NORMAL — A leadoff triple in the top of the seventh inning deposited Normal Community High School pitcher Griffin McCluskey in deep trouble Thursday at the Corn Crib.
McCluskey’s diabolical breaking ball lifted him out of it.
C.J. Lewis plugged the right-center field gap with a triple before McCluskey recorded three straight strikeouts with a wicked curve ball ringing up each strike three to lock down NCHS’ 3-2 Big 12 Conference victory over Normal West.
“That was a little nerve wracking,” said McCluskey, a junior headed to Valparaiso. “I knew I had to get at least a couple strikeouts or a couple ground balls so they didn’t score. Setting up with the fastball, the curve ball really helps.”
NCHS improved to 18-4 overall and 9-3 in the Big 12. West, which prevailed over the Ironmen 5-3 on Wednesday, dropped to 19-6 and lost for the first time in 10 conference outings.
“Griffin’s had a couple hard-luck losses this year. For him to be able to gut it out there was huge for us,” Ironmen coach Ryan Short said. “He did a great job bearing down and forcing swing and misses. You have to have a swing and miss guy in that situation, and Griffin was able to do that.”
McCluskey (4-2) struck out eight and walked four. Both of the runs scored against him were unearned.
NCHS scored the go-ahead run in the sixth. Nick Gilhaus walked with one out and scored as Jack Schirpke’s double into the left-field corner narrowly eluded Lewis’ diving attempt.
“It barely stayed fair. I’ve been trying to focus on staying down on the ball, sitting back and trying to drive it all week,” said Schirpke. “It feels good to beat them after last night losing it late in the game.”
West starter Austin Collinson (3-4) also was sharp, surrendering four hits and striking out four in six innings.
“It was two well-pitched games. Collinson deserved a better fate,” Wildcats coach Chris Hawkins said. “I felt like we hit a few balls really hard on the screws, but the ball didn’t seem to carry in a big stadium.”
West broke on top in the first. Cole Hernandez reached on an infield single and took second on a throwing error.
Hernandez then was caught between second and third base. But another errant throw that rolled deep into right-center field allowed Hernandez to motor around and cross home plate.
Lewis doubled down the third-base line and scored West's second run in the second inning. Lewis stole third and continued in to score on a throw that sailed into left field.
NCHS crept back into a 2-2 tie with single tallies in the third and fourth.
The initial run scored as Preston King reached on a bunt single, went to third on a McCluskey double and sprinted home on a Caleb Zbrozek sacrifice fly. The Ironmen then tied it when a Tommy Heideman sacrifice fly brought in Gilhaus.
The defensive gem of the evening came in the West half of the sixth. NCHS shortstop Zbrozek made a sliding grab of a Cody Hardt grounder up the middle, scrambled to his feet and gunned out Hardt by a whisker.