Oak Park stops Grant's title run
JOLIET — As Jared Helmich stood on a minor league ballpark mound, knowing he had likely thrown his last pitch in a Grant uniform, coach Dave Behm reminded his ace of his anything-but-minor contributions.
After making a slow walk to the mound, Behm grabbed Helmich and rubbed the pitcher's weary shoulders. Helmich had carried the Bulldogs on those shoulders to their first appearance at state.
Behm then took the baseball from Helmich.
Helmich was done after 6-plus innings on a steamy Friday and so, essentially, was Grant, which fell behind early against Oak Park-River Forest and never recovered in losing the Class 4A state semifinal 8-2 at Silver Cross Field.
"I told him to look around," said Behm, who pulled Helmich after Michael Brennan's RBI single extended the Huskies' lead to 7-2 with none out in the seventh. "I said, 'You're the reason we're here. I don't want you to think about anything else.' He's given us everything he's had the whole year."
Everything included 3 wins and a save in the postseason. But Helmich wasn't thinking about that or anything else fun as he trotted out to right field, where he played the rest of the seventh inning.
"I was just angry at the time," Helmich said. "I just didn't have my best day out there. I wish I could have pitched like I pitched last week. But it just didn't work out that way."
Grant (25-12), which had its nine-game winning streak snapped, will finish its season at 3 p.m. today by playing Minooka (27-14) in the third-place game. Oak Park (29-9) will seek its third state championship and first since 1981 when it takes on Lyons (27-12-1) at 5 p.m.
Grant will play its second game in a row without shortstop Jordan Villarreal, who played in the supersectional despite breaking his jaw in warmups.
Oak Park started fast against Grant. Helmich's first pitch of the game hit Zach Weigel, his second pitch was hit the opposite way into left field for a single by Jack Picchiotti, and an infield error loaded the bases.
Alex Rice then hit a flyball into right-center that looked catchable but fell for a single. A passed ball made it 2-0 with still none out.
"I came in from scoring and I said to someone in the dugout, 'What just happened? I feel like I was just on deck,' " Weigel said. "It was nice getting those quick runs."
"Right away, it just got away," Helmich said. "They had a couple of guys on, and then the bases were loaded it seemed like in a blink of an eye. I just had to calm down, take a deep breath and just start throwing strikes. And then my fielders helped me out."
Helmich retired the next three batters, with the aid of Jake Ring's diving catch on a ball hit into shallow center field, but Oak Park already had momentum. Which was the Huskies' game plan.
Oak Park starting pitcher Joe McKune faced the minimum three hitters in the bottom of the first, getting a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
"I was encouraged that we were not the home team," Oak Park coach Chris Ledbetter said. "I thought we'd be better suited to bat first. The kid we were facing (Helmich) pitched on Monday. We thought if we could settle in in that first inning, it gives Joe a chance to get settled in. When Joe is nice and calm, he hasn't been beat for us this year."
McKune, who will play golf at Carthage College, appreciated the 2 on the score card.
"It did (help)," McKune said. "It's always better going in with a couple of runs on the board. The stress level goes down, and I could do my job out there."
Only Simeon Lucas hit McKune consistently for Grant. Lucas, the Bulldogs' left-swinging sophomore catcher, went 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and an RBI.
"I've just been comfortable pretty much the last week at the plate," said Lucas, whose doubles were his 16th and 17th of the season.
Grant senior right fielder Eric Wilhelm made a diving catch on Brennan's sacrifice fly in the third, as Oak Park extended its lead to 3-0. Nick Kowalczuk's 2-run single in the fourth and pinch hitter Charlie Fencik's infield RBI base hit in the fifth had the Huskies up 6-1.
Matt McCormack went 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI for Oak Park. Grant sophomore Tino Torres (2-for-4) had an RBI single in the seventh.
While the Southern Illinois Edwardsville-bound Helmich (11-2) allowed 5 earned runs before being relieved by fellow senior Zach Niedrich, McKune (7-2) went the distance for Oak Park. The right-hander allowed 6 hits, struck out three and walked three.
"I thought we played well," Behm said. "We had a couple of defensive miscues. We hit the ball pretty well, but we hit it at them a few times. Their pitcher did a nice job of coming after us."
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