Eron Vega celebrated his 16th birthday Wednesday and received the best present any pitcher could get.
The Evanston sophomore found another pitch for his arsenal.
Vega utilized a two-seam fastball he “discovered” in a bullpen session a couple of days ago and combined with Owen Brooks for a one-hit shutout as the Wildkits blanked Leyden 7-0 in an Illinois High School Association Class 4A regional baseball tournament game hero at Northwestern University. Alex Vasquez drove in five runs to help ETHS improve to 20-9 on the season.
With the win, Evanston advances to the championship game of the ETHS Regional against either Prospect or Von Steuben. That title game is set for 11 am Saturday at a site still to be determined because of anticipated wet weather.
Vega, a sophomore right-hander, struck out a career-high 10 batters in the first five innings, then returned to the mound following a 40-minute delay due to nearby lightning sightings and hurled another scoreless inning before letting Brooks mop up.
Vega, now 3-2 on the season with an earned run average of 2.60, lived up to the faith head coach Frank Consiglio showed in awarding him the postseason start instead of staff ace Hank Liss. Liss will likely get the call on Saturday.
“He’s the same kid every time he takes the mound with the way he pounds the strike zone. You always know what you’re going to get from Eron, and the worst possible thing you can get in the playoffs is a surprise,” Consiglio explained.
“What he did today is a credit to how you never stop working. He threw a bullpen session on Monday and when we looked at the movement on his slider and his [four-seam] fastball, we said let’s try a two-seam fastball that will come out of the same tunnel. I loved the movement I saw, and he was able to control it. So today we watched to make sure he had the feel of it, and he was able to use it as a put-away pitch to get a lot of those strikeouts.”
Vega yielded a line-drive single to the third batter he faced, James Traficanti, and after that allowed just one other baserunner when he walked Traficanti with one out in the fourth inning. Leyden (7-21) had only one other batter reach base, on an error.
“I haven’t done that well my past few starts,” Vega said. “But the coaches helped me find that two-seam fastball when I worked with them on Monday and it really worked well today.
“At the start of the year I didn’t feel like I had enough velocity to get the ball by the hitters, but I started to gain confidence in my fastball and find the other half of the plate. I was kinda mad when we had the delay, because I was in a groove then, so I just played catch [during the break] and I was able to find my groove again.”
“You don’t always make adjustments and see it work right away. That was the good part about what Eron did today,” added Consiglio. “It took a big step today. He did exactly what I thought he’d do – and better.”
Evanston broke the game open following the lightning delay by plating four runs in the bottom of the sixth. Vasquez smacked a bases-loaded triple to right after the Wildkits filled the bases with two outs and rallied against losing pitcher Jacob Sarnecke.
The Kits scored twice in the third when the Leyden defense crumbled with two outs. Liss hammered a triple into the gap in right center and crossed on a wild pitch, and two Leyden errors plus a pop fly double by Vasquez that probably should have been caught accounted for the second tally.
Addison Blough’s leadoff double, a walk and a hit batter gave Vasquez an opportunity with the bases filled in the fifth. His bouncer up the middle resulted in ETHS runners safely reaching both second base and first base while Blough scored easily to boost the advantage to 3-0.
Blough pounded another double in the sixth to set the stage for another rally that allowed the winners some breathing room.