BLOOMINGTON – There are losses that will rip your heart out, and then there's the one Joliet West suffered in Wednesday's Class 4A Bloomington Sectional at Illinois Wesleyan University.
The Tigers, picking up where they left off in last Saturday's 13-2 win over Minooka in the championship game of the Plainfield South Regional, blasted six hits in a six-run third inning that established a 6-0 lead over Moline.
With the way junior left-hander Robert Talarico was throwing, it appeared for all the world that West (22-14) would be Edwardsville's opponent in Saturday morning's sectional final.
This, however, is baseball. Moline (22-12) wound up winning, 7-6, on a run in the bottom of the seventh inning. It scored on a two-out error and a disputed call at first base.
But it was how the Maroons battled back to draw even that was especially gut-wrenching for the Tigers. They did it, basically, by keeping the bats on their shoulders.
Talarico lost the strike zone in the fifth inning, when he threw 39 pitches. Moline, which finished the game with three hits, scored three runs on four walks, a hit batsman and a wild pitch on a dropped third strike.
Still, West was up, 6-3. But when Talarico walked the second Moline batter in the bottom of the sixth, West coach John Karczewski replaced him with senior right-hander Mark Zelinski. He walked the first three batters he faced to make it 6-4 and Mitch Owens blooped a two-out, two-run single to left to tie it.
"Robert [Talarico] was looking good but then he hit a wall," Karczewski said. "He battles. He leaves it all on the field. We thought in the sixth he might dial it back up."
West nearly went ahead in the top of the seventh, but Moline first baseman Brett Newberg made a highlight-reel recovery to retire Jake Poch, who was bidding for the go-ahead RBI single.
Moline put a runner on third with one out in the bottom of the seventh, and Zelinski nearly worked out of it. Austin Fancher drilled a shot that hit off shortstop Cody Grosse and dropped behind him. He picked it up and fired a one-hop throw to first baseman Matt Ramirez, who made an excellent pick, but Fancher was called safe. It was over.
"I thought we had him," Karczewski said. "I have a feeling if we had replay, that call would have been reversed. It was one of those games. We were up, down, up, down."
Karczewski said he was not planning to use the staff ace, senior left-hander Zack Thomas, unless the Tigers had gone back ahead in the top of the seventh.
"We knew we had 'Z' [Zelinski] in relief this game," Karczewski said. "We needed Zack for Saturday's game. If this one goes extra innings and Zack is out there, we lose him for Saturday.
"To be honest, with 'Z' on the mound, I was fine with him there for the last batter. He's a warrior and a great kid. He didn't pitch last year after a surgery and came back and did all we asked this year. He throws in the upper 80s and has a nasty curve."
Thomas, whose two-run double knocked in the first two runs of the six-run third inning, said, "This is just how this game goes. We felt we had it, especially after the big third inning. But we had to finish them off and didn't do it."
West closed with nine hits, but some balls hit hard after the third inning found their way to the Moline defense.
"It was just like the Minooka game from an offensive standpoint," Thomas said. "We had good at-bats the whole game."
"Even our outs were hit hard for the most part," Karczewski said. "We preached not overswinging, and the guys got it done. We just didn't get it done in all three phases."
Griffin McGuire followed Thomas' two-run double in the third with a triple into the right-field corner, his second hit. Matt Ramirez singled him home, and after Chad Benavidez singled, two more runs scored on a throwing error for the 6-0 lead.
How West finished on the short end can't be explained any better than to say, "That's baseball."
Despite the bitter end, the Tigers exited with reason to have heads held high.
"We won conference the last two years before this one, and we've been saying all year we would trade those for a regional title," Thomas said. "There have been probably more talented West teams that didn't go as far as this one."