By Brenden West Herald Assistant Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — DES MOINES -- Wednesday’s ousting of defending state champion Ankeny ended a little too close for comfort. After Clinton built an 8-0 lead after two innings, the Hawks chipped their deficit to within two runs in the seventh inning.
Ryan Driscoll ended hopes of a comeback, though, shutting the door with three straight strikeouts, and the River Kings escaped, 10-8, their first baseball tournament win in 43 years.
“People who saw that game last night are in their backyard pretending to be Ryan Driscoll,” Clinton coach Kevin Cunningham said a day later. “That’s a great tribute to him.”
He reported the team is still savoring the sweet victory, soaking in all the glory that coincides with a deep playoff run. The River Kings aren’t “cocky, but confident” they have the skills to garner a championship.
The focus now is on tonight’s date with Sioux City East in the semifinals, a game that has a much different billing than Wednesday’s first round. The question against Ankeny was if Clinton’s bats could strike gold against the Hawks’ high-powered aces. The River Kings connected with 10 runs on 11 hits.
The debate looming over the semifinals is which high-octane offense will rule the night.
“They’re a 30-plus win team. If you look at their stats and look at ours, we match up pretty identical,” Cunningham said. “It’s going to be a competitive game for us — the rest of these games are.”
The Black Raiders (31-9) hold slight edges in most offensive categories. They lead Class 4A with a combined .366 batting average (against Clinton’s .329). Regarding on-base percentage (.448 vs. .442), stolen bases (94 to 91) and runs (third and fourth in 4A), the two teams are neck-and-neck.
Comparing top hitters is also a toss-up. Will it be Clinton’s Cody Collender (.429, 41 RBIs, nine home runs, .493 OBP) or East’s Tyler Franko (.421, 20 doubles, 45 RBIs, .497 OBP)? The Kings’ Cody Nolan (.402, 31 RBIs) or the Raiders’ Dom Thompson-Williams (.463, 30 RBIs)? Or will other capable hitters (Clinton’s Dustin and Alex Caldwell, Driscoll come to mind) deliver?
As with Ankeny, Cunningham said he will gameplan how to isolate East’s top performers.
“(Assistant coach Bucky) Percuoco and I will pull up the stats (Thursday night),” he said. “You want to look and say who are the one or two kids on the team that can beat us. We’re taking them very seriously.”
Both teams shared one common opponent this year: Cedar Rapids Xavier. East beat the Saints 1-0 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals; the Raiders were uncharacteristically quiet with just five hits in their narrow victory. Clinton won bigger over Xavier on June 18 — 8-3 behind five extra-base hits.
The best way to silence bats, Cunningham added, is with solid pitching. Enter Clinton’s starting pitcher tonight — Jake Simpson (4-1, 4.09 ERA). The junior right-hander started the River Kings’ 10-0 substate win over Dubuque Senior 11 days ago. Simpson wrung up seven strikeouts in the shutout, and Cunningham called it the best outing he’s witnessed out of the player.
He’s anticipating more of the same against the Raiders.
“I’ve talked quite a bit with Jake Simpson,” Cunningham said. “One of the things I was concerned about earlier in the year was he played not to lose. He’s pushed through that notion. He’s confident now. Jake’s rested and ready to go. I think his confidence is high.”
A fast offensive start — a la Wednesday — and a solid bullpen can do wonders for a starter’s confidence, Cunningham added.
“I can tell a kid, ‘Give me your best five innings, Jake,’ knowing I can get some good bullpen relief,” he said.
Don’t expect to see pitchers Driscoll or Wednesday starter Cole Pennock, though, unless the River Kings move into Saturday’s championship. Instead, Jake Faur (who pitched 1 1/3 innings in the Ankeny win), Rodney Witherspoon or Jordan Chapman may get called upon.
The River Kings appear to be peaking at the right time. The win over Ankeny has been called an upset throughout Iowa; Cunningham attributed the latest boon to Clinton’s loose, no-pressure approach to the playoffs.
“Our mode has shifted from teaching skills and technique to focusing on the mental aspects,” he said.
With a battle of two deep hitting lineups ahead, don’t be surprised if a shootout breaks out. Clinton has fared well against similar teams, according to its coach.
“We feel pretty good against teams that are like us,” Cunningham said. “And we’re going to plan accordingly with our pitcher. Good pitching will always negate good hitting.”