Baseball: Shortstops get opportunities in state final
Updated: June 9, 2012 9:34PM
A month ago, it would have been hard to predict whether Stewart Nelson and Danny Shinsako would be receiving any playing time in the postseason. But given the strange nature of baseball, the former role players were starting at shortstop for Lyons and Oak Park-River Forest in the Class 4A state tournament Friday and Saturday.
It seemed appropriate Saturday that each player would make key plays to keep their team in contention. For Nelson, it was an RBI single by beating out a grounder deep in the hole to Shinsako at shortstop in the sixth inning. For Shinsako, the senior prevented the go-ahead run from scoring in the top of the seventh when he threw out Matt Robare at home plate on a fielder’s choice with the infield in and one out.
OPRF won its third state championship when Michael Brennan hit a walk-off, bases-loaded single to right field with no outs in the bottom of the seventh. The victory made Zach Weigel (8-1) the winning pitcher in a 4-3 victory Saturday at Silver Cross Field in Joliet. The celebration will likely continue into Sunday for OPRF, which holds its graduation ceremony at the school’s football field.
“It was awesome,” Shinsako said. “I want to do my very best for Zach. In my mind, there was no way I was going to make an error on that play.”
The grounder was anything but routine, Shinsako bobbled left-handed batter Tom Prescott’s sharp grounder, but stayed on top of the ball and threw a strike from just inside the infield grass to catcher Jack Picchiotti. He led all fielders in the title game with five assists.
Nelson was involved in the most controversial play of the state final later in the sixth when he tried to score from second on Even Booth’s single to left field. Nelson tripped over the feet of third baseman Colin O’Brien, who was moving into position in the infield as a cutoff man. Nelson fell flat approaching the base and could not score. Lyons coach George Ushela appealed, but home plate umpire Bob Jenkins did not allow Nelson to come home on the apparent obstruction.
“That was really unfortunate,” Nelson said. “The umpire, obviously, missed that. You have do what you can.”
Until a 10-0 loss to New Trier in five innings to end the regular season May 20, the 5-foot-5 Shinsako made only occasional appearances this season. Entering the state tournament, he appeared in 13 games, had 17 at-bats and hit .294 with three runs and one triple. He did not bat in either state tournament game with designated hitter Sam Cottingham-Beard hitting for him.
“It started out at the New Trier game,” Shinsako said. “[Coach Chris Ledbetter] wanted to tryout something. With a new lineup, I wanted to do as best as I possibly could. I know I did whatever I could by getting as many reps at ground balls.”
Lebetter’s gamble was to shift starting shortstop Colin O’Brien to third base for Mike Adams and to add Shinsako at short. In another move, Ledbetter flip-flopped DH Alex Rice to right field and right fielder Cottingham-Beard became the DH.
It was an alignment that paid off in a state title.
“Everybody has to know their role. No one is selfish,” said Purdue-bound Picchiotti, a four-year varsity player. “You have to rely on kids to come out and know they can help the cause. Every single kid on this team gave 100 percent.”
On the other side of the field, Lyons coach George Ushela was unable to find a single candidate to replace the best player from last year’s state championship team, shortstop and leadoff hitter Spencer Mahoney. After returning from an injury, Mahoney led Valparaiso to an NCAA tournament berth this season as a freshman.
Nelson and fellow junior Mitchell Van Koevering split time at shortstop this season. Nelson appeared in 39 games at both shortstop and second base while Van Koevering appeared in 18. The duo combined to bat .186 on the season. Nelson’s .194 average was the lowest for any batter in the state championship game. But Nelson went 1-for-4 with a run and two RBI in Friday’s semifinal win over Minooka. He went 1-for-3 with the RBI on Saturday.
“We have a lot of guys that can play different positions,” Nelson said. “We did a pretty good job of finding our spot throughout the season.”