Oak Creek senior pitcher Chris Bournelis is the team's ace with a 7-0 record and coach Scott Holler has the utmost trust in him.
But when Bournelis was tiring in the sixth inning of what would be the Knights' pivotal 4-3 victory over archrival and defending WIAA state champion Franklin Thursday night, he knew who he could trust to save the game for him and the team.
"I want to be out there everytime when the team needs me," said Bournelis who complained only a little of some soreness and fatigue. "I want them to have faith that I can get the job done."
"But I know I can hand it off to him (pointing to junior closer Austin Barbee) anytime I need to."
Barbee, who pitched an inning and two-thirds of scoreless ball to earn the save and give Oak Creek and Bournelis the win, just smiled and said "Thanks, man!"
With the decision, the Greater Metro Conference race just got that much tighter, as the Knights avenged an early season loss to the Sabers and took a tenuous lead in the league standings at 11-2 (15-2 overall) while Franklin fell to 10-2 (13-2 overall).
"It was important that we earn a split with them, because if they had won that would have been a huge swing," said Knight coach Scott Holler. "...Our pitchers did a great job out there. That's a great hitting team (Franklin) and for us to hold them to three runs is no small feat."
The pivotal tilt hinged on things both large and small. It featured three solo home runs, a couple of key calls and some huge defensive plays.
Franklin grabbed the initial lead when outfielder and leadoff hitter Evan Walton took Bournelis' 3-2 pitch and rode it on out over Abendschein Park's left-centerfield fence for a 1-0 lead.
"That was not an impressive start for us," said Holler.
But the Knight offense had Bournelis' back too, as Kyle Veloz ripped an RBI double and Hayden Krimmer followed that with an RBI single in the Oak Creek half of the first.
Krimmer tried to go to second on the throw, but Saber catcher Jesse Palok threw him out to end the inning.
Earlier in the Knight first, the Sabers' thought pitcher Ryan Geil had picked off the Knights' Ryan Ungerecht at first, but he was called safe.
That proved important, because Veloz followed that shortly thereafter with his RBI double.
"I was surprised that he wasn't called out," said Sabers' coach Jim Hughes. "There were three close calls like that in the game, and they all went against us."
Franklin battled back in the third as outfielder Jay Dirienzo deposited another Bournelis pitch to almost the same spot as Walton's to tie the score at 2-2.
But the Knights took the lead for good in the bottom of the third as the Sabers' infielders couldn't handle a nubber hit into the wet grass and the subsequent error left the speedy Gribble on second base.
After Gribble advanced to third on a groundout, he scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. Catcher Josh Jesko then followed that with a booming home run to left to make it 4-2.
It remained that way until the fifth when the Sabers' Trevor Theissen got on by through a throwing error and then scored on Dirienzo's single. It got even tighter for Oak Creek and Bournelis when after a groundout, Holler chose to intentionally walk Franklin reliever Evan Kruczynski.
That was followed by a single from Ian Malmstadt to load the bases. Malmstadt went in after third baseman Marcus Schlemm hurt his foot after crossing the bag while grounding out in the third.
But Bournelis got out of the jam by striking out Joel Kornhoff to end the inning.
After Kruczynski notched the second of three straight one-two-three innings for Franklin in the fifth, the Sabers again put pressure on the Knights. After a single and a sacrifice put a runner on second, Holler decided that the game Bournelis had had enough and called on Barbee.
But it didn't begin promisingly, as Barbee promptly walked Walton on four pitches to put the lead run on base.
"I didn't impress myself at all with that move," Barbee chuckled. But then he got Theissen to fly out to Gribble in center and then got the dangerous Dirienzo to strike out to end the sixth.
In the seventh, Barbee ran into a little more trouble, walking Geil to start the frame. But after a poor bunt attempt resulted in a fielder's choice at second, Barbee finally retired Malmstadt on a flyout to center after a long battle at the plate and then struck out Kornhoff on a nice-looking breaking ball to end the game.
"The thing with Oak Creek is that they show up every game," said Hughes, "and they have a really nice pitching staff. Their kids throw it hard. ...but we have a long ways to go yet. We have six games next week (due to rainouts) and then we'll know where we stand."
"It'll be a tough road for all of us."
Bournelis finished with four strikeouts and three walks while Barbee had two strikeouts and two walks.
"Chris has been a horse for all year, all the big games," said Holler. "He wasn't hurt (in the sixth). He just wanted Josh (Jesko) to know that this was going to be his last time through the order."
"....This is a big win. That first one (to Franklin) hurt, because we left 14 on base. Because of that the kids were really looking forward to this one but they also know that every game counts."
But some count more than others.
"I knew I couldn't let those walks get to my head so I just bore down a little harder," said Barbee, "because it's very important that we beat them. We need to know that we can do that (before the GMC tournament)."
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