By Mike Monahan
DANVILLE – Two 2019 Mattoon High alums Hayden Birdsong and Jackson Nichols combined to strike out six batters, allow only two hits and not walk a batter in 2 1/3. scoreless innings for the Danville Dans on Friday night at historic Danville Stadium.
Birdsong and Nichols threw 38 pitches, 30 for strikes.
The redshirt Eastern Illinois pitchers are playing for the Danville Dans in the college wooden bat Prospect League this summer.
Nichols is a recent graduate of Lake Land where he played baseball.
Danville lost the first game to the Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp 3-1 as Ryan Eirmann from Kankakee Community College improved to 6-0 with 82 strikeouts in 48 innings and an earned run average of 1.50. Eirmann pitched 6 1/3 innings before being removed after 95 pitches. He struck out 12.
In the second game the Dans (20-16 overall, including 4-4 in the second half of the season), scored four runs in the first, third and fifth innings en route to a 13-4 win.
Both Nichols and Jackson are enjoying their time playing with other Division I student-athletes from places like Houston, LSU, Washington, Mississippi State (Jaxon Forrester pitched in three games for the College World Series champions), San Diego, Creighton, Auburn, Rice and Oklahoma among others.
EIU coach Jason Anderson suggested Nichols play this summer to get in more innings after the redshirt sophomore pitched only 28 innings for Lake Land last spring.
“Going from a junior college to a Division I … this a good humbling experience for me,” Nichols said.
Nichols, a 6-foot-3, 195-pounder, threw in both games Saturday. Manager Eric Coleman doesn’t remember that happening in his seven years at Danville. In the first game, Nichols threw one pitch in the final inning, which induced Noah Clifford from Crieghton to ground out to end the game.
In the second game, Nichols entered the game in the sixth inning with one out and runners on second. The Dans led 9-4. Nichols struck out the first batter he faced and then got the leadoff batter, Keeshawn Ogans (from California Berkley), to pop up to the shortstop Danny Becerra (Towson University) to end the inning.
“This is a big confidence booster for me because I have not been pitching great, but I have not been pitching badly either,” said Nichols. “I guess I have been pitching average or a little below average. Today was a big pick me up, and I needed that. Hopefully, that will carry on to future outings.”
Nichols lowered his earned run average from 9.53 to 8.52. He has started once and appeared in 10 games, striking out 20 across 19 innings.
“Jackson is a guy that has also been working hard,” said Danville pitching coach Gordon Cardenas. “He has been waiting for his time. He has not been pouting or anything. He was ready when called upon today, and you love to see that. A guy that has not got too many opportunities, but is starting to throw the ball here towards the end of summer and really, really starting to make some big improvements. That is exciting to see.”
In the second game, Birdsong, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound right-hander, entered his game in the third inning with one out and runners on second and third. Birdsong, who had to endure a truck alarm going off while he was pitching, struck out the two batters he faced in Logan Delgado (Bradley) and Damen Castillo (Benedictine) to get out of the jam.
After allowing a lead-off single in the fourth, Birdsong struck out three of the next four batters who play for Iowa, San Diego and California Berkley colleges.
“Hayden Birdsong comes every day and works hard,” said Cardenas. “He prepares well and he gets after it. You love guys like that that show up to the ballpark and want to get better. He is begging to get more innings and today he threw for us as a reliever and he is a starter for us. He will start Sunday. You love a guy that goes and takes the ball and works hard. He is a great kid. He came in during a tough situation and we have all the trust in the world in him to go and get the job done, and he did what he does. He goes and pounds the zone and I love to see it.”
Last summer, Birdsong played in the Kernels League, which included four teams that played at the Corn Crib in Normal.
“It (the Prospect League) is a lot different,” said Birdsong. “We get to travel (by bus) and so that helps a lot. It changes a lot and makes it a little tougher. It is hard to stay focused all the time, but I am loving it so far.”
Cardenas said Birdsong has a plus-fastball.
“He is working off his fastball and then we have been working on developing a harder slider, and he has really taken to that,” said Cardenas. “Commanding the zone with his fastball is the biggest key for him. If he can do that, he is going to have a lot of success.”
Nichols has also changed for his breaking ball and has started to toss a spike curveball, or knuckle curve, as well.
“I can throw my slider where I want to just as well as my fastball,” said Nichols. “I have been throwing that since freshman year in high school. It is the same exact grip, the same slider. My change up, my curveball and my slider is definitely my knockout pitch to back up my fastball.”
“We changed a little bit of his grips with his breaking ball and he started getting more on top of it,” said Cardenas. “He has started throwing a spike curveball that he has really taken to. Being able to do that and really trust me and trust himself in throwing it has been a big positive for us. I just love to see the hard work paying off.”
Birdsong threw all fastballs Friday except one slider. That’s the pitch has been working on since last summer.
“I am trying to get it more sharp and a little different than my curveball because I have always had a curveball,” Birdsong said. “I am trying to get something a little faster going the same direction.”
Birdsong lowered his earned run average from 5.12 to 5.01. He is 2-1 and has appeared in eight games, starting six. Birdsong has a team-high 45 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings.
“ I need as many innings as I can because, obviously, next year I want to start at Eastern,” said Birdsong. “That doesn’t mean I will, but I would love to be a starter and be that kind of guy who can get a bunch of wins and have fun doing it. I can’t wait to go back.”
Nichols is also finding success with his newer pitches. “They are working with me on different grips. They have been working really well. Obviously, tonight it worked really well.”
Both players had played at Danville Stadium before when they played for American Legion Post 88 Mattoon. The regular season, which started May 27, ends Aug. 4.
As the players signed autographs for little kids after the game Nichols reflected on what it was like for him as a child.
“That is actually really cool because I remember coming to some games, the MLB games, and I had been to a couple of Prospect League games when I was younger,” said Nichols. “I wanted the same things. I wanted autographs. I wanted baseballs. I wanted broken bats. It is cool being on the other side of the fence for that.”