By Brenden West
Assistant Sports Editor
A familiar sight returned to the Eagle Heights Elementary ballpark Friday. Perhaps the only indication it was the same baseball team that was swept by Davenport Assumption on Thursday was another breakout pitching performance.
Rodney Witherspoon threw seven innings of two-hit ball, striking out four in Clinton High’s 8-1 win over Midland. It was a return to form for the River Kings as a whole; they have scored eight or more runs in eight of 14 games this season. When scoring that high, the team is 7-1, with its only loss coming to Bettendorf last week.
Friday night featured aggressive base-running and fluid fielding, something that was missing against Assumption.
“Our morale was down last night, but our kids tend to forget those things,” Clinton coach Kevin Cunningham said. “I think we played more relaxed tonight. We were more aggressive to the ball, both on hitting and on defense. I think we played a complete game tonight.”
In seven innings, the River Kings out-hit their Thursday output nine hits to eight. Three of those hits came from senior co-captain Cody Collender, who also finished with two RBIs and four stolen bases in the win. Cody Nolan added a two-hit, one-RBI performance after failing to reach base the previous night.
More encouraging to Cunningham, though, was what both players did defensively. After Thursday’s losses he told both Codys (Nolan the shortstop, Collender the second baseman) he expected more from his middle infield.
“In our pregame, we talked about being more aggressive to the ball —particularly our middle infielders — and I think they did a great job tonight,” Cunningham said.
“I definitely felt different tonight from last night,” Collender said. “(Coach) has talked to me, he’s talked to Cody Nolan, about how a lot of our errors are middle infield errors. He really gave us a good talk about that last night, how we need to field if we want to be atop the (Mississippi Athletic Conference).”
That was evident in the third inning, when the Eagles put a runner on first with one out. Brandon Dirks looped a hit several yards into the outfield on what was undoubtedly a base hit. After missing the initial catch, Collender swooped near the baseline, twirled and fired a strike to teammate Jordan Chapman’s glove for the out.
The play might’ve saved a run with Midland popping out to end the inning on the next batter, leaving a runner stranded at second.
“When you come out in the first inning strong like we did, that obviously helps a lot,” Collender said. “When everything’s clicking, it’s just a much better time.”
Witherspoon shut down his first six batters to keep the game scoreless through the second inning. In the bottom of that frame, Nolan reached first on a bunt, then stole his way through the next two bases. Teammate Jake Simpson sacrificed to bring Nolan home, putting Clinton up 1-0. Two batters later, Jake Faur drove home Evan Jackson on a left-field double to the fence, making it 2-0.
On his 16th birthday, Jackson reached base on each plate appearance, drawing three walks and scoring twice.
Meanwhile, Witherspoon continued his dominance all the way into the last frame. He threw fewer than 10 pitches in four different innings, going three-up-three-down in the first, second, fourth and sixth.
“I was just throwing strikes and having my defense work,” Witherspoon said, adding: “That game was for Evan Jackson — The Birthday Boy.”
Cunningham added: “I haven’t used Rodney as much ... but every time I’ve used Rodney he’s come through for us. Every time we’ve had him come out, Rodney’s pitched well.”
Witherspoon’s shutout bid was broken up when Tyler Stepp stole home on a double steal attempt by Midland in the fourth. Clinton responded with three runs in the home half of the inning to put the game out of reach.
The River Kings improved to 8-6 on the year and set themselves back on track for today’s home three-team tournament. Originally scheduled for May 25, the Clinton Invitational will feature Camanche and Northeast in round-robin play.
“We have no choice but to come out strong in these games,” Collender said. “Give us a better attitude going into (conference) again. Getting these wins is going to help a lot.”
CLINTON 8, MIDLAND 1
Midland 000 010 0 — 1 2 1
Clinton 023 030 X — 8 9 1
Ryan Leonard (2 2/3 ip, 6 h, 5 r, 4 bb, 1 so), Brandon Dirks (1 2/3 ip, 3 h, 3 r, 3 er, 2 bb), Kasey Lasack (2/3 ip, 2 h, 0 r), Hagan Ackley (1 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 1 bb) and Cole Lineburg; Rodney Witherspoon (7 ip, 2 h, 1 r, 2 bb, 4 so) and Murray Henricks. Multiple hits — Clinton (Cody Collender 3, Ryan Driscoll 2, Cody Nolan 2). 2B — Clinton (Jake Faur, Driscoll). RBIs — Clinton (Faur 2, Collender 2, Driscoll 2, Nolan, Jake Simpson). SB — Midland (Tyler Stepp 2, Ben Carstensen), Clinton (Collender 4, Driscoll, Jordan Chapman, Nolan 2, Dustin Caldwell, Evan Jackson 2).