Sure, having a big cushion can make life easier on pitchers. Even so, what Naperville Central's Keegan Hayes did Monday afternoon was impressive.
The Redhawks pitcher shook off a sluggish first inning to toss a 1-hitter in a 7-1 DuPage Valley Conference victory at rival Naperville North (12-7, 4-1).
Hayes (8-3) allowed two walks and an RBI single to the Huskies' Emily Hillier -- all with two outs -- in the bottom of the first as Naperville North tied the score at 1-1. But the Redhawks senior did not allow another hit, retiring 18 of the final 19 batters she faced with the only baserunner coming on a third-inning walk to Kailee Budicin.
"It didn't feel like one hit," said Hayes, who recorded 4 strikeouts. "The defense played a great game. They did a great job in the field and that was what it took because I wasn't striking a lot out."
Naperville Central (16-3, 6-0) scored a run in the top of the first on a single by Lisa Tassi but couldn't add on despite a bases-loaded, one-out situation. The Redhawks did grab a 2-1 lead in the second when Lindsay Gonzalez doubled home Courtney Giebel, who had doubled down the left-field line with one out.
The visitors then busted the game open with a 5-run third inning off Huskies starter Dani Biesiada, who gave way to reliever Alex Hanselman, a left-handed sophomore who stymied the Redhawks on just one hit over the final 4⅔ innings. Hayes started the big inning with a double down the line that just eluded Huskies right fielder Rachel Aiardo, and Maddi Doane delivered the biggest blow with a 3-run double to center.
"She struggled a little bit control-wise in that first inning, but she was definitely sharp the last five innings," Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said. "But two things: it's a lot easier to pitch when it's 7-1 than when it's 2-1. You just relax more. And the second thing is we are really solid defensively. We don't make a lot of mistakes.
"It's fun to watch actually."
Even after Hanselman handcuffed them the second half of the game, the Redhawks still managed 11 hits. Gonzalez, a sophomore second baseman, continues to swing a big bat, going 2-for-3 with a walk and her lone out was a deep fly to left.
"I think I'm just being more patient this year compared to last year. I'm being a little more relaxed and I have more confidence in myself," said Gonzalez, who started as a freshman on last year's DVC championship squad. "If we just keep it up and keep doing what we're doing, I think we'll do well in conference again."
Naperville North coach Jerry Kedziora credited Hayes with slowing his team's bats. But he was thrilled with the performance of his young reliever.
"We didn't hit the ball real well today," said Kedziora, whose team will play a home-and-away series with Glenbard North on Tuesday and Wednesday. "(Hayes) was on today and we didn't get many quality at-bats off her. But if we make the plays in that third inning, it might have been more like a 3-1 game instead of 7-1."
With some makeup games planned the next two weeks, the Huskies can surely use additional pitching, and Hanselman has probably earned herself plenty of opportunities.
"I was extremely impressed with (Hanselman) today," Kedziora said. "Her performance out there was one of our biggest bright spots."