08/04/2015 1:09 AM -
Whiting, Ind. – August 3, 2015 – The final chapter of the fourth edition of Northwest Indiana Oilmen baseball was inked on Monday night at Oil City Stadium.
It didn’t have a storybook ending, with the Oilmen falling 6-2 to the Lexington Snipes in a decisive Game 3 of the first-round playoff series. The Snipes advance to the 2015 Midwest Collegiate League Championship to take on the DuPage County Hounds.
Brandon Murray turned in his best outing of the summer, limiting the Snipes to one run on four hits over six innings.
“That last start was the culmination of what he was trying to do,” Oilmen manager Adam Enright said. “He got a feel for all of his pitches. The last two or three innings he started to get into a rhythm; he started repeating mechanics and he started having a little more pace. If you would have told me that he was going to go out and give up one run in six innings, I would have hit the ‘agree’ button right there.”
Murray did not receive any run support, as he exited with the Oilmen trailing 1-0. Stefano Belmonte provided the most exciting moment of the night for Oilmen fans, when he led off the seventh by drilling a solo homer to tie the game.
“First pitch, the lefty threw me a curveball right down the middle, then he repeated the exact same pitch,” Belmonte said. “I was on top of it; I had it timed up. I squared it up and crushed it.”
The game didn’t remain tied for long, as the Snipes got two runs in the eighth, both charged to Hunter Clark, who took the loss. The Snipes scored three more in the top of the ninth to break it open. The Oilmen committed three costly errors leading to three unearned runs.
Northwest Indiana left 16 runners on base.
Christian Howell pitched in relief for the third consecutive day. After starting against DuPage County on Wednesday and limiting the Hounds to an unearned run on five hits over five innings, Howell worked 3 1/3 innings on Saturday, two innings on Sunday and 1 2/3 innings on Monday.
“He’s a bounce-back guy,” Enright said. “He doesn’t really warm up. He’ll take two pitches to get hot, and then he’ll just sit in the dugout and wait until he goes in. He’s not a guy who takes any time to rebound or get hot. He’s a very wiry frame guy with a loose arm. He’s been great for us this year.”
Belmone finished with three hits in the season’s final game, while Fred Smart reached base in all four plate appearances.
Belmonte batted .341, jacked two home runs and drove in 30 during the regular season, despite dealing with the distraction of searching for a home for the 2015-2016 school year after exhausting his junior college eligibility.
“He’s handled the whole thing well with it getting really late in the summer and him trying to figure out classes and credits,” Enright said. “It had to eat at him half way through the summer that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be D-I eligible and he might not get the chance to play at that level because of his grades. It didn’t affect him one bit between the lines. He was great.”
Although Belmonte prospered individually, he had his sights set on another MCL championship after winning one with the Southland Vikings in 2014.
“I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, but sometimes it doesn’t happen,” Belmonte said. “I’m really proud of all my guys. We fought until the end, we gave it all our hearts, and that’s all you can do on a baseball field. I’m proud of my team; I love them to death.”
There’s little debate that Tyler Sroczynski was the most essential member of the Oilmen offense. The leadoff man led the team in average (.397), home runs (3) and RBIs (31). The fact that Sroczynski is headed to Trinity Christian to play for Enright and head coach Justin Huisman made it even more enjoyable for Enright to watch Sroczynski thrive.
“It opened up eyes for some guys at the NAIA level and small, private schools,” Enright said. “You might have a guy who’s got a chance to play after college. Having him do so well out here with the talent that was around him makes you happy to see that there’s going to be some recognition for a guy like that from a small school at the NAIA level.”
Fred Smart hit just .148 in 18 games at Siena this spring, and his offensive struggles carried over to the start of the Oilmen season, when he went 1-for-his-first-17. However, Smart soon established himself as a key presence in the middle of the lineup, finishing the regular season with a .297 average and batting .444 in the playoffs.
“He’s the hardest working guy out here,” Enright said. “He came here with minimal at-bats, and the first couple of weeks he struggled to do anything at the plate. It’s all in what you put into it, and that’s why Fred Smart had an outstanding summer.”
Second-year Oilman Zack Jones skyrocketed his average from .253 during the 2014 MCL season to .322 this summer. He hit .600 during the final week of the regular season to accomplish his goal of batting above .300.
Sam Geraci (.292), Alec Olund (.294), Josh Turnock (.310), Joe Jumonville (.323) and Brad Wood (.324) all had productive offensive summers for the Oilmen.
Keith Mahler and Brian Jestice led the pitching staff with five wins apiece, Enrique Zamora set the team record with 55 strikeouts and Hunter Clark boasted a stellar 1.03 ERA out of the bullpen.
“The one word that comes to mind for this season is loose,” Enright said. “It was a lot of fun this year. I don’t know what it was about this group, but it was the loosest group as far as how they interacted with each other, how they took losses and how they took wins. It was a fun, positive atmosphere.”