When taking in a Free State High baseball game, it can be easy — too easy, in fact — to become infatuated with watching all-world senior Cody Kukuk at the plate or on the mound.
Thursday night, during the Firebirds’ 7-5, City Showdown victory against Lawrence High at Kansas University’s Hoglund Ballpark, Kukuk ripped a solo home run that tied the game in the sixth inning and earned the save by striking out four of the eight batters he faced.
While Kukuk’s heroics were huge in the outcome, the performance was ho-hum by his standards. You know, you hit 90-plus mph on the radar gun and split the seams on the baseball with a single swing.
On this night, though, Kukuk’s teammates elevated their game around him. All 11 Firebirds who played contributed positively in the victory.
There was Tim Lewis, the guy in charge of protecting Kukuk in the batting order, whose two-RBI, bloop triple on an 0-2 pitch in the fourth led to the Firebirds’ biggest inning.
First baseman Montana Samuels, a junior, was 2-for-3 with two RBIs, including a single in the sixth that gave FSHS a 6-5 lead.
An inning later, Dylan Perry’s aggressive base-running between second and third forced an errant throw from LHS and allowed him to trot home with Free State’s oh-so-important insurance run.
The Free State highlights weren’t limited to clutch hits and heads-up plays. Preston Schenck laid down a sacrifice bunt in the top of the first, proof positive that, at this point in the season, the Firebirds are willing to do whatever it takes to increase their chances of winning.
Sophomore Anthony Miele singled in his first at-bat. Fellow-sophomores Dane McCullough and Lee McMahon also chipped in. McCullough walked to load the bases and extend the inning in the second, and McMahon, Free State's catcher, threw out two LHS base runners on steal attempts at second base.
Joe Dineen’s double in the fifth, which rammed into the left-field wall before landing, might cost Free State some moola in fence repair. And pitchers Colin Toalson (five strikeouts in four innings) and J.D. Prochaska, who got the win while retiring four of the five batters he faced, kept the Firebirds in it long enough for Kukuk to be the difference.
For years, the Firebirds were feared because they so often did the little things it took to win and rarely, if ever, beat themselves.
For much of the 2011 season, that hasn’t been the case. But Thursday night, in a game the Firebirds (15-5) had to win in order to host their side of the regional tournament next week, the guys in green came through.
“We’ve taken a lot of strides in the last week,” Free State coach Mike Hill said. “We were in a funk for a few weeks. Timely hitting wasn’t there. We had miscues defensively, a wild pitch here, ball four there. Things just didn’t fit. But you have to persevere through that, and our kids have.”
About a week ago, Hill called a short-but-sweet team meeting to remind his players that, with playing in the state title game the goal, there were a maximum of eight games remaining in the season.
“We’re 3-0 since then,” Lewis said.
Added Toalson, arm wrapped in ice: “Winning feels a lot better than losing, I’ll put it that way.”
That’s three wins and no losses for a ballclub that’s starting to bear quite a resemblance to the Firebirds we’ve known for the past several years.