DIXON – A curious thing happened Monday after Sterling's Tanner Morse hit the first pitch of the game by Dixon's John Thomas for a solo home run to left field: it was the Dukes who got pumped up, more than the Golden Warriors.
Thomas recovered to toss a complete game, and Alex Strum led a potent Dixon offense with four hits and two RBIs as the Dukes beat Sterling 6-4 in the opener of this week's three-game rivalry series at Veterans Memorial Field.
"The kids were really ready for this game," Dixon coach Sam Gallucci said, "even after Sterling hit the first pitch for a home run. John was bound and determined to finish this game, and that leadoff homer didn't take the steam out of us at all."
Thomas (1-6) got stronger as the game went along. He allowed four earned runs and nine hits, but didn't allow a baserunner over the final three innings after notching a pair of strikeouts to get out of a two-on, 1-out, 1-run-already-in jam in the top of the fourth.
The senior, pitching a day after signing a national letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Indianapolis, threw 75 of his 105 pitches for strikes, and had six innings where he threw six balls or fewer. He struck out seven without a walk, and credited a solid Dixon defense and the run support he got up and down the Dukes' lineup.
"That leadoff homer woke me up," Thomas said, "and I just relied on my catcher, my defense and the offense to pick me up and have my back. It always feels good to be on the mound when your team plays that well behind you."
Both teams came out swinging, and they traded leads through the first two frames. Dixon (7-14, 2-7 NIB-12 West) answered Morse's blast with Thomas' sac fly to center in the bottom of the first, then Sterling (8-13, 2-7) re-took the lead on Trevor Delgado's RBI double and Alex Knickrehm's RBI singe in the top of the second.
The Dukes took the lead for good in the bottom of the second, as Dan Pultorak ripped back-to-back two-out doubles to plate three runs. Strum's hit was especially key, as Dixon was a bit unlucky when Pultorak's double bounced over the fence and didn't allow the tying run to score from first.
The luck held an inning later. Thomas greeted reliever Bryant Lilly with a first-pitch laser right back up the middle, then Cal Jarrett followed with a line-drive home run that smacked off the left-field foul pole for a 6-4 lead.
"I thought it was foul, especially with the wind blowing hard from right field to left field," Jarrett said. "I actually slowed down around first base, then had to start running again when it hit the pole. Usually we have terrible luck, but we took advantage of some breaks today."
The Warriors got one of those runs back in the top of the fourth, as Morse doubled with one out and scored on Lilly's single back up the middle. But with runners on second and third after a double steal by Lilly and courtesy runner Brady Siegmund, Thomas struck out Zach Rehmert swinging and Kaleb Francque looking to get out of it.
Sterling didn't reach base again, as Thomas threw 25 of his 38 pitches over the final three innings for strikes.
"I think we both settled down after rocky starts," Lilly said. "I think we got used to the hitters and figured out where to throw it so they'd swing and miss. It looked like it was going to be a high-scoring game, but we both got into a rhythm. Unfortunately, they had the lead when that happened."
Dixon finished with 13 hits, with eight coming from Pultorak, Strum and Nate Grocke in the 9-1-2 spots.
"I was seeing the ball great today, and it seemed like the rest of the guys were, too," Strum said. "Part of it for me, when I saw their leadoff hitter hit that huge bomb, I wanted to match him. We finally got a game with good hitting from everybody in the lineup, and it's a great feeling to win the first game of the series against our rivals."
Sterling suffered its sixth straight loss. The Warriors were 3 for their first 3 with runners in scoring position, but finished 3-for-9; five of their six runners left on base were on either second or third. Logan Rippy (0-5) took the loss, allowing four earned runs and six hits in two innings.
"Everybody went up there free swinging today," Morse said, "and we weren't nervous about situational hitting or anything. Actually, once we started thinking about things at the plate, instead of just seeing the pitches and reacting to them, that's when things went downhill for us. Now, we just have to bounce back against them [Tuesday] and Thursday."
Dixon 6, Sterling 4
Star of the game: John Thomas, Dixon, CG, 4 ER, 9 H, 7 SO, 0 BB; 1-for-2, sac fly, RBI
Key performers: Alex Strum, Dixon, 4-for-4, 2 2Bs, 2 RBIs, 1 run; Cal Jarrett, Dixon, 2-run HR; Tanner Morse, Sterling, 2-for-4, 2B, solo HR, 2 runs; Bryant Lilly, Sterling, RBI single, allowed 2 ER in 4 innings of relief
Up next: Dixon at Sterling, 4:30 p.m. today