Grayslake Central senior Erik Skutnick was thrown into a situation he could hardly have envisioned just a year ago.
The Rams' 6-run lead had been quickly slashed to just 2 runs with one out in the top of the fifth inning by Wauconda. Now Skutnick, who had not pitched at all in high school before this season, was being asked to stop the uprising with the tying runs on base before a big crowd in a Class 3A sectional championship baseball game at Grayslake Central.
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But a lack of pitching experience didn't diminish his confidence. Skutnick got out of that jam and then left the tying runs on base again in the seventh to preserve a 6-4 victory that gave the Rams (26-13) their second straight sectional title and fourth in their history on Saturday afternoon.
"I like going into pressure situations -- I'm that kind of guy," Skutnick said after throwing 22⁄3 hitless innings to get the save. "When I have pressure on me, I like that a lot better -- when we actually win it."
Now the Rams are a win away from joining the 2009 third-place finisher with a trip to the state finals. They get a chance to avenge a supersectional loss from last year at 4 p.m. Monday at North Central College in Naperville when they face Nazareth (27-11), which won its own sectional title 7-3 over Clemente.
"It's just awesome," said Central coach Troy Whalen, who lost eight starters from last year's team that fell 7-2 to Nazareth. "Our seniors lost 20 as freshmen, close to 20 as sophomores and a lot of them didn't play last year.
"It's an example if you work your tail off in the off-season, buy into the program, when your time comes you step up, and that's what they did."
Skutnick is a prime example after spending his first three years in the program as an outfielder. But his arm strength caught Whalen's eye as a potential pitching candidate and he worked with assistant coach Tony Tichy on a changeup to go with a fastball in the 82-85 mph range.
Central righty Jack Spicer was cruising with a no-hitter into the fifth inning but Wauconda (20-8) got a spark when catcher Kyle Bock picked off a runner at third to end the fourth. Cody Reese's single broke up the no-hitter, Austin Piekarski singled and an RBI single by Jeff Lindberg, a bases-loaded walk to Brandon Gibis and a 2-run single by Bock suddenly made it 6-4.
"Everyone got perked up and we really had the momentum going," said Lindberg, who allowed just 1 unearned run and 3 hits in 42⁄3 innings of relief. "I thought we could pull it off."
But Whalen pulled Spicer for Skutnick, who had pitched about 20 innings this season. He struck out Luke Kenny on a 2-2 changeup and got Austin Swenson on a grounder to shortstop Ryan Fontana to end the threat.
"He's amazing, especially in a high-pressure situation," said Fontana, whose sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly helped Central jump to a 6-0 lead after three innings. "You can throw in any regular game, but for not pitching at all last year, to pitch in that situation, my hat's off to him."
Central center fielder Matt Loeffl made a diving grab to end the sixth but a leadoff walk and a two-out error by third baseman Danny Reed gave Wauconda a final chance.
But after the home plate umpire ruled Kenny didn't make enough of an effort to get out of the way when he was hit on an 0-1 pitch -- a ruling also made on Central's Freddie Landers in the sixth -- Skutnick got a groundout to Reed to start the Rams' celebration.
"I was just trying not to think about much besides the pitch I was actually throwing," Skutnick said.
"We said let's just keep competing," said Wauconda coach Bill Sliker. "Be competitive, don't put our heads down and keep competing and they did that. We didn't really play well early ... and it's very uncharacteristic of the way we've been playing lately."
Wauconda, which had a perfect finish in the North Suburban Prairie, was playing in a sectional for the first time since 1997 and was trying to join the 1981 team as a sectional champion.
"It's great to leave a mark like this as seniors," Lindberg said. "To accomplish the things we did, that haven't been done in who knows how long at Wauconda, it's a great feeling."
But Central felt even better thanks to a quick start where it took advantage of 3 walks from starter James Holub, an error on Loeffl's sacrifice fly and the inability to get an out on Clark's high chopper off the plate in a 2-run first. Kyle Balling had a 2-run single and Landers had an RBI double in the second and Jay Hoffman's bunt single and an error on Reed's sacrifice set up the final run in the third.
"I think we've all committed better and come together as a group," Fontana said. "Coach says to play for each other and not just with each other, and the connection we have is amazing."