NORMAL — Jeremy Gaines was inserted into Friday’s Missouri Valley Conference baseball game to run the bases, and the Illinois State sophomore was determined to do so.
“The coaches always tell us miss on the aggressive (side),” Gaines said. “Force the issue.”
Gaines followed instructions on a ninth-inning pitch in the dirt and brought home the winning run on an errant throw to hand ISU a 4-3 victory over Indiana State in the first of a three-game series matching the MVC leaders at Duffy Bass Field.
Jordan Libman singled to start the ninth off Sycamores’ reliever Tyler Grauer (2-3). Gaines pinch ran and took second on Joe Butler’s infield single.
A Grauer pitch to Gunner Peterson was blocked by catcher Max Wright, but the carom went to the left of Wright and forward slightly.
Wright scrambled after the ball and appeared to have a shot to throw Gaines out at third. But Wright’s hurried throw was well off the mark and rolled into left field as Gaines rose to his feet and scored.
“I got a good read, saw the dirt ball down and got to third,” said Gaines. “(Third base coach) Wally (Crancer) helped me a lot there. I didn’t see the ball get past him.”
Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs looked toward third base initially. When his gaze came back to his catcher “it looked like his feet weren’t under him and he kind of stumbled.”
The Redbirds (28-18 overall) seized sole possession of first place in the Valley at 10-3. The Sycamores are 32-11 and 9-4 in league play.
“We had 17 hits (and 11 left on base). It was kind of buzzard’s luck per se,” ISU coach Steve Holm said. “Finally something went our way in that regard. Jeremy is out there to run for a reason. He’s being aggressive. I would much rather he do that then stay on a play he shouldn’t have.”
The wild finish made a winner out of ISU starter Brent Headrick, who turned in the second Redbird complete game of the season. The junior left-hander had thrown 100 pitches through eight innings but struck out two in a one-hit top of the ninth.
“Hardly ever do I let a guy go back out there for the ninth,” said Holm. “He was strong, we’re built up at this point and it’s warm enough. At this point of the season, that’s what an ace does.”
Headrick (6-3) gave up five hits, walked two and struck out nine. All three Indiana State runs scored in the fifth. That rally began with a ground ball that hit third base for an infield hit and a bloop single to left field.
“There was a little tough luck there, but my team came back the next inning and picked me up,” Headrick said. “He (Holm) asked ‘you feel good?’ (after the eighth). I said ‘yeah.’ I knew I had one more inning in me, and I had to go back out there and give it my all.”
ISU had nine hits over the first four innings but mustered just two runs. Freshman Gunner Peterson’s one-out single in the third knocked in Libman and Joe Aeilts.
The Redbirds answered Indiana State’s three-run fifth that featured a two-run Wright single with a Joe Butler triple and a run-scoring Peterson double in the bottom of the frame.
“It seemed like they did a good job scrapping and getting guys on base. It seemed like we were putting out fires for several innings,” said Hannahs. “I thought our pitchers did a really good job just holding the fort.”
Sycamores’ starter Triston Polley gave up 12 hits but just three runs in six innings.
The series continues Saturday with first pitch scheduled for 2 p.m.