BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – The Kokomo Jackrabbits record-breaking season came to an abrupt halt against the one team that has been a nemesis for four seasons. Playing in the Prospect League Championship Series, Kokomo entered with the No. 1 seed thanks to a league best 37-22 regular season record, but in the end, they were swept 11-3 and 4-3 by the Terre Haute Rex.
In game one of the best-of-three series, Terre Haute (35-24 in the regular season) jumped to a 3-0 lead, saw Kokomo trim the margin to 3-2 in the second, then scored the next eight runs for an easy 11-3 victory. Kokomo starter Hunter Lee was roughed up for 10 hits, six runs (four earned) in 2 2/3 innings pitched. Adam Ketelsen could not stop the bleeding, giving up three earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. Kaleb Huxford picked up the win for the Rex in relief.
Kokomo managed seven hits at the plate with Ian Walters leading the way with a single and double.
Jackrabbits skipper Gary McClure was suspended for game one due to violating the league’s pitching rule, which states a relief pitcher cannot pitch more than seven innings in a seven consecutive day span. During the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, Kokomo reliver Josh Konecek threw 7 1/3 innings in a seven-day period. He went over the limit in the Division Championship Series final game, when he threw the final three innings against Chillicothe to earn the win in relief of an 8-3 series clinching victory.
In game two of the League Championship Series at Kokomo Municipal Stadium, Kokomo seemed to be on cruise control until a disastrous seventh inning. The Rabbits took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning playing small ball: Colin Butkiwicz and Zac Wilson led the inning off with singles, John Sechen laid down a sacrifice bunt, Alex Dorethy walked to load the bases and Marcos Sanchez grounded out to first to score Butkiewicz.
Kokomo made it 3-0 after four innings much to the delight of the 1,599 fans at Municipal Stadium. Wilson singled and Sechen followed with a double. Dorethy then singled to score Wilson and Sanchez hit into a fielder’s choice, scoring Sechen.
Meanwhile, on the hill, Kokomo starter Krystien Johnson-Battilana was magnificent for the first four innings as he retired all 12 Terre Haute batters he faced. The Rex finally got to the Rabbits starter when Roby Enriquez led the fifth with a triple and Austin Weiler scored him with a ground out.
Johnson-Battilana retired the Rex in order in the sixth and led the seventh off with a strikeout before hitting Enriquez in the back with a pitch. Weiler then hit a sky-high pop fly that landed between the second baseman and right fielder, but Sanchez wisely grabbed the loose ball and threw to Neil Lambert at second for an unconventional 9-6 force out which looked to keep the inning in check for the Jackrabbits. But Johnson-Battilana, already showing signs that he was tired, walked the next two hitters, and after a lengthy trip to the mound by McClure, gave up a game-tying, two-run single to Lorenzo Elion. Konecek entered and struck out Mason Speirs to end the threat.
Tied at three heading into the ninth, Konecek again ran out of innings and gave way to Chase Nix, who retired the one hitter he faced. Kokomo started the ninth with a single off the bat of Sechen, but Dorethy hit into a 4-6-3 double play. The Rabbits again rallied as Sanchez and Lambert both singled to put runners on the corners, but Dayson Croes ripped a line drive right at the left fielder to end the inning.
In the 10th, Craig Shepherd led off the Rex with a walk and Elion moved him to second with a sacrifice bunt. Tyler Vogel entered to pitch for Kokomo and got Speirs to ground out. That brought up Rex leadoff hitter Drew Ashley, who had combined with the first three Terre Haute hitters to go 0-12 through the first nine innings. Ashley ripped a single to score Shepherd with the go-ahead run.
Kokomo entered its half of the 10th with its 3-4-5 hitters due up, but a ground out and a pair of pop outs with Conner Steinbaugh on the hill ended the game, the season and the Jackrabbits tenure in the Prospect League. The title was the second for Terre Haute (2015).
Kokomo ended 0-5 against Terre Haute this season and 5-14 (1-8 at home) in the four years of Prospect League play against the Rex. Next season, Kokomo moves to the wood bat Northwoods League.
While the season did not end like the team hoped, the campaign was a success. The squad recaptured the Battle of 26 Classic against Lafayette (7-4), set team regular season marks with a 37-22 overall record and 23-7 home field tally and won its first-ever playoff series. McClure ends the season with 67 wins, the most-ever for a Jackrabbits skipper. The team tied a record with 15 runs in a game and set a new team mark with 20 hits against Butler on July 18. And Ian Walters set a team regular season record with 72 hits while notching a Prospect League record with an amazing three triples against Chillicothe in the playoffs. And Chandler Coats led the league while setting a new team record with eight regular season victories.
The move to the 22-team Northwoods League will be a step-up for the Jackrabbits, and league play will most-likely begin its 72-game schedule in late May.