Despite an 11-19 record, the Valparaiso Crusaders have power implemented into their starting lineup. Six of its the nine batters entered Tuesday hitting above .270.
Valparaiso flexed that power throughout the midweek game against No. 25 Illinois, outslugging the Illini, 11-7, at Illinois Field.
The Crusaders’ offense went to work early, getting four runs on Illinois starter Ryan Schmitt before even recording an out. Junior and senior outfielders Blake Billinger and Giovanni Garbella gave their team back-to-back RBI singles to get the first two runs on the board.
“Tonight was just a matter of guys coming out here and putting their uniform on,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “We had no intensity. We just played poorly… It was just one thing after another where guys just didn’t have their head in the game.”
A wild pitch from Schmitt allowed the Crusaders to grab their third run of the game and sent Schmitt back to the dugout in favor of sophomore pitcher Zach Jones out of the bullpen.
Junior outfielder Doran Turchin quickly cut the deficit to one after hitting a three-run home run to left-center field in the first. A few batters later, junior catcher Jeff Korte tied the game when he sent a ball up the middle, allowing junior outfielder Jack Yalowitz to reach home.
After both teams washed in the second, the Crusaders’ bats went back to work in the third and fourth innings, getting two-run homers from senior third baseman Chad Jacob and Billinger in each frame off Jones.
After only four innings of baseball, Valparaiso had eight runs on 10 total hits.
“(Pitching staff) pitched terrible,” Hartleb said.
The Illini only responded with a run in the bottom of third inning after junior first baseman Michael Michalak singled to left field, allowing Turchin to score.
Valparaiso added three more insurance runs in the seventh inning to make the deficit seem insurmountable for Illinois (23-9, 9-3 Big Ten).
Struggles on the Mound
All season long, the Illini have gone to their bullpen to claim the starts of their midweek home games. While the relievers don’t last longer than three innings at the maximum, the bullpen gave no consistency against Valparaiso.
“We were very poor on the mound,” Hartleb said. “There wasn’t one pitcher that came out and did a good job.”
Schmitt did not last through the the first inning, failing to record an out and giving up four runs on three hits and walking two Crusaders. Jones — one of the more consistent relievers out of the bullpen this season — went 3.2 innings, giving up four runs (two two-run homers) on six hits.
Junior pitcher Quinten Sefcik replaced Jones. Valparaiso put three more runs up on him in the seventh inning.
“We were behind on the count on a regular basis, and then being behind all the time, we didn’t throw quality pitches to get ourselves either back in or an advantage count,” Hartleb said. “If you’re behind in the count a lot, you’re going to get hurt, and we got hurt continuously tonight.”
The biggest play of the game for Illinois came in the first inning when Turchin hit his three-run bomb to left-center field. The home run was his eighth of the year, already matching his total from last season.
“Main thing for me is just laying off the stuff that is out of the zone and getting a pitch I know I can hit,” Turchin said. “Lucky for me, I got ahead in the count a little and knew I was looking for a certain pitch and got it.”
With slugging first baseman Ben Spillane out with an ankle injury since Friday, Turchin has picked up the load offensively for Illinois, but he’s making sure that he isn’t trying to do too much.
“For me, I don’t go up there thinking I need to hit a home run every time, I just want to go up there and have a quality at bat,” Turchin said. “I want to hit a ball hard and whatever happens, happens.”
Illinois will be hosting a weekend series against an 19-16 Grand Canyon team. The Antelopes have been lights out in the Western Athletic Conference, going 10-2 in conference play.
“We’ll practice hard on Thursday and hopefully we’ll come out in a right frame of mind,” Hartleb said.
Alan Gorewitz was there in Cooperstown with his father when Doug Harvey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Harvey, an umpire in the National League for 30 years who died in January, was a recognizable figure behind the plate by fans during his career that stretched from the 1960s to the ‘90s. His authoritative presence and deep knowledge of the game earned him the nickname “God” from players.
The trip that landed Gorewitz at this induction ceremony was an early graduation gift from his dad. Gorewitz was a junior at Laconia High School and had played baseball his entire life.
Learning about Harvey and his influence made Gorewitz think about what a career as an umpire would be like.
“I listened to his stories and thought it would be kind of cool to get into a different aspect of the game,” said Gorewitz, who also tried coaching before finding an interest in officiating.
In 2012, the year after Gorewitz graduated high school, he attended an umpire school and began working college games. This year, Gorewitz underwent advanced training with the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., and in February was hired to umpire Minor League games beginning this summer.
Gorewitz will start his pro career in the Arizona League in June and is believed to be the first umpire from New Hampshire to reach the professional ranks in a couple of decades.
Now 25, Gorewitz started umpiring college baseball when he was 19 and says it’s better to get started early.
“You can build your confidence early and learn as much as you can,” he said. “Most associations look for young guys and if you can get started early you’re going to be just like in my boat. I did college baseball before I ever did a high school varsity game.”
There were some early challenges for Gorewitz when he went to Glens Falls, N.Y., to work in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in 2013. The obvious one was the age difference. Gorewitz, barely 20 years old at the time, was trying to build his confidence as an umpire while working with college coaches, some of whom had been coaching longer than he had been alive.
“I was still young for the game, I had only been umpiring for a little bit of time,” he said. “The coaches and even with the players, I learned so much from them. It was probably the first time I saw someone throw 95. I had to adjust. I learned a lot from them and how they play the game and I adapted to that to umpire that season.”
The most important thing for an umpire, Gorewitz said, is to have intuition and a solid understanding of the game and its nuances. Most of instinct can be gained by playing. Gorewitz played all through his youth and high school. Now positioned with a different perspective, he finds he is learning more.
“Have a feel for the game, that’s the big thing,” he said. “If a guy were to get hit (by a pitch) and you see a bit of glaring between the pitcher and the batter, you’ve kind of got to know how to read that situation. Just have a feel for the game instead of jumping on guys and throwing guys out because one guy got hit. If a guy hits a monster home run and then they hit him next time up, now you have more things you’ve got to think about and whether that might have been intentional or not. You have to have that feel for the game and having played the game all my life helps. It makes it easier for me to understand what’s going on in sequences throughout the game, keep control of it.”
Eventually, the number of innings Gorewitz has spent behind the plate will surpass those that he spent standing at the plate. He’s already gained a lot of knowledge in his experience and shared some of it with prospective umpires at a New Hampshire Baseball Umpires Associations’ training session in Laconia last month. Gorewitz worked with students on plate mechanics and calling balls and strikes.
He’s also experienced the uglier parts of the job, like the confrontation of a snarling manager or frustrated player. He’s getting better at handling those situations.
“One thing I’ve learned is when they come out and yell at you, they’re yelling at the uniform and not the person,” he said. “As an umpire you have to understand that nothing out there is personal. When you realize that, it really makes that situation a lot easier to handle.”
Gorewitz is trying to make this his career and has the goal of eventually reaching the majors. In the meantime, he’ll begin tuning his method this summer in the minors.
Baseball has long been a passion in Gorewitz’s life and seeing the Hall of Fame honor one of the great umpires in Doug Harvey set him on this path. Having that level of command in the game is something he is striving toward.
“Once you walk on that field you have to show both teams and the managers that you have control of the game, that you’re here to do your job and you’re not just here to collect a paycheck,” he said.
(Nick Stoico can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NickStoico.)