By Joe Gisondi
Mattoon clinched the Apollo Conference baseball championship Saturday in much the same way that it began its unlikely run – timely hitting, solid defense and strong pitching.
The Green Wave were never expected to defend their Apollo title, returning only two players with varsity experience. In fact, not a single conference coach considered Mattoon a viable challenger this season.
“After being picked to come in last in the conference, it gave us something to work for and prove them wrong,” said sophomore outfielder Jason Skocy.
Added senior pitcher Austin Baker: “This team has been through it all. Nobody thought we would be conference champs, but we beat the odds. I’m proud of this team and what we have accomplished this season.”
Few questioned these predictions when the Green Wave lost six of their first seven games, scoring a paltry 3.7 runs a game while surrendering 7. Once the team got some players back from soccer, overcame COVID restrictions to have a few practices and had players return from injury, the team started to click.
A month later, MHS was able to easily defeat Lincoln, scoring three runs in the third, another two in both the fourth and fifth Saturday at Mike Curtis Field en route to a 9-1 victory for its 12th win in a row.
Gavin Gonzalez and Logan MacDonald ripped three hits apiece while Meade Johnson, Zach Wetzel, Skocy and Kaiden Rice had two hits apiece – all singles, one of the hallmarks of the Green Wave’s winning streak, along with pitching.
It was appropriate that Meade Johnson secured the Apollo title in the same manner that that he helped kick off the midseason run – scattering four hits, allowing one unearned run, striking out eight and not allowing a walk on just 84 pitches in the 9-1 victory. Johnson had struck out nine and allowed only two hits against Taylorville in another complete-game victory that had started the streak May 8.
“Our pitching, in conference games especially, has been our strongest asset,” MHS coach Jarod Kiger said. “One of the things that I believe goes hand-in-hand with great pitching is solid defense. We have done a great job limiting our mistakes on defense, as to not force our pitchers to throw unnecessary pitches. Each day we work on these fundamentals.”
Johnson has gone 4-1 in Apollo games, allowing only four earned runs in 34 1/3 innings – less than 1 run per 7-inning game and exhibiting both deception and control in striking out 49 and walking only five in these games. Johnson won his only other start, a one-hit, five-strikeout effort that shut down Champaign Central over four innings.
“I thought Meade was as dominant today (Saturday) as he has been all season,” Kiger said. “He kept his pitch count down and the defense played well behind him.”
During the streak, Mattoon has allowed 4.17 runs per game, about half as many as during the opening seven games, and allowed one or fewer runs five times. Take away a 14-13 win and that average drops nearly a run to 3.3
Conversely, the Green Wave more than doubled their offensive production, scoring 9.1 runs compared to 3.7 early on – although not with much power.
Mattoon has a fairly paltry .397 slugging percentage, hitting only three home runs, two triples and 29 doubles. But 118 singles, a .311 batting average and an impressive .424 on-base percentage have enabled the team to outscore teams during the streak by more than three runs a game. And the final scores were not really close; only three teams came within two runs.
The team has relied heavily on getting on base and grouping hits as they did Saturday – 15 singles and three walks – in scoring double-figures six times.
Besides hitting all three Mattoon homers, Johnson and Zach Wetzel also lead the team in average at .424 and .417, respectively. Johnson also leads the team in doubles (12), runs scored (20) and total hits (25). But Gonzalez is not far behind, hitting .392, scoring 17 runs and collecting 20 hits.
Three other MHS players with more than 25 plate appearances are hitting above .300 – T.J. Owens (.348), Skocy (.345), Baker (.340), Cooper Bergstrom (.333) and Kaiden Rice .325).
More impressively, eight players are getting on base more than 40 percent of the team, led by Johnson and Wetzel, whose OBPs are .527 and .500, respectively – followed by Baker (.493), Owens (.483), Gonzalez (.456), Rice (.438), Skocy (.424) and Bergstrom (.404).
“Our team really started to succeed when we started to hit,” said senior second baseman Drew Coffey, who has scored nine runs and is hitting .280. “It’s as simple as that. We have become so much more aggressive while also decisive at the plate, making it hard for pitchers to throw to us.”
Added Owens: “The guys never gave up.”
Mattoon earned the conference title outright when Mahomet routed Mt. Zion, 10-2, on Saturday to drop the Braves to 4-2 this season, a game behind Mattoon (13-6).
The Green Wave play Tuesday against Central before beginning postseason play Thursday at Grimes Field against Effingham. A victory would send MHS against either Troy Triad or Olney on June 7.
“This is just a great moment for the team. Having been doubted and to be able to come out on top is the best,” Johnson said. “And it’s pretty sweet to go back-to-back.”