STERLING – When runs are at a premium, defense becomes paramount. Tuesday's Class 3A Sterling Regional first-round baseball game at Gartner Park was a prime example of that.
The Sterling Golden Warriors committed just one error and made up for it with several nice plays in the field. The Dixon Dukes committed three errors, and that led to four unearned runs in Sterling's 6-2 victory.
"This game was indicative of how things have gone for us this season," Dixon coach Sam Gallucci said. "We got runners on base but didn't score, and when you're not scoring runs, you have to play a perfect game to make up for it. We didn't play a perfect game tonight, and Sterling made some real good plays in the field."
Sterling's defense actually kick-started its offense, instead of the other way around, as is usually the case. After center fielder Nick McGuire's sliding catch on Riley Mehrens sinking line drive to end the top of the fourth inning, the Warriors (9-18-1) tied the score at 1 in the bottom of the frame.
Two innings later, with Sterling now leading 4-2, McGuire's running, over-the-shoulder catch again robbed Mehrens, this time of a run-scoring hit. McGuire, who was shading Mehrens to pull to left-center, sprinted into right-center field and tracked down the hit to keep Angelo Valdes from scoring from third.
Sterling then ended the game with an around-the-horn double play to eliminate any comeback attempt by Dixon (8-22-1) in the top of the seventh.
"When we got down a run early on, it felt like our energy dropped to the floor," Sterling coach Nick Pepper said. "But after we made a couple of plays in the field, the energy picked up again, and we started putting the ball in play and putting pressure on their defense."
Through the first three innings, Dixon starter Cal Jarrett (4-4) allowed just one hit – Bryant Lilly's double – and struck out three without a walk. He started the fourth with another strikeout, then his first walk of the game came back to bite him when Keegan Wellman reached on a two-out throwing error on a grounder to short, plating Brady Siegmund.
But Dixon, who scored first when Jarrett's two-out single drove in Mehrens in the top of the third, re-took the lead right away with A.J. Murdock's sacrifice fly to plate Ryan Dixon in the top of the fifth.
Sterling had the answer, though, with three unearned runs in the bottom of the fifth. Frankie Perino singled with one out, then went to second on Brandon Dennis' bunt single. Turner Morse followed with another bunt, but as Jarrett fielded it and started to throw to first for the out, his feet slipped out from under him.
As he was going to his knees, the throw sailed over the first baseman's head and down the right field fence line, allowing Perino and Dennis to score, and putting Morse on third.
"I thought I could still make the throw from my knees, but it was a dumb play on my part," Jarrett said. "I should've been thinking about saving the throw and not giving away any runs, but I was only thinking about getting an out no matter what."
Jarrett then struck out Siegmund, but Lilly reached on a fielding error at third, allowing Morse to cross the plate for a 4-2 Sterling lead.
After that, Siegmund (2-4), who had come on in relief of starter Lilly, pitched around some potential trouble, thanks to that stellar defense.
Valdes walked with one out in the sixth, then stole second and went to third on Nate Grocke's flyout to right. But McGuire's running catch stopped that potential rally, then Perino ripped a two-out RBI triple and scored on a double-steal in the bottom of the sixth – Sterling's first earned runs of the game.
In the seventh, the Dukes now trailing 6-2, Connor Sperling walked and Jarrett chopped an infield single, both with one out. But Perino snagged Murdock's grounder to third and erased courtesy runner Owen Van Horn at second, with the relay getting Murdock by a step at first to cement the victory.
"I just came in and wanted to throw strikes, which is how I approach every relief situation," Siegmund said. "It's nice as a pitcher knowing that your defense is making plays behind you, because you're not as afraid to be aggressive, try and get ahead in the count.
"We had a really positive attitude all game in the dugout and on the field, and when we're having fun and everybody's getting excited, that's when we play our best baseball."
With the momentum shifting away from them in the slow-paced game, the Dukes couldn't get it back. Afterward, Gallucci and his players could only look back at the chances they had in the first three innings to capitalize when the momentum was in their favor, and seize control of the game.
"We had guys at second and third, and even loaded the bases [in the third inning], and we only got one run out of it," Jarrett said. "We have to do a better job of getting guys in when we get them on base, because that takes the pressure off your defense.
"But it was tough, because Sterling was making some good plays in the field, and we couldn't seem to hit a line drive or get a fly ball to fall when it would've given us the boost we needed."
Class 3A Sterling Regional first round
Sterling 6, Dixon 2
Star of the game: Frankie Perino, Sterling, 2-for-3, 2 runs, RBI, started game-ending double play at 3B
Key performers: Brady Siegmund, Sterling, 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief, allowed 1 hit; Cal Jarrett, Dixon, 3-for-3, 2B, RBI, 7 SO, 2 BB in 5 2/3 IP
Up next: 3A Sterling Regional semifinal, Sterling vs. Rock Falls, 4:30 p.m. today