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The Insider: Baseball

Rob Winner –
Sycamore's Cole Nelson delivers a pitch to DeKalb batter Jared Johnson during the bottom of the third inning in DeKalb, Ill., Monday, April 22, 2013. Sycamore defeated DeKalb, 4-2.
Rob Winner – Sycamore's Cole Nelson delivers a pitch to DeKalb batter Jared Johnson during the bottom of the third inning in DeKalb, Ill., Monday, April 22, 2013. Sycamore defeated DeKalb, 4-2.

DeKalb's win was dramatic tribute

It was a fitting ending that DeKalb posted a 6-5 win Saturday against Dixon in their last at-bat. On the day that the Barbs' field was dedicated to Dave Pettengell, DeKalb ground out a gutsy win that the late DeKalb baseball coach and assistant athletic director would have loved. 

"We got big two-out hits," DeKalb coach Jake Howells said. "This year we've had games where we either get hit after hit or nothing. Saturday, we didn't let a bad swing, bad at-bat or tough call in a pitch sequence bother us. Everyone has said Dave wouldn't have had us win that game any other way."

Starting pitcher Shaun Johnson (2-2) picked up the win despite staking the Dukes to a 3-1 lead.

"He didn't have his best stuff early," Howells said. "But, he really settled down in the middle innings. He has his best stuff in the fourth, fifth and sixth, kept us in the game and gave us a chance to score." 

Streaking Spartans

Stellar pitching has Sycamore riding a seven-game winning streak. The Spartans staff has allowed four runs in its last five games and had a pair of shutouts against Rockford Jefferson Saturday. 

Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh is optimistic about the Spartans long-term potential because of two reasons that are apparent, and one that has yet to reveal itself. The Spartans have a solid pitching staff. Also, the Sycamore defense is rounding into form as Michael Swanberg, who Cavanaugh said "has no fear of the ball" and will put his face in front of anything", has moved to shortstop and Alec Kozak to right field, a move that should bolster each position.  

But, the Sycamore offense has yet to kick into full gear. Nathan Haacker leads the Spartans with a .429 batting average, but the rest of the Spartans have yet to show consistency at the plate. 

Cavanaugh doesn't want home runs or even home-run swings from hitters, just a willingness to string together solid at-bats with ground balls or line drives. Take that approach and eventually a ball will split the gap for a double or find its way over the fence for a round tripper. Mitchell Jordan has the school home run record in his sights, but hasn't homered yet this year. 

"So far the good work we do in batting practice hasn't translated to the game," Cavanaugh said. "We've got to put more pressure on defenses. But none of the teams we've played have really hit it all over the field either."

Views: Football mentality is needed this spring

Layered clothing isn't the only thing normally reserved for football season that has crept into this baseball season. 

With extended periods between games due to rain and cold, baseball teams face the same mental challenge as football teams. Gone have been the four-game weeks where everyone on a roster gets into a game, pitchers build up their endurance and the everyone settles into a familiar rhythm. 

"The great thing about baseball is you play so many games you can get over a good one or a bad one quickly," DeKalb coach Jake Howells said. "This year it's like we've been in football mode though. We've got to live with our successes or failures for a long period of time."

"The one thing the weather has made us aware of this season is how much we appreciate outdoor practice. We've had one practice on our field."

Because Hiawatha coach Sean Donnelly also coaches the Hawks' football team, he understands how the vibes from one game can translate into the next. Almost everyone on Hiawatha's roster played football. The  few players that didn't were on the soccer roster. 

Both sports have a few days between games, so practice time is ground into their psyche. Donnelly has enjoyed being able to correct any mistakes made during the game with a steady string of practices. But he would still rather be on the field for a game than in the gym for a practice. 

"The upside to so many more games in baseball is players don't dwell on the previous game because more opportunities await," Donnelly said. "Even though we lost our last game we knew it was our third game in a 24-hour span. That would never happen in football or even baseball, normally. The limited games though have allowed us to keep building off the positives of the first few weeks of season." 

While Hiawatha builds off its positives, most teams are still in search of a steady lineup and rotation. Hitters haven't got into a midseason groove and pitchers, who can build up their pitch counts on the mound inside, still have their early-season edge when it comes to changing speeds and locating.

"It's a little bit of a mystery for everyone," said Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz. "Without a consistent routine of steady at bats for hitters and innings pitched for pitchers it's tough to see how advanced everyone can do. The next two weeks are going to be big for us in terms of development of a routine. We want to start playing well headed into the playoffs."

Just when it seemed like teams would enter regionals with less than 20 games, the extended forecast offers a chance for teams to fine their groove.

"We just can't get into a rhythm," Cavanaugh said. "But the long-term forecast looks like the weather is about to let us have a good stretch. We are looking at seven games in seven days."

That's s a pattern that would provide many answers for area teams. 

• James Nokes is a contributor to the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via e-mail at

Spotlight On...

David Emanuel, sophomore, pitcher, Indian Creek 

It's not often that Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz gets to work with a lefty pitcher. It's even rarer he has two - starter Chris Pickwell is also a left hander - on the roster. As a crafty lefty who had a self proclaimed rubber arm, Piekarz provides a unique approach when working with his two left handers.

"They've probably both had real good coaches growing up," Piekarz said. "But they were probably all right-handed. Lefties just do things a little differently. We think differently out there. We'll change up speeds. Hit every part of the outside corner. There aren't a lot of us out there but we can frustrate hitters and shut down a running game."

What to watch for

DeKalb vs. Morris, 4:30 p.m., today and Friday

The third and fourth Northern Illinois Big 12 East conference games of the week - a rarity in such a rainy spring - will help sort out the clustered standings. 

"It's been hard to get on a roll with all the rain," DeKalb coach Jake Howells said. "The season has been very stop-and-go. Usually by the middle of the conference season you know how good you are because you've played so many games. Hopefully this week we get a better idea of where we stand."

Hinckley-Big Rock at Hiawatha 4:30 p.m., Friday

The Hawks have slugged their way to a share of the Little Ten lead, while the Royals have ran their way there by being aggressive on the bases. Separation atop the Little Ten begins Friday.

"We addressed this week as the biggest baseball week in a decade at Hiawatha," Hawks' coach Sean Donnelly said. "Regional seedings are due Monday. We play Indian Creek Wednesday...and that's a solid team. Then H-BR is normally a very good team. They are always No. 1 or 2 in the Little Ten. 

"We finally get to figure out where we stand.  Finally we can get past all the talk and anticipation. Indian Creek and H-BR will be amongst the top teams in our regional. We want to give ourselves a chance at a conference and regional title."

Aurora Christian at Indian Creek at Elfstrom Stadium, 4:30 p.m., Friday

Indian Creek heads to the home of the Kane County Cougars for a make up game from earlier this season. The T'Wolves pitching depth will be tested with five games in four days to end the week. 

Power Rankings

1. Sycamore (11-4, 4-1 NI Big 12 East)

2. Hiawatha (6-2, 6-1 Little Ten)

3. Hinckley-Big Rock (7-3, 6-1 Little Ten)

4. Kaneland (5-6, 2-0 NI Big 12 East)

5. DeKalb (6-7, 1-2 NI Big 12 East)

6. Indian Creek (5-5, 3-3)

7. Genoa-Kingston (2-9, 1-2)

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