Homestead junior pitcher Colten Poellinger said he could feel the breaking ball coming on in the second inning against host Whitefish Bay Monday night.
And he could certainly hear the voice of his coach Ernie Millard in the Bay half of the fifth, when after walking the Blue Dukes' DH Andy Conway, he had a two-on, one-out situation while nursing a scant 2-1 lead.
"He (Millard) came out there and told me to get ahead in the count," said Poellinger. " I get ahead in the count, I'm usually in good shape, but when I get behind I get in big trouble."
What Millard said sunk in, as Poellinger got Bay's Jacob Carlson to strike out on three pitches and then needed only three pitches to get James Stecker to ground out to first to end the threat.
All six pitches were strikes.
Then in the sixth, when a walk and an error again put two runners on, Poellinger, who has a unique hitch on the downward side of his motion, got Grant Menard to strike out on a ferocious-looking curve for the third out of the inning.
And that was the last significant threat for the Blue Dukes (6-7 in North Shore play and 12-10 overall), as the Highlanders hung on for a 2-1 win, one of the few times they've been on the right side of a close game.
"That was just a big win for us," said Millard. "We've been struggling to hit the ball, but tonight we took advantage of another team's mistake and made it stand up for us. That's big because we've lost a couple when we've made those kinds of mistakes."
Poellinger finished his fine night with six strikeouts and two walks while scattering three hits (none after the third).
"I think I got a feel for it (the breaking ball) in the second inning," said Poellinger. "I was able to get on top of it and then I was able to keep them off-balance with it."
Meanwhile Bay freshman pitcher Joe Kaszubowski pitched well enough to win with five strikeouts and three walks while allowing only five hits.
"I thought Joe pitched a great game," said Blue Duke coach Jay Wojcinski, "but we didn't help him (offensively). We chased a lot of balls in the dirt. Our offense has been just so unpredictable lately. We score 22 runs on Saturday (in a doubleheader sweep of Waukesha South) but we couldn't get anything done today."
"Give the kid (Poellinger) credit. He threw a great game. He had us swinging at the pitches he wanted us to swing at. We just didn't have enough patience to wait for a fastball."
Kaszubowski, the state D2 diving champ last winter, was done in by one critical error in the fifth, the mistake Millard referred to.
The Highlanders (7-6, 14-6) had put men on first and third after an Austin Ralph single, a sacrifice, a wild pitch, and a safety squeeze by Tyler Gehrke, where the lead runner did not score.
That's when Poellinger hit a medium length fly ball to left. Ralph bluffed a tag for home as the throw came in, but the toss was high and wild and sailed into the netting high above the Bay backstop. Ralph came in to score easily for a 2-1 advantage.
Poellinger helped himself again in the seventh. The Blue Dukes' Turner DeMuth hit a sharp groundball wide of first. Ralph, who was playing first initially ticked the ball with his glove but kept it in front of him. He quickly grabbed it and tossed it to the hustling Poellinger who got the ball and his foot on the bag an eyelash before DeMuth did.
"I saw that Austin had a little trouble (with the ball) so I just got my tail over there as fast as I could," said Poellinger. "He (Ralph) made a phenomenal play."
That play proved to be pivotal because a play later Bay pinch-hitter Matt Borris reached on an error. But Poellinger then got Peter Sandvick for his last strikeout and induced Stecker to ground out to short to end the game.
Bay had taken the initial lead in the first when freshman first baseman Nick Lackney reached on a fielder's choice and advanced to third on a stolen base and a wild pitch. He then scored on John Markwiese's RBI single.
Homestead tied the score the next inning when desiginated hitter Jake Erfourth tripled down the third base line and then came home on Ralph's sacrifice fly.
Erfourth was contributing despite the fact that he was still nursing 26 stitiches in two separate rows of 13 apiece above his eye after taking a hard one-hopper to the face while playing second base in last Thursday's loss to league-leading Germantown.
Erfourth, the Highlanders' top pitcher, will be looking to make his return to the mound on Thursday at West Bend West, said Millard.
Wojcinski said the loss was frustrating because top hitter Jackson Weber was off on some college visits. Menard, another top hitter for the Blue Dukes, is playing despite nursing a shoulder injury.
"We just need to get everyone back, then start stringing things together and getting ready for the (WIAA) tourney," Wojcinski said.
Poellinger said the Highlanders could use this game as a momentum builder.
"It's definitely a confidence builder," he said. "We're getting to the point where every win is a must win for us."
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