
“It’s tough. You’ve gotta have it every night,” Hathaway said. “Anything can happen.”