STERLING – Patience has a way of paying off in big games, especially when there's a little bit of aggressiveness mixed in.
The Rochelle Hubs found the perfect mixture Saturday, while the Rock Falls Rockets never found any kind of rhythm at all. The end result was a 6-0 Hubs victory to claim the 3A Sterling Regional championship plaque.
It wasn't without some assistance from Rock Falls (19-12). Three Rocket pitchers combined to issue nine walks and hit two batters, and four of the six Rochelle players who scored runs reached base via a free pass.
"Give a lot of credit to Rochelle, because they made every play and took advantage of everything we gave them," Rock Falls coach Donnie Chappell said. "But we gave them the whole game. If we make them put the ball in play, I don't think they beat us.
"We haven't walked guys all year, and it seems like that's all we did today. We got down early, then things tightened up even more. It was just one of those days."
Cayden Erickson started for the Rockets, and lasted just two-thirds of an inning. He walked four and hit a batter, giving up two earned runs and a hit. Rochelle's runs came when Christian Burciaga was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and two outs, then Tyler Joyce followed with a bases-loaded walk.
Those two runs before he even took the mound turned out to be all the run support Rochelle starter Doug Johnson needed. The senior gave up three hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings, striking out three while pitching around four walks and two hit batsmen.
"Even when it was 2-0, I was still a little nervous," Johnson said. "But my defense was great behind me, and once we got the momentum early, we kept it the whole game."
Johnson spotted his fastball well all game long, and said he was most effective when mixing in some cutters and, eventually, some tight curveballs in the later innings.
As a result, the Rockets were off-balance. Rock Falls hit eight fly-ball outs, grounded out eight times, and hit a pair of line drives right at Hubs left fielder Kevin Christensen.
"It wasn't so much what the pitcher was doing," Rock Falls junior Jacob Mammosser said. "We had bad approaches today, we swung at a lot of bad pitches, and popped them up or rolled over them for grounders. It was just a bad day at the plate for all of us."
The Hubs (10-20-1) put the game away in the top of the fourth. Joyce, Christensen and TC Hager – the 7-8-9 hitters – drew consecutive walks to load the bases with one out. After Austin Donoho struck out Jake Ryan, Aaron Mehrings ripped a first-pitch single to left to drive in Joyce and Christensen.
Johnson followed with a two-run double over Erickson's head in left, plating Hager and Mehrings. That chased Donoho after three innings (4 ER, 2 H, 3 SO, 4 BB), and Dustin Huycke (3 1/3 IP, 0 R, 2 H, 5 SO, 1 BB, 1 HBP) came on to put out the fire – but it was too late.
"That inning was the dagger that killed us," Mammosser said. "Our mood went down even more than when it was 2-0 right off the bat, and we didn't play with any enthusiasm or intensity or pride after that."
It also supplied Johnson with plenty of insurance – and confidence – on the mound. With a six-run lead and a flawless defense behind him, Johnson allowed just four baserunners over the final four innings, giving way to Joyce to get the final two outs on grounders to second.
"The kids stayed patient, and we took advantage when Rock Falls gave us baserunners and chances to score," Rochelle coach Nick Reineck said. "All year, we've struggled with timely hitting, and it was great to see the kids do that to put the game away today. We're going to go back home with a ton of confidence."
The Hubs advance to the 3A Rochelle Sectional, where they will face Boylan – a 5-0 winner over Belvidere North on Saturday – in Thursday's semifinals.
It's the second time Johnson and his fellow seniors have won a regional title as an underdog, and earned a trip back home for the sectional.
"We did this my freshman year, but this is just really special right now," Johnson said. "It means a lot to get the chance to play at home again, and we'll be the underdog again, but hopefully we can upset some people – especially if we pitch, hit and field the way we did today."
3A Sterling Regional final
Rochelle 6, Rock Falls 0
Star of the game: Doug Johnson, Rochelle, 6 1/3 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 3 SO, 4 BB, 2 HBP; 2-run double
Key performers: Aaron Mehrings, Rochelle, 2-run single, run scored; Jacob Mammosser, RF, single, 2 SBs, HBP
Up next: 3A Rochelle Sectional semifinal, Rochelle vs. Boylan, 4 p.m. Thursday