Through the first half of the Niles West baseball team’s season, Wolves coach Gary Gustafson said he’s been pleased with his team’s patient approach at the plate. The Wolves’ plate discipline was on full display when they played host to crosstown rival Niles North on Thursday in Skokie.
Niles West quite literally walked off against Niles North when senior Michael Gunartt watched junior Seth Israel’s 3-2 offering miss outside. That brought senior Bryan Maldonado home from third to complete a come-from-behind 8-7 victory in Central Suburban South play.
Gunartt drew the Wolves’ fifth consecutive base on balls in the seventh inning. And all five free passes came with two outs. Niles West netted 10 walks in the game.
“That was the one thing that we were doing. We were trying to be patient and that was our approach going in,” Gustafson said. “We just needed to get a couple base runners and we did.”
With two outs and Niles West (12-5, 4-1) trailing 7-6, Wolves senior Greg Leftakes began the rally against Niles North junior Riley Steffens with a long plate appearance that ended with a walk. Steffens, who went 6 2/3 innings for the Vikings, was pulled in favor of Israel. Maldonado then worked a walk against Israel to put two men on. Freshman leadoff hitter Jack Lochner drew another walk to load the bases.
Israel, who was fighting his command, faced junior Brandon Kaihara next. On Israel’s 2-1 offering to Kaihara, the ball got past senior catcher Joshua Schoenberg, which brought Leftakes home from third to tie the game. With runners on second and third, Kaihara fought the urge to be overzealous and took the next pitch for ball four.
“We all dream of that as a kid, being in that situation with a chance to walk it off,” said Kaihara, a Lincolnwood resident. “But I was just up there looking for a strike, because he was throwing straight balls and I just didn’t find my pitch to drive, so I took the walk.”
Up next was Gunartt, the team’s best hitter, who followed the lead of his teammates and earned the unconventional walk-off. Gunartt admitted afterward that it was not easy to keep the bat on his shoulder in that situation. He added that his experience played a vital role in his ability to deliver in the pressure-packed spot.
“It’s very difficult, but I’ve been in that situation before, so I knew how to be. I was pretty composed,” said Gunartt, a Skokie resident and Triton recruit. “I wasn’t too jumpy. It’s my fourth year on varsity so I wanted to step up there and that’s what happened.”
Eight of the nine Niles West batters reached base at least once by a walk or a hit-by-pitch against Niles North (9-5, 1-4). Of the Wolves’ 12 total walks and hit batters, 10 came after the second inning when they were in a 6-1 hole against the Vikings.
The result was Niles West’s third consecutive come-from-behind victory. It topped Highland Park in walk-off fashion on Monday and rallied in the seventh…