Despite a slow start on Friday, the Lipscomb Bisons rounded out this weekend with a 2-1 series win against the University of Illinois Chicago Flames.
Friday’s game did not go as expected. The game began with no runs for either the Flames or the Bisons in the first inning. UIC came close, loading the bases, but junior, left-handed starting pitcher Michael Dunkelberger struck out the next two batters and retired the side.
In the top of the second, Flames redshirt sophomore outfielder AJ Henkle smacked a ball clear over the centerfield fence for a solo home run, giving them the lead in the game. The dinger was the only score UIC would have in the second, and they would not score again until the fourth.
The Bisons could not gain momentum in the second or third innings, ending both with no base runners reaching.
The fourth inning saw UIC’s junior infielder Max Farfan and Henkle reach on singles, respectively. With those two on bases, UIC junior infielder Zane Zielinski doubled down the left field line, bringing both runners home. Zielinski would round the bases a little later in the inning, taking the Flames’ lead to 4-0.
The Bisons gained a little momentum in the fourth, seeing one hit, but the inning closed with two left on base and no runs for the Bisons.
Neither the Flames nor the Bisons saw any runs in the fifth inning. In the top of the sixth, Bison pitcher Tyler Legere came to the mound, successfully fouling out UIC’s Bobby Grimes to first base. The Flames added two runs to their lead later in the sixth, bringing the score to 6-0, and Bisons sophomore left-handed pitcher Hayden Frank avoided further damage.
It was junior outfielder Alex Vergara, coming up big for the Bisons in the bottom of the sixth, hitting a homer to center field and reinvigorating his team. The momentum play was his first home run of the season.
The Bisons held the Flames at six runs in the top of the seventh. Building off Vergara’s homer, Caleb Ketchup sent a ball clear over the left field wall, nailing his first home run of the season and bringing the Bisons closer to the Flames at 6-2.
Zielinski managed to get one more run on the Bisons in the top of the eighth, but after that, the Bisons — with junior right-hander Chandler Giles pitching — held the Flames where they were.
The Bisons began to rally in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases. Bisons junior catcher Jake Berg slammed a double down the left field line, bringing sophomore infielders Trace Wilhoite and Mason Lundgrin home, cutting the deficit to only three runs. Unfortunately, the inning would conclude before the Bisons could do any further damage.
Junior right-hander Collin Witzke pitched for the Bisons in the ninth, striking out two and allowing no base runners.
In the bottom of the ninth, Vergara walked to first, causing the Flames to switch pitchers. Lundgrin hammered in a triple off of new pitcher Matt Zahora, sending Vergara home — to the Bison’s delight. Unfortunately, the Bisons already sat at one out, and the next two batters struck out swinging, closing the ninth with the Flames ahead by two.
Vergara and Lundgrin had solid games, going 2-of-4 and 3-of-4 at the plate, respectively. Vergara and Ketchup both hit their first solo homers of the season. The loss invigorated the Bisons to play with their all on Saturday, the next game in the weekend series.
Saturday brought a wet and cloudy atmosphere to Ken Dugan Field, but the Bisons zoned in on a bounce back.
“This is a statement game,” said junior left-handed pitcher Logan VanTreeck. “How are we gonna respond to losing yesterday? It’s time to make a statement.”
The game started quickly, with the Flames bringing home two runners in the first. The Bisons response was high-octane, as Trace Wilhoite slammed it out of the park to bring home the two runners already on base, bringing the score up to 3-2 in the Bisons’ favor.
Bisons’ starting pitcher, fifth-year right-hander Ethan Smith held the Flames in the second inning, allowing one hit but no runs.
The Bisons continued their streak in the bottom of the second when sophomore outfielder Will Lee sent the ball over the left field fence to bring in a solo homer and advance the Bisons’ lead to two.
In the top of the third the Flames managed to bring home two baserunners and take the score up to tied at four. Lipscomb’s Wilhoite would answer immediately in the bottom of the third, slamming yet another ball over the left field fence and inching forward the Bisons’ lead to 5-4.
The score tipped in the Flames’ favor in the top of the fourth, where the Bisons walked in two runs, and a sacrifice fly by UIC’s redshirt sophomore infielder Breck Nowik brought another runner home. The Bisons had two hits in the bottom of the fourth but couldn’t get anyone home, leaving the score at 5-7 in the Flames’ favor.
There was no change to the score for either team until the bottom of the sixth inning, where Bisons fifth-year utility man Chaz Bertolani launched the ball over the left field fence for a solo homer and closed the Flames’ lead to just one.
The Flames scored once more in the top of the seventh to take their lead back up to two runs. The Bisons brought Logan VanTreeck to the mound after the run, and he effectively held the Flames, allowing no further hits or runs.
VanTreeck closed the game with two solid innings, pitching a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the eighth and allowing no hits and no runs in the top of the ninth.
When the bottom of the ninth began, the Bisons were still trailing the Flames by two runs. That was when the rally came into full gear. Caleb Ketchup walked to first, and after that, sophomore infielder David Coppedge hit a single that moved Ketchup to second. In a strategic move, junior outfielder Kyle Hetherington came in as a pinch runner for Coppedge. With two on base and one out already on the board, Alex Vergara came up to bat.
Vergara cleared the fence, bringing in three runs for the Bisons to walk it off with a 9-8 victory. The response was electric. The pitchers and catchers in the bullpen flung their hats, helmets, and gloves clear into the air. The team shot out from the dugout and the bullpen and raced to surround home base before Vergara came home.
When Vergara flew home, he was pulled into the middle of a jumping, shouting, cheering mass of teammates. The celebration was exuberant, with the team pulling Vergara’s jersey off while still jumping around and whooping.
Sunday’s game, as expected, started with a bang. Starting pitcher for the Bisons, graduate right-hander Brayden Tucker, held the Flames at nothing through the top of the first, while the Bisons rounded out the bottom of the first with three runs off a hit over the left field wall by Chaz Bertolani.
The score stayed 3-0 in the Bisons’ favor through the next two innings. Tucker had two straight 1-2-3 innings while possessing good command of his pitches.
In the top of the fourth, UIC’s AJ Henkle sent a single up the middle, which brought Carson Roberts — on third — home. The spark took the score to 3-1, but Tucker closed the inning without any further runs from the Flames.
The Flames managed to move the score up to tied at three in the top of the fifth and held it there through the bottom of the fifth. Bisons’ pitcher Noah Thompson came to the mound in the top of the sixth and kept the Flames at three.
In the bottom of the sixth, with Trace Wilhoite on second, Bertolani slammed it over the left field wall again to bring in his second homer of the game and move the Bisons up by two.
The Flames inched up one run in the top of the seventh, taking the score to 5-4. The Bisons answered in the bottom of the seventh with a double from Wilhoite that brought Lundgrin home from second and a sacrifice fly from Bertolani that brought Wilhoite home to take the score to 7-4.
Thompson pitched a 1-2-3 inning of his own in the top of the eighth, shortening the Flames’ chances for a rally. The Bisons came close to adding more insurance to their score in the bottom of the eighth, but ended up closing out the inning with three runners on bases and keeping their three run lead.
The Flames had one hit in the top of the ninth, Breck Nowik doubling down the third base line, but that was all they would get in the ninth.
The game ended with the Bisons taking the win, seven runs to four. This closed the series in the Bisons’ favor, taking the series two-to-one.
“That’s a tough team. I think that team is really gritty and they’re a tough team and they’re hard to play against, so I was proud of our guys just coming back after losin’ the first one,” said Head Coach Jeff Forehand after the game Sunday. “We always talk about how the goal is when you play good baseball you’ve got a chance to win. It’s a simple game, and we played pretty solid.”
Forehand said the name of the game was to win series, even if you don’t win every game. “I mean, you wanna win every game, and you can look back and go ‘oh we shoulda swept them,’ ‘oh we shoulda X’ but at the end of the series if you win it then you’ve played pretty good.”
This weekend had been great for the team, Forehand said, and had them all looking forward to Tuesday. “I really thought we swung the bats good, and we had good pitching. I think it’s great, it’s just a building block for the next game on Tuesday and then goin’ into the weekend. I feel like some guys got off to a slow start, but I know we’re gonna hit, and when they come around and we’ve got everybody swingin’ it, I think we’re gonna be a whole lot better. And the pitching staff, we’re so deep… it’s exciting to know that… we can go up and down there, with so many guys that throw really well. So I’m lookin’ forward to when they get out there on Tuesday.”
The Bisons next game is on February 28th, in Cookeville, Tennessee, against Tennessee Tech. The first pitch is set for three in the afternoon.
Photos taken by Micah Barkley