PEORIA — Ross Learnard, in his own words, “had my doubts.”
Then, the Salt Fork junior pitcher struck out the first three batters he faced in the Storm’s first appearance in the Class 1A IHSA baseball state semifinals.
“Getting those first three outs was big,” the left-hander said. “The nerves settled in.”
In a game where each team scored in only one inning, it came down to which squad had the biggest inning.
Putnam County tallied all of its runs with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and sent the Storm into today’s 10 a.m. third-place game with a 3-1 setback at Dozer Park.
Salt Fork scored its run in the top of the second, and Learnard made it hold up the next 42/3 innings.
“Why I had my doubts is my bullpen (outings) were just OK,” Learnard said. “Even on my warmup pitches today I wasn’t throwing strikes, but in the game I had command.”
Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen received the performance he had hoped from a pitcher who had worked 71/3 innings this spring prior to Friday.
“Ross threw very well. They had a difficult time figuring him out,” Hansgen said. “He’d had about seven bullpen sessions prior to this.”
Hansgen never questioned the decision to start a pitcher who had last thrown in a game more than a month ago.
“He was our No. 1 pitcher a year ago. He’s probably our best at covering the bunt game and holding runners on,” Hansgen said.
Putnam County coach David Garcia acknowledged he didn’t have much of a scouting report on Learnard. What he knew came from the $5 program.
“We didn’t know much, but from the few innings he’d thrown, he looked pretty dominant,” Garcia said. “I knew if he threw he’d be ready and we’d have our hands full.”
The feeling of unfamiliarity worked both ways. Learnard was OK with that.
“That’s how it is all summer,” he said. “You get used to it, not knowing anything about the teams.”
Salt Fork got to the Panthers’ starter, Harold Fay, early. Cole Taylor led off the second inning with a triple over the center fielder’s head and scored one batter later on Max Stutsman’s sacrifice fly to center.
The Storm (22-8) didn’t let up.
“I knew one (run) probably wouldn’t get it done,” Taylor said.
The right-handed Fay got stronger as the game progressed. Three of Salt Fork’s first 11 batters collected hits. From there, Fay retired 13 of the final 15 Storm players, allowing only back-to-back two-out hits in the fifth to Colton Baird and Noah Darr.
While Learnard was fanning nine batters — two shy of the Class 1A state tournament record — Fay struck out four.
“We put the ball in play and made them field the ball,” Stutsman said. “We hit hard shots right at them.”
Hansgen said that’s the nature of the sport.
“In baseball, you wait and see what happens,” Hansgen said. “You can hit it off the end of the bat and have nine hits or rifle it all over the place and only get a few hits. That’s why baseball is so special.”
Putnam County’s sixth inning had an ominous start. After a leadoff single, the Panthers failed to advance the runner, Learnard throwing out Cody Ballerini at second following an attempted bunt.
“That’s how we play,” Garcia said. “Base to base. We try to get guys in scoring position. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Learnard fanned the Putnam cleanup hitter, Jack Egan, but the base runner stole second. The Panthers scored the tying run on a single by Justin Pettit. Though Learnard had a two-strike count on the next hitter, Austin Pletsch, the Panthers’ designated hitter delivered the go-ahead run on a double into right field.
“Usually guys will change their approach with two outs,” Garcia said, “but Austin hung in there.”
Hansgen didn’t second-guess the choice to leave Learnard in the game until the Putnam County lead reached 3-1.
“He had been doing good all day,” Hansgen said. “Those balls could have been where someone could have gotten a glove on them.”
Despite his lack of innings this season, Learnard walked no one and threw nearly three-fourths of his pitches in the strike zone (57 of 80).
“I think I ran out of gas,” he said. “I didn’t feel it, but they hit me, so something must have been different.”
He was happy to have had the chance.
“I love pitching,” he said. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s fun to have the ball in your hands.”