By Dan Gilles
Senior catcher Brad Hamilton delivered the early punches. But sophomore James O’Connor landed the knockout blow.
Hamilton drove in four of his team’s five RBIs with a pair of hits, including a double, in his first two at-bats to give Avon Lake an early lead. But, after St. Ignatius began to rally in the sixth, it was O’Connor – a late addition to the varsity roster – who shut the door on the defending state runners-up for his first save.
In the end, Avon Lake held off St. Ignatius, 7-5, on Friday in the first game of the Cleveland Indians Charities Hardball Classic at Progressive Field in Cleveland to improve to 4-2. St. Ignatius fell to 5-1.
Hamilton, whose brother Nick is an Indians farmhand and father Tom is the longtime play-by-play voice of the Tribe, went 2-for-3 with a double, a run and four RBIs in the stadium that has meant so much to his family.
“It was really cool and it was a dream come true,” said Hamilton on playing at Progressive Field. “Just getting to be here and getting to play where all the major leaguers play is just a neat experience.
“The guys had great at-bats in front of me. If they don’t get on base, I don’t get the opportunity. They were able to put together great at-bats and I was fortunate enough to come up after them.”
The Wildcats beat the Shoremen, 9-1, in last year’s Hardball Classic before beating them again, 3-2, in a Division I Regional Semifinal game. St. Ignatius wound up as the Division I state runner-up.
“We’re no stranger to Ignatius, having played them twice last year and they beat us both times,” Avon Lake coach Kevin Marlow said. “We know the caliber of team that they are. Getting out to a big lead is certainly the best case scenario, and we took it.”
Hamilton said that he and his teammates thought about last year, but that it wasn’t a motivating factor.
“You always want to go out there and win,” he said. “We’ve played great games against Ignatius, and they’re a great team. They’re one of the best teams in the state. So playing against that type of caliber of a team, you always want to play your best game. We had a good approach and we tried to treat it like any other game.
“That regional semifinal stung, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s nice to beat them. But they’re just a great team and a class act.”
Avon Lake set the tone with a five-run first inning and added two more in the second, chasing St. Ignatius’ top two pitchers in Bennett Kinzel (1-1) and Dylan Smolen.
Jace Russell led off the game with a single to left, followed by back-to-back walks to load the bases for Hamilton, who drove the second pitch he saw into the gap in left for a two-run single.
Kyle Kuhar was hit by a pitch, and Payton Perry followed with a sacrifice flyout to left, scoring David Winkel to give the Shoremen a 3-0 lead.
Matt Gottshall followed with a comebacker to the mound for the second out, but Kuhar was caught too far off the second base bag. In the ensuing rundown, Hamilton broke for home plate. Ignatius shortstop Quillan Austria threw wildly to plate, way over catcher Pat Gulick’s head and sailing toward the backstop. Not only did Hamilton score, but Kuhar was able to score from second without a play at the plate, making the lead 5-0 after one.
In the second, Enzo Forlini drew a leadoff walk off of Smolen, and Russell – who went 2-for-3 with two runs – followed with a single to right. Two batters later and with the bases loaded, Hamilton delivered again, driving the first pitch he saw into the power alley in left-center for a two-run double, making it a 7-0 lead.
“He started off a little slow in our first week, but I don’t know if you can find a hotter hitter in Northeast Ohio baseball than Brad Hamilton right now,” Marlow said. “He’s hitting everything real hard and everything’s on the nose. He hit a home run (Thursday) against Amherst that’s probably still going.
“He’s a fabulous talent and a hard worker, and we’re really happy for him.”
The Wildcats, which used a different pitcher in all six innings, shut down Avon Lake following Hamilton’s double. The Shoremen were held to just one hit over the remaining 4 2/3 innings – a single by Forlini – and retired 14 of the final 15 hitters in a row to end the game.
Meanwhile, St. Ignatius began to claw back. A wild pitch in the fourth inning by reliever Logan Montague (1-0) got the Wildcats on the board. Going with pinch hitters in the sixth, they put together a four-run inning off of Logan Cherni that suddenly cut the deficit to two with two down in the inning.
Marlow turned to O’Connor – a late addition to the varsity roster for this game – to relieve Cherni with a runner on second, and the sophomore retired the final four hitters in a row for his first varsity save.
“They had me warming up throughout the whole game, so I was ready,” said O’Connor, making only his second varsity appearance of the season. “I was confident in what I would do. It was really cool to play in this huge stadium. We had a nice crowd here. It was awesome. I’ve never experienced something like this in my life.”
Marlow was pleased with O’Connor’s outing.
“We had some injuries so we brought him up, and we weren’t sure if we were going to use him today or not,” he said. “I’m glad we brought him. He’s real talented and he didn’t give up anything. We certainly like that.”