On a day when hits were scarce, not to mention runs, Neuqua Valley called for a bunt in a key situation. Then the Wildcats bunted again, and again and again.
The four bunts in the top of the seventh inning led to three runs and broke a 1-1 tie as the Wildcats rallied to beat host Metea Valley 4-1 in Thursday's Class 4A regional semifinal. The win advances Neuqua Valley (17-16-2) to Saturday's regional final against Naperville Central and also made a tough-luck loser out of Mustangs pitcher Christian Howell, who was dominant while leading 1-0 after five innings.
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With the score tied 1-1, Kevin Hutt opened the Wildcats' half of the seventh with a bouncer up the middle that just eluded Howell and made its way to center for a single. Hutt stole second and Alex DiFranco then put down a sacrifice bunt. Hutt didn't initially break for third base, but when the throw to first got away for an error, it was second and third and no outs.
Up stepped Alex Wolanski, whose suicide squeeze brought home the eventual game-winning run, and when the ball was not fielded cleanly he reached first base safely. But Wildcats coach Robin Renner was not done putting down the bunt signal. After Howell (3-4) recorded a strikeout, Nolan Hicks squeezed home another run and beat out his bunt for a single and Howell's day was done.
Reliever Ben Belskis entered the game and was greeted by a squeeze bunt by Josh Piotowski, who was retired on the play, but the RBI made the score 4-1.
"I had a pretty good feeling coach Renner would call the suicide," Wolanski said. "I've done it a couple times earlier this season and I'm glad he had the confidence in me and I got it down."
And since it went so well, Wolanski figured, why not stick with the bunts.
"If it ain't broke don't fix it. Might as well try it a couple more times," the Wildcats catcher said. "That's a good call on coach Renner. That's what I thought he should have done and it worked out."
While the sixth and seventh innings proved cruel to Howell, who retired the first 10 batters he faced and didn't allow a hit until the fifth, the Wildcats' rally made a winner out of Neuqua's Matt Butler, who allowed just an unearned run in the second and took a no-hitter into the bottom of the seventh before PJ Archey singled sharply to right field for the Mustangs' only hit of the ballgame.
"That was definitely the best I've thrown. Getting ahead of guys and rolling up ground balls for my infielders so they could make some good plays on them," said Butler, who kept the faith that his team would score some runs late. "I knew if I held them there my offense would come around and get some runs. I just wanted to stay focused and do what I had to do to keep them there and wait for our offense to get going."
Mustangs coach Craig Tomczak could not have asked for a better effort out of Howell, who had a pickoff erased in the sixth on a balk call that led to the Wildcats' first run and then was hurt by a pair of errors on bunt plays in the seventh.
"Yeah, that's a real tough loss. Christian's been great all year. He was in command," Tomzcak said. "But you've got to make a couple plays. This time of year you play a team as good as Neuqua is -- I don't care what their record is, they're still Neuqua -- and you just can't give them extra opportunities like that."