MATTOON – After high-fives were exchanged and a brief chat in right field, Mattoon players casually exited the field, angling for the grill and table outside the press box that was providing between-game nourishment.
Some two hours later, they vacated the field in a similar manner, this time muddy, cold and wet. Players smacked their cleats together, a mostly fruitless attempt to rid them of the mud that had imbued itself on the bottoms.
“Look at that,” one of them said, incredulous, holding a cleat and gesturing toward slop that extended sideways beyond the bottom of the spikes, up onto the shoe itself.
They tarped the mound and home plate, gathered for final words from coach Jim Schmitz, and that was that. Everyone left swift and emotionless. There was no celebration, no trophy, no public acknowledgement of what was just accomplished earlier that day.
Mattoon, with a 2-0 win over Effingham Saturday morning, clinched at least a share of the Apollo Conference title. A win in the second game of the doubleheader would have wrapped it up outright, though it was suspended in the fifth inning with Effingham leading 4-2, two hours into a turtle race that, with the wet and chilly weather, belonged in early March instead of mid-May.
They’ll save the merriment for clinching the outright title, which they can do by beating Taylorville just once in a doubleheader Wednesday or coming back to win the resumption of the second game on Tuesday.
“The first game was big,” pitcher Jackson Nichols admitted afterward. “But we definitely wanted to win that second one.”
Subdued is how Mattoon wanted it, though. Green Wave players and coaches say they expected to end in this spot, even going back to last summer, but rarely have discussed it during the season. They have their sights set on winning a regional. Schmitz, new to Mattoon after 21 years as the head coach at Eastern Illinois, watched the team play an American Legion game last June and left with high hopes.
“I saw them play this summer, one doubleheader, and I said to my wife that this is a pretty good team,” Schmitz said. “That’s what I told them at our first practice. We have several quality hitters and arms. I expected this to happen, I really did. I didn’t know the league, I didn’t know the teams, but there are really some quality teams. But with Hayden (Birdsong) and Jackson on the mound and the leadership we have, this is really what I thought could happen.”
Birdsong and Nichols are, like Schmitz predicted, perhaps the primary reason Mattoon (17-6 overall) is 8-1 in conference and three games ahead of everyone else. One of them has started every conference game, and they’ve combined to allow eight earned runs in 48 2/3 innings against Apollo teams. Mattoon has lost once when either has pitched, a 1-0 loss in 10 innings to Mahomet-Seymour that stands as its only conference defeat so far. Birdsong started it and threw eight scoreless innings.
“This is exactly where I want to be,” Birdsong said.
Saturday, Birdsong ensured at least a share of the title will rest somewhere in Mattoon’s halls. He threw a shutout, allowed seven baserunners and touched 87 miles per hour on the radar gun. He outdueled University of Kentucky-bound Effingham starter Zack Lee, a young man whose right arm unleashes ferocious mid-90s fastballs with the ease of a pistol.
“Before the game, I met with the team. I said, ‘I’m not comparing anything or anyone, but Hayden Birdsong has given up six runs this whole year,” Schmitz said. “If we don’t have that, you don’t beat Mr. Lee. You don’t beat him without having a really good arm.”
That’s precisely what Birdsong has developed as a senior. He was Mattoon’s No. 1 starter a year ago, but his outings were a little more uneven and he found himself getting hit with more frequency. Not anymore. He’s churned out one dominant outing after another, an ace with increased velocity and confidence as plentiful as his long blond hair.
Afterward, in a shed on the bottom floor of Mattoon’s press box, Birdsong was told that he hit 87 on multiple occasions. He exhaled and began to crack a grin.
“You were bringing it today,” Nichols said. “You probably threw, what, 84 last year?”
“Yeah, 84 tops,” Birdsong replied. “Now I’ve touched 88.”
With both of them used up for a few days, though, Mattoon will rely the rest of its staff against Taylorville. Nichols threw four innings and 78 pitches in the second game before it was suspended, a rare laborious outing. Mattoon has other capable arms, but none have been as consistently dominant or pitched deep into games like its top two starters have all year. Earlier in the year, Schmitz used four or five pitchers in mid-week non-conference games.
All the Green Wave need is enough to win one game, though. Then they’ll allow themselves to truly soak in the conference title – for a moment, at least. There’s more to be done.
“I did say from the beginning that we’re here to win the Apollo and go further in state,” Schmitz said. “But I don’t look ahead at all. Practice on Tuesday is going to be right back to getting better.”