By Mike Monahan
A number of major league scouts converged on Mattoon High’s baseball field Saturday morning to watch the No. 1 state prospect, Charleston’s Ben Hess, pitch for only the second time this season.
Hess impressed. The 6-foot-5 right-hander, who has signed to play for Indiana, allowed just one hit and struck out 13 batters across five scoreless innings, clocking 90-plus mph fastballs.
But Mattoon’s Meade Johnson, a 6-2 righty headed to play for Heartland College, might have turned some heads as well by also fanning 13, scattering four hits and keeping CHS scoreless for 8 2/3 innings in a 1-0 victory that kept the Green Wave tied atop the Apollo Conference.
“I was throwing everything pretty well today,” said Johnson. “The big thing was just keeping myself in the zone and really mixing my pitches well. If they didn’t know what I was throwing up there then I was doing my job right. I think I did well. I kept them on their toes. Keeping the ball inside the zone and being effective today was the big thing. Last week, I went 6⅔ and 105 pitches, but this week I was able to go 8⅔. It is just a big thing to be effective and get kids out on under five pitches basically.”
Meade, who walked one and hit a batter, was removed when he reached the 105-pitch limit in the ninth. Austin Baker, got the final batter out on a fly to left field.
Hess, meanwhile threw 52 of his 79 pitches for strikes, walked one and had two wild pitches.
“I thought he (Hess) was really good,” said Charleston coach Derrick Landrus. “He was much better today than last week when he scattered a few hits against Mahomet, and I think he got worried about being hit. If he had four to five starts, he would be absolutely dominating. He was starting to turn the corner midway through this game when he was pretty much unhittable.”
Mt. Zion defeated Effingham 2-0 on Saturday, putting both teams at 4-1 in the conference. Charleston (17-8) drops to 2-3.
Mattoon (10-6), which also took the second game, 4-1, has now won nine in a row.
“In pregame, we talked about not letting the moment get too big,” Mattoon coach Jarod Kiger said. “We knew the opportunity was in front of us and we had been playing pretty well thus far, especially recently. We knew Ben Hess. He is tops in the state for a reason. I told them just to enjoy. There were several hundred people here and probably the biggest crowd I have seen at a high school baseball game in quite some time. I told everybody you are going to see two pitchers just battling it out and that is really how it turned out.”
Here’s a recap of the two games.
Mattoon 1, Charleston 0 (9 innings)
For eight innings, neither team could score. In fact, the teams finished with only seven total hits and combined to strike out 26 times.
But then Gavin Gonzalez walked to start the ninth inning against Trojans pitcher Kyler Sweeney, a southpaw who relieved Hess in the sixth.
Austin Baker reached first on an error. Gonzalez raced to third base on the play. So designated hitter Zach Wetzel was intentionally walked to load the bases with no outs for Cooper Bergstrom, who delivered a bloop single to right that sent Gonzalez home to end the two-hour game.
“Gonzalez is fast as they come,” said Kiger. “Cooper has come around for us quite a bit. He is hitting in the mid .300s and is a guy that will put the ball in play. He doesn’t take any bad approaches or hasn’t done so in quite some time. It was nice to have him up there in that situation.”
Charleston coach Derrick Landrus thought his players should have been more patient at the plate against Johnson.
“We didn’t make him work hard enough early on,” said Landrus. “In seven innings, he had 70 pitches or something like that. He was just on and we just didn’t battle very good and then we had our 2-3-4 guys up and had a chance to make the swing to change the game and we didn’t get it done. We did fine, we just just didn’t come up with the hits.”
In the fourth, the Trojans’ Luke Landrus drew a walk on a full-count pitch and he reached second in a sacrifice bunt by Cory Spour, but Johnson struck out Charleston’s next two batters to end the inning.
The only other time Charleston threatened was in the eighth when Aiden Archibald singled, Caydin Reed was hit by a pitch and Will Applegate’s sacrifice fly put runners on first and third. Johnson got out of the jam on a fly ball to right.
Mattoon threatened in the second, fourth and seventh, which ended with a 4-2-3 double play.
“Meade is good. That is why they are 4-1 because he is pitching the game for them,” said Landrus. “He spotted pitches and his curves and changeups looked good. It is kind of what we were expecting. We just couldn’t scratch a run across.”
Johnson said he loves playing in close games.
“People pay attention to both pitchers and you have to be on your A-game,” said Johnson. “Having competition in games like that. It is no fun to have a bad game. It is always fun to have those close games and go into extra innings. Those are the games you play for.”
Mattoon 4, Charleston 1
Charleston scored its only run of the day in the third inning of Game 2 to tie the score when Jeb Vanetta walked, stole second , went to third on a sacrifice by leadoff batter William Applegate and scored on a sacrifice by Spour.
Mattoon took the lead for good in its half of the inning when Chandler Melton scored with two outs on a hit by T.J. Owens.
The Green Wave added runs in the fourth and sixth innings for the three-run advantage. Mattoon left 11 runners on base, including seven in scoring position.
Charleston loaded the bases with two outs in the seven on three walks, but Kaiden Rice induced a fly ball to center that ended the game.
Kendall Pankey led the Trojans by going 2-for-4, while Mattoon starter Jack Helms helped his own cause by going 2-for-3 with an RBI.
“I am disappointed we didn’t hit any better in the second game,” said Landrus. “I think maybe there was only one guy that swung the bat well today. That happens in baseball sometimes. The second game is the game we have put runs up all year long and we couldn’t do it. Our defense was final all day. We ran down fly balls when we needed to and made plays at home and pitched pretty well for the most part.”
Mattoon travels to Teutopolis on Tuesday for a doubleheader, while Charleston hosts Lincoln.
“Starting to roll and need to keep that momentum,” said Mattoon’s Austin Baker. “Even in the second game we kept it going. A win’s a win no matter what you say or do. Hopefully, we can keep it going even more. “
During Mattoon’s winning streak, they have outscored its opponents by an average of 9-4.
“One through nine are swinging the bat really well,” said Kiger. “We are not making a ton of mistakes and, defensively, we are playing pretty sound right now. Meade is a gamer. He steps up to the opportunity and he kind of thrives pitching against Hess. I have not seen that kind of emotion from him. He had his fist pump going to get our guys up and we feed off that. These are young men who have stepped up to the challenges we have faced when we were 1-6, and now we have crawled back to at least a time with Mount Zion and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”