Justin Lata jogged out of the dugout and right into a nerve center in the Class AA state championship game.
But Lata wasn’t feeling the tension of coming in to pitch with St. Cahrles down a run and New Trier runners at first and second with no outs in the second inning. Not to mention that the top of the order was waiting for him Monday night. The left hander also wasn’t feeling the physical grind of pitching a 5-inning shutout just hours earlier in the semifinal.
“I just had to stay relaxed and throw strikes,” Lata said. “There was no pressure on me.” Lata proved to be quite a relief for his teammates when he escaped the jam unscathed. The Saints (31-11) responded with a 5-run outburst and Lata pitched 3 hitless innings for his second win of the day and his school’s first baseball state title 12-3 before 2,750 at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva.
“Just threw super,” said St. Charles coach Len Asquini. “He was really, really tough again. He still had great stuff.”
Lata (10-4) wound up winning his last nine high school decisions and earned all-tournament honors. “Coach told me if (sophmore Jason) Kiley got in trouble I’d be the first one in there,” Lata said. “He wanted to win this one without (Jim) Caine.” Cane, the Saints ace, had already done his part with a complete-game win over Champaigne Centennial in Saturday’s quarterfinal. Lata did his in a 97-pitch effort over Rock Island.
But they needed Lata again after Kiley walked the first two hitters of the second. On his first pitch, New Trier (29-9) leadoff man Mike Endre bunted the runners to second and third.
Lata got the first of his 3 strikeouts when he froze Bryan Pritz with a fastball on the outside corner. Then Asquini decided to walk Matt Lottich, who set a tourney record with 10 hits, to load the bases. Lata got Nick Wallace to ground to first baseman Brad Zoelle. The threat was over and St. Charles was still just a run down.
“That was huge,” Asquini said. “As soon as he came in it was a huge turning point,” Caine said. “From then on it started a spark. It was a momentum swing and we never looked back.” Caine’s 2-out double then started a 5-run outburst in the third that put the Saints ahead for good.
“Our defense and our offense fed off that,” Lata said of the second inning. “We came out and scored a bunch of runs and it set the tone for the rest of the game. We came out and did a great job of hitting the ball with two outs.”
Lata gave up leadoff walks the next two innings. But he wasn’t hurt by them as Chris Thedorf made a nice running catch near the line in right in the third and third baseman Kyle Robinson and second baseman James Trayser turned a double play in the fourth. After throwing 42 pitches, Lata left and St. Charles led 10-2.
“Three (innings) was about it,” Lata said. “I was kind of losing my spots with the fastball. “The last inning the change and curve kept them off balance. That really saved me in that last inning.” And it turned out the Saints were saved by Lata’s resurgence after he fell to 1-4 in a tough 2-1 loss to Larkin on April 21.
“All the credit goes to coach Asquini,” said Lata, who will continue pitching at Valparaiso University. “He told me I wasn’t pitching aggresively and I wasn’t going after hitters – that I have to go right at them. “Coach had a lot of confidence inme to keep throwing me in there. I thank him a lot for showing confidence.” The payoff came when Lata and his teammates hoisted the state championship trophy toward the sky Monday night.
[Dailey Herald, by Marty Maciaszek]