At 6-foot-6, Jack Spicer is a big presence on the mound.
For those not used to such a big pitcher, the Grayslake Central senior may look even bigger.
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"He looked like he was 7-foot-2 on that big mound out there," St. Francis coach Rich Janor said of the way Spicer appeared at Silver Cross Field, a minor-league stadium in Joliet that is hosting the Class 3A state finals this weekend, including Saturday's first semifinal between Grayslake Central and St. Francis.
"But I credit our hitters," Janor continued. "We knocked out 10 hits today and we did the little things well. We got a couple of well-placed bunts down."
Playing small ball was St. Francis's answer to the big problems that Spicer presented, not the least of which was his intimidating stature.
The Spartans pulled Spicer off the mound with a couple of bunts that would have been tough for any big pitcher to get to. Tim Zettinger's textbook bunt with one out set up a suicide squeeze that scored 2 runs in the fourth inning, and that wound up being a game-changer for St. Francis in a 6-3 victory over Grayslake Central.
The squeeze, which also brought in a runner from second because Spicer's throw to gun down Zettinger at first base was off, not only broke up a 1-1 tie, but it seemed to wake up the St. Francis offense. The Spartans went on to score 3 more runs on 6 hits over the final 2 innings.
St. Francis (25-11) moves on to face Joliet Catholic in today's 11:30 a.m. Class 3A state championship game. Joliet Catholic was a 4-0 winner over Mt. Vernon. Grayslake Central (27-14) will take on Mt. Vernon in the third-place game, which gets started at 9 a.m.
"After I threw my pitch, I saw it (the bunt and squeeze) coming," Spicer said. "It was a great bunt. I could have had a better throw and it just pulled Kyle (Clark) off (of first base). It was kind of unfortunate."
The misfortune continued for Grayslake Central into the fifth inning.
The Spartans opened by stringing together 5 hits in their first 6 at-bats. Spicer was pulled after the first hit and St. Francis went to work on reliever Erik Skutnick. Josh Croci, Andrew Brundage and Zettinger all drove in runs.
"We just tried to keep picking each other up," Grayslake Central shortstop Ryan Fontana said of the rallies in back-to-back innings by St. Francis. "There's really not much you can do when they keep hitting the ball. We just tried to take it one out at a time."
That focus paid off as the Rams were able to put together their own rally in the sixth inning. Matt Loeffl opened with a walk and Sterling Dixon got on with a single. Justin Allen and Fontana, who was 3-for-4 on the day, then drove them in with a couple more singles.
But the Rams, who have been fighting long odds all season, didn't have quite enough fight this time. They left two runners on in the sixth and were retired in order in the seventh by Brundage, who came on in relief for starter Jack Petrando.
"I'm proud of our guys," said Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen, who led his team to a third-place finish in 2009. "No one thought we'd be here. Graduation took quite a few people from last year. So to be back here with this group of kids is a much-welcomed surprise and it's one that I'll certainly carry with me forever."
The Spartans won't soon forget their semifinal appearance either. They're trying to remain businesslike, but they can't hide their excitement about getting to play in a state title game.
"This is hard to believe," said Petrando, who was the winning pitcher, improving to 7-1. "It's so exciting. I'm pumped for the game (against Joliet Catholic), I know everyone else is. We want to get it. We want to win it all."