TERRE HAUTE —
This evening’s 7:05 p.m. home baseball game at Bob Warn Field against the Springfield Sliders is arguably the most important one in the two-year history of the Terre Haute Rex.
So it’s nice that the home team will go into it with guns blazing.
Stephen Bruno, almost certainly the Prospect League’s hottest hitter — and its probable batting champion, if only he had enough at-bats to qualify — had three hits to lead a 13-hit attack and Nick Heinz stepped up with a gutty performance on the mound Thursday as the Rex downed the Hannibal Cavemen 6-4 before 1,519 fans, this year’s second-largest crowd.
With two games remaining in their regular season, the Rex host the team that’s a half game ahead of them in the West Division’s second-half standings. A couple of scenarios exist that would put Terre Haute in the Prospect League playoffs, but the simplest one would be for the Rex to catch both Springfield and Quincy — a half game in front of the Sliders — to become second-half champions.
“These are a very important couple of games,” said Bruno after Thursday’s win. “We need to keep our winning streak going into the playoffs.”
“I knew the since we’re in the chase, this was a big game,” added Heinz. “I’m happy how it went.”
Neither player was in Terre Haute at the beginning of what’s been an injury-plagued season for the Rex, but both seem happy they got here.
“Terre Haute is a great place to play, and I feel really welcome,” said Bruno, a starter for the No. 1 college team in the country at Virginia before a season-ending injury early this past spring. “It’s been a blast.”
Blast is what Bruno has been doing at bat lately, his 3-for-3 performance Thursday lifting his average to an unofficial .424. “I’m seeing it pretty well,” he admitted afterward.
He wasn’t needed in the first Rex rally, however. Singles by Nick Johnson and John Loeffler and a pickoff error had runners at second and third with one out in the bottom of the second, but Hannibal’s Ethan Schlecte got his fourth strikeout in the first two innings to nearly escape the jam. Jacob Hayes kept the inning alive with a two-out walk, however, and Ronnie Mitchell cleared the bases with a double over the head of the Cavemen’s right fielder.
Heinz retired seven of the first eight batters he faced, and picked the other off base. But with two outs in the top of the third, he suffered his only letdown of the game.
Ray Fuentes singled, and Heinz issued a walk — his only one of the game to go with 11 strikeouts, as it turned out. Matt Burton then flared a double down the left-field line; Nick Rountree followed with his second double of the game, a line drive that threatened the left-field Fowl Pole; and Jeff Zimmerman grounded a single to right to suddenly put the visitors ahead.
“He’s a very smart pitcher, but he needs to work from ahead [in the count],” Rex pitching coach John Howes said of Heinz after the game. “He didn’t do that [in the third inning], but he adjusted and pitched a great game — and we needed it.”
“We got back really late [Thursday morning, from a two-game road trip to DeKalb County], and I had to come out and give it my best,” said Heinz, appearing in just his fifth game with the Rex. “My control wasn’t as good [in the third inning], and [the Cavemen] hit a few good pitches; I tip my hat to them for that.
“But I had to refocus to come back the rest of the game and do what I did.”
In his last five innings, Heinz allowed just three baserunners — two singles and a hit batsman — and at one point retired four straight batters on a total of four pitches. Mitchell had a pair of good catches in center field, Koby Kraemer had a defensive gem at third base, and Heinz covered first base as the Rex converted a 3-6-1 double play.
“It was a gutty performance by Heinz,” said coach Ronnie Prettyman, “and we played really good defense behind him.”
Prettyman, who also celebrated his 30th birthday Thursday, was partially in charge along with Howes and Darrin Barton. Manager Brian Dorsett was the victim of another dubious ejection at DeKalb County, and is serving a three-game suspension.
Kraemer was one of the Rex players who vowed before Thursday’s game to win it for their manager, and did his part as Terre Haute regained the lead in the bottom of the third. Bruno doubled over the bag at third, Kraemer followed with an RBI single, and Kraemer stole second and third ahead of a sacrifice fly by Loeffler that proved to be the game-winning RBI.
Just to make sure, however, Chace Mitchell crushed a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth to give the Rex some insurance, and Chris Bossenbery earned his ninth save with what’s becoming a typical inning for him — a strikeout and a double play.
“The guys know where we’re at [in the standings] and what we’ve got to do,” Prettyman said after the game. “We needed to get a win today and we did … we’ll take tomorrow tomorrow.”
Asked about Bruno’s recent offensive explosion, Prettyman said, “We’re hoping Bruno and keep it hot, but up and down the line we’ve got a lot of guys swinging well.”
Unlikely to play for the Rex today is Joe Meggs, who cut his finger while batting in the bottom of the first inning and was replaced by Chris Roglen.