Having battled back to earn another chance to play on their home diamond at Douglas Park, the Quad-City 76ers were not about to make Saturday a one-game affair.
As things turned out, the 76ers ended up playing not one, but two games, and came out on top in both to move to within two victories of their first Iowa Amateur Baseball Association state title in 12 years.
Trailing the Walford Hogs by two runs through five innings of their opening matchup, the 76ers rallied to tie the game on Jake Viaene's two-out, two-run home run in the top of the sixth, then tallied the go-ahead run an inning later to earn a thrilling 3-2 victory.
The ultimate winning run for Q-C came when Erik Hoffman doubled to open the top of the seventh inning, took third on a Cayden Wright sacrifice bunt and scored on a short single by Shamus Murphy. Q-C pitcher Conner Sharp then struck out the side in the Hogs' half of the inning to nail down the win.
“I was trying to hit the ball hard, get it to the outfield and give (Hoffman) a chance to score,” said Murphy, who played his high school baseball at Rock Island. “We tried a suicide squeeze, but that didn't work. I ended up getting a hit, so it all worked out.”
That hit, coupled with Viaene's tying clout in the sixth, gave Sharp (6-3) a second wind in his complete-game victory. Coming off a tough 1-0 loss to the Norway Bandits in the 76ers' state opener last week, Sharp allowed one earned run on eight hits with no walks and nine strikeouts. He struck out five of the last six batters he faced.
“After giving up two runs in the first three innings, I knew our team could come back, so it was my job to hold them and get outs,” said the former Mercer County standout. “When we got the lead, I was thinking in my head, I was going to finish the game. Win or lose, no one was going to get the ball from me.”
The come-from-behind victory earned Quad-City a shot at one of the unbeaten tourney teams, the Fairfax Stars, in the fourth and final game of Saturday's schedule. Again, the 76ers came through in the late innings.
After the Stars tied the game with a fifth-inning run, Q-C took the lead for good in its half of the sixth on a one-out, two-run double by Nick Drobushevich as it prevailed 4-1 to take two wins Saturday.
“Our offense is good, so we knew it'd be a matter of time,” said Drobushevich, a former Moline standout. “With the way all of our pitchers are going, we feel good with a lead late in the game.”
On the mound, Chris Refka went the distance to move to 5-2, scattering seven hits and allowing no earned runs or walks and finishing with seven strikeouts.
His efforts brought the 76ers (27-9-1) closer to their first state championship since 2007. QC takes on the Williamsburg Red Sox this afternoon at 3, with a win putting it in the 5 p.m. title game against either the Stars or Red Top.
“I feel like we're definitely clicking at the right time,” said Refka. “Our pitching and defense has been unreal, and we're getting the clutch hits to get us in this spot.”
Quad City 3, Walford 2: To set up the matchup with the Stars, the 76ers got a big break to open the sixth when a dropped fly ball enabled lead-off man Drew Davis to take second. Walford pitcher Parker Bolt retired the next two batters, but Viaene belted a towering drive just to the left of the right-field foul pole to tie things at 2-2.
“We got a little momentum going, and I tried to help us capitalize on it; we didn't have much going before,” said Viaene, also a former Moline prep standout. “It was getting late, and we were running out of time, so we had to make something happen.”
Having been given a gift to open the inning, Viaene and his teammates were not about to let the opportunity pass them by after the Hogs tallied runs in the first and third innings to grab an early 2-0 lead.
“Getting on helped a lot, and I'm happy Jake did the job and got us both in,” Davis said. “I saw the wind start to knock it down, so I let up a bit. Then when I heard the shouting, I turned it on.”
Quad City 4, Fairfax 1: After Tyler Ulfig's (2-for-3) RBI knock in the top of the fifth put the 76ers up 1-0, the Stars answered in the home half of the inning when a two-out Kobi Candaroma double scored Walker Breard, who had singled and taken second on an error.
“I was a little frustrated,” said Refka, who pitches collegiately for Augustana. “I knew I missed the spot on a 2-2 match. That was all on me, but I knew my teammates would pick me up.”
Indeed, QC answered back with three runs in the sixth. After doubling in Brooks Sunny (2-for-4) and Erik Hoffman, Drobushevich came in on a Cayden Wright squeeze bunt for an insurance run.
“We know we've had this in us since the beginning of the season,” said Drobushevich. “Kevin (QC manager Kevin Corrigan) told us we're the team to do it (win state). We hope to go out and do it for him.”