ROCK FALLS – What looked to be a promising inning for the Oregon Hawks ended up being the turning point in favor of the Rock Falls Rockets in Tuesday's Big Northern West baseball game in Rock Falls.
Jace Anderson worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the top of the fourth with three straight strikeouts, then Steven Armoska smoked a two-run home run in the bottom of the frame to help send the Rockets to an 8-6 victory.
"We were two hits away today," Oregon coach Adam Albrecht said. "We were right there in the fourth, then again at the end, but we just had a couple of little opportunities we didn't take advantage of."
The Hawks (7-12, 3-5) scored three runs in the top of the first, on an RBI single by Sawyer Reynolds and a two-run base hit by Matt Murray. Rock Falls (15-7, 8-2) answered with Austin Donoho's RBI single in the bottom of the inning, then scored four runs – on Clay Velazquez's RBI single, a two-base throwing error, and a wild pitch – to take a 5-3 lead in the second.
After Ian Holley manufactured a run in the top of the third, Oregon trailed 5-4 heading into the fourth.
The Hawks got a leadoff infield single from Adam Bettner, then Joey Rowe was hit by a pitch and Tyler Blume singled to load the bases with the 3-4-5 hitters coming up.
But there was no panic in Rock Falls starter Jace Anderson (6-0). He turned up his fastball a notch, and threw 11 straight strikes. He got Alex Cain and Reynolds swinging without throwing a ball to either hitter, then struck out Holley swinging on a 2-2 count to end the threat.
"Jace knows how to come up big in the clutch," Armoska said. "I was joking with him, 'What did you do, wait until the bases were loaded before you started throwing strikes?' But he hit his spots, didn't make any mistakes, and got out of it."
"I was just hoping to get a ground ball, just trying to limit the damage to one run or maybe two," Anderson said. "Then I got the first strikeout, then the second, and it took a lot of the pressure off me."
Armoska then poured salt in the Hawks' wound. After Donoho led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk, Armoska tattooed a 1-2 fastball from Oregon starter Reynolds (1-3); his laser-beam homer landed on the softball field beyond the fence in left-center field.
"Getting out of the jam got the momentum going our way, then Steven's homer gave it all to us," Anderson said. "I'm very thankful my offense helped me out so much today."
"I think it was an energy boost for everybody," Armoska said. "I think I've hit a home run to give us the lead in every game Jace has started, and he's maintained it for us every time."
The turnaround took the wind out of Oregon's sails for the next two innings, as Anderson set the Hawks down 1-2-3 in the fifth and pitched around a one-out error in the sixth.
The Rockets manufactured a run of their own for a little insurance in the bottom of the sixth. Eddie Nelson singled with one out, then moved up to second when Jacob Mammosser was hit by a pitch from reliever Dan Grimm. Anderson followed with a chopper toward third, and Nelson – who had taken off trying to steal third on the pitch – rounded the bag and kept going home on the throw to first. His slide beat the tag, giving Rock Falls an 8-4 lead.
The Hawks wouldn't go away quietly, however. Reynolds led off the seventh and was nicked by a pitch, then went to second on Luke Ziegler's one-out bloop single. Murray loaded the bases with chopper to third that went for an infield single, then new right fielder Skylar Short ripped a two-run single down the third-base line.
"That fourth inning was a letdown, but we were still fighting," Murray said. "We knew we could make up those runs with one big inning, and turn the game around again. All it took was one base hit there in either the fourth or the seventh, but their pitcher threw strikes and got outs when he needed to."
Anderson again took matters into his own hands, striking out Bettner looking on a 1-2 pitch and Rowe swinging on a full count to preserve the win. The Rock Falls senior finished with nine strikeouts, one walk and three hit batsmen, while allowing six earned runs and 11 hits – all singles – in a complete game. He threw 78 of his 116 pitches for strikes.
Reynolds gave up seven runs, five earned, in five innings, also allowing seven hits and eight walks with one strikeout.
"At this point in the season, a win's a win," Rock Falls coach Donnie Chappell said, "but I was disappointed to see us kind of just going through the motions out there. If we win out, we're the conference champs, and I'd have liked to see us put up some more runs today with all the opportunities we had with guys on base."
The Rockets lead the BNC West standings by one game, and travel to Oregon on Thursday, then Byron on Friday. Another win over the Hawks would guarantee at least a tie, with the Tigers having the chance to share the title if they should beat Rock Falls on Friday.
Rock Falls 8, Oregon 6
Star of the game: Jace Anderson, Rock Falls, CG, 6 ER, 11 H, 9 SO, 1 BB, wiggled out of two jams with strikeouts; RBI
Key performers: Steven Armoska, Rock Falls, 2-run HR; Matt Murray, Oregon, 2 hits, 2 RBIs; Skylar Short, Oregon, 2-run single
Up next: Rock Falls at Oregon, 4:30 p.m. Thursday