The Rams did what they have done all year. They used quality pitching, solid defense and clutch hitting to grind out a win against the Temperance Bedford Kicking Mules in the state title game in Battle Creek on June 18.
Four of the seven playoff games from districts to the state title game were one-run ballgames, and the Rams came out on top in all of them. They seem to have a “never say die” attitude and someone always steps up to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It was no different Saturday afternoon for the program’s first state title in baseball.
Rockford was out-hit by Temperance Bedford (TB) 6-8, but not outplayed. The Rams faced one of the toughest left-handed pitchers in the state in Trent Szkutnik, but took advantage of walks, a hit batter and timely hits to beat him.
The game began with TB getting on the board first by scoring a run in the first inning with two base hits. In the bottom of the first, Szkutnik walked the first three Ram batters to load the bases but then got two shallow fly balls and a strikeout to end the threat.
Senior left-hander, Joe Kropiewnicki held TB scoreless in the second with a 1-2-3 inning. In the bottom of the second for the Rams, Ian Stankus was hit by a pitch and moved over to second base by an Andrew Rademacher ground ball. Drew Farmer came through with a base hit to score Stankus, putting the Rams on the board.
Kropiewnicki threw another scoreless inning in the third, highlighted by Rademacher tracking down a deeply hit fly ball by Mules hitter Jackson Lamb at the warning track. In the Ram half of the inning, shortstop Shain Showers deposited a letter high fastball from Szkutnik far over the left field fence for a solo homerun to put the Rams ahead 2-1.
In the fourth inning, the Mules scored one more with two outs in the inning when they had a triple, a walk and a single. That tied the game at 2-2. In the bottom half, the Rams threatened with two outs as well, when Farmer walked and Brandon Nostrant was hit by a pitch, but Szkutnik escaped any damage.
The top of the fifth inning saw the Mules add two more runs on a single from sophomore Jackson Lamb, a double from Szkutnik and a single from Kyle Kuhr. After an error on the infield, Kropiewnicki was lifted and replaced by fellow left-handed senior Austin Stephens. Stephens got two shallow fly balls to end the inning. In the Ram half of the inning, Rockford scored on a triple by Tony DiLeo and balk by Szkutnik. At the end of five, it was TB leading 4-3.
Stephens held the Mules scoreless again in the sixth, striking out two and making a great play toward the third baseline on a swinging bunt to throw to first and get the runner. In the bottom half, Rockford took the lead for good as they scored two more runs. With two outs, Farmer drew a walk. That was followed by a single by Nostrant. Showers followed with a game-tying single of his own. That tied the score at 4-4. DiLeo came to bat and, with two strikes, went with a fastball on the outside corner to hit a single over the second baseman’s head that scored Nostrant, giving the Rams the lead.
The Rams went into the top of the seventh up 5-4. Stephens got the first hitter to pop up on the infield, a fly ball to right and struck out the last batter of the inning to seal the championship for the Rams. The dogpile on the mound ensued.
Offensively, Showers was 2-3 with two RBI, including the game-tying hit and a homerun. DiLeo was 2-3 as well with an RBI, which happened to be the game winner. He had a triple as well. Farmer was on base all four plate appearances and was 1-1 with three walks and an RBI. Nostrant was 1-2. His single in the sixth kept things going during the Ram rally. Stankus didn’t have a hit, but was hit by a pitch and scored on Farmer’s single in the second inning. Each run was crucial in what was a well-played game.
Kropiewnicki got the start on the mound. He has been so consistent all season. He didn’t have his best stuff, but worked hard to keep the Rams in contention. He did a great job of minimizing runs allowed to the Mules after the Rams had scored. His line was 4-1/3 IP, 4H, 4R, 4ER, 1BB, 3K. Stephens came on in relief for the second day in a row to garner the win, as he did in the semifinal game against Portage Central. He has been tough on left-handed hitters with his different arm slots and again got the job done for the Rams. Stephens’ line was 2-2/3 IP, 1H, 0R, 1BB, 4K.
One point to note, and give credit, was Coach Ian Hearn’s uncanny ability to win a coin toss. The Rams were home team in five of the seven playoff games, beginning at Northview for the districts all the way to Battle Creek for the championship.
The Rams’ motto of GBED (Get Better Every Day) was something they certainly took to heart this season. Congratulations, Rockford baseball!