Even Joe’s Bakery never had anything as sweet as Free State High junior Cody Kukuk’s swing from the left side. So when Kukuk stood at the plate with first base open after a passed ball in the sixth inning of a one-run game Thursday, nobody was surprised to see Shawnee Mission North coach Jayson Poppinga order a free pass.
Now the pressure shifted to Tim Lewis, the cleanup hitter denied so many RBI opportunities because Kukuk has a tendency to clear bases and fences.
“Make him pay for it,” shot a voice from the crowd, telling Lewis nothing he didn’t already intend to do.
Lewis delivered. His high shot took off like an airplane, a two-run double deep to right-center, the key hit in a 10-run inning that gave Free State a 13-3 victory against the winless Indians, who were tied entering the bottom of the inning that ended with the mercy rule being invoked.
“It motivates me, definitely,” Lewis said of coming to the plate after a free pass. “I was 0-for-2 at the beginning of the game, and I was ready to get a hit.”
Said Free State coach Mike Hill, whose team assured Thursday the school will open regionals with a home game for the eighth consecutive season: “Tim hits behind Cody for a reason, because Tim Lewis can hit.”
Asked if he liked hitting behind Kukuk (3-for-3, three doubles, three RBIs, two walks) in the Firebirds’ lineup, Lewis answered with a definite maybe.
“Yeah, I like it sometimes,” Lewis said. “If he’s not hitting bombs all the time.”
The game ended when Kukuk smashed a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double to left for which he received credit for driving in just two runs because of the 10-run mercy rule.
Winning pitcher Colin Toalson (4-1, four saves) started the game at shortstop, where he does such a graceful job of covering a lot of ground and zinging accurate throws, and finished it on the mound, sooner than he had hoped after picking up three strikeouts in two scoreless innings.
“I was saying in the dugout, I hope Cody hits a pea right at somebody so I can get back out there and pitch,” Toalson said. “I was feeling it.”
Toalson, who smoked two doubles and drove in three runs, is in the midst of a most impressive junior season.
“He’s just a very good high school baseball player,” Hill said. “He doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but he’s a very, very good shortstop, on par with some very good ones we’ve had here before. And you can see where he’s headed down the road with the bat. On the mound he’s got good velocity, control of his breaking ball and he’s a tough son of a gun. Loves to compete.”
Free State sent 14 batters to the plate in the sixth, drew four walks and rapped 18 hits, including two apiece off the bats of Ryan Scott and Nick Hassig, who delivered the tie-breaking hit, a single to center, and drove in another run later in the inning with a single to right.
Leadoff hitter Connor Stremel also had a big day for the Firebirds (14-4 overall, 8-2 in Sunflower League play). He reached base on a hit or walk in all five trips to the plate and showed his tremendous speed with a pair of stolen bases and a running catch in shallow left-center to strand a pair of runners in the fourth inning.
The victory came on senior day for 12 players on the roster: Eric Anderson, Greg Davis, Cory Delg, Hayden Emerson, Hassig, Austin Holladay, Michael Lisher, Adam Petz, Bo Schneider, Scott, Stremel and Robert Wagner (three strikeouts in 1 2⁄3 innings of relief Thursday).