QUINCY, Ill. — In four previous appearances against the Quincy Gems, Hannibal Hoots pitcher Hunter Knox struggled mightily.
Knox surrendered nine hits, 13 earned runs and 18 walks in his last 7 1/3 innings against the cross-river rival. So when he came in to relieve Cruz Meier in a sixth inning where the Gems had already scored five runs off five hits to take a 5-2 lead, Knox couldn’t ignore the chatter from the Quincy dugout.
"They had some real estate in my head for a second," Knox said.
But only for a second.
Knox retired the first batter he faced to end the inning, and after the Hoots regained the lead in the bottom of the inning, he shut the door on the Gems. Knox retired six of the next seven batters he faced with three strikeouts and a walk.
"After that first out in the sixth, I felt great," said Knox, who earned his first victory of the Prospect League season in the Hoots’ 6-5 victory at QU Stadium. "It was nice to be able to put it out there, finally get something rolling as far as strikes go. My breaking ball felt good, and it was good to just be able to feel confident on the mound again."
After Knox cruised through the seventh and eighth, Matt Ottsen came in to get the save with one hit and two baserunners allowed in the ninth.
"Hunter Knox and Matt Ottsen were fabulous in relief," said manager Clayton Hicks, whose Hoots improved to 19-28. "Knox came up big, I know he’s got a little personal vendetta against Quincy, so it’s good to see him get a little confidence back going into the last two weeks of the year."
Knox gave credit to his teammates for helping him finally have a good outing against the Gems (25-22).
"It was nice to have my team behind me the whole time," Knox said. "I had a lot of confidence built in from the last couple times I went out and things have been going pretty well. As far as things go, it was nice knowing what they were trying to do and working with that."
Offensively, the Hoots only belted five hits, but they were helped with 10 walks by Quincy pitchers. Brant Vanaman accounted for two of Hannibal’s five hits, one coming in the third inning on an opposite field home run that put the Hoots up 1-0 and the other a single in the bottom of the sixth that tied the game at 5.
"Usually with this team, when big hits happen, it livens up the dugout and everyone gets into the game," Vanaman said.
Vanaman also scored the winning run off an RBI single by Kyler Kent, and after hearing the Gems celebrate during their five-run explosion in the top of the frame he said that was a nice feeling.
"I give our team a lot of credit for keeping our composure," Vanaman said. "As soon as they got up they were kind of running their mouths, chirping a little bit, but we stayed with our composure and attacked the game and the scoreboard showed it today."
During Hannibal’s current four-game winning streak, Vanaman has a four-game hit streak himself, and he’s hit a home run in the last three games since returning from the all-star break.
"It’s good to see Brant starting to swing it well again," Hicks said. "He struggled in the middle part of the year, he’s been kind of inconsistent and struggling but here over the last three or four games he’s starting to catch fire again. That’s good to see, I love the way our guys are playing over the last couple of weeks. We will see what we can do down the stretch here."
As for Quincy, the Gems have lost their last four straight after pulling within a half-game of second place in the West Division. It was an odd game to say the least for Quincy. They out-hit the Hoots 12-5 but only managed to score runs in the sixth inning.
Part of that five-run explosion came as a response to events in the fifth inning that led to manager Pat Robles, first baseman Joey Polak and a player who wasn’t even dressed for the game being ejected.
"We had a lot of hits, but we had too many hits scattered around, and that can’t happen," Robles said. "When you’ve got guys on base we’ve got to get some base hits and that’s really been an Achilles’ heel sometimes when we are hitting. We either hit really well with runners on base or we don’t, and that came back to bite us.
"We’ve just got to get back to smart baseball."
With the victory, the Hoots now trail the Gems 6-4 in the season series with two games remaining. Knox said they might not be able to win the series, but they will do everything they can to keep Quincy from winning the Battle for the Paddle.
"I feel like all the momentum is on our side," he said. "They had a couple of ejections this game, they’ve had some people leave, we’ve had some people come back. I think all the momentum is on our side, and I feel like we have a lot of confidence right now."