LHS' Cardinal soars above competition

Staff photo by Tom Graham

Lincoln left-hander Jalen Cardinal was nearly unhittable this season, surrendering just three earned runs over his final 53 innings. The senior also helped guide the Alices to their first sectional title since 2007 and advancement to the regional final.

Lincoln hasn’t lacked quality pitching in its nearly two decades of uninterrupted success, but only a handful of Alices’ hurlers in that time could be considered true aces.

Mitch Prout set the tone in former coach Brandon Pfoff’s third season, racking up a 13-1 record with a 1.18 earned run average while guiding Lincoln to a 2002 Class 3A State Championship. D.J. Smith had a sub-1.00 ERA over the 2005 and 2006 seasons, including holding Jasper scoreless for 10 innings in a controversial, 14-inning sectional championship loss his junior year. Nick Heinz followed suit in 2010, recording seven wins and striking out over 1.3 batters per inning.

All three were Sun-Commercial Players of the Year their senior seasons, and several others have stood out for Lincoln on the mound since Pfoff took over in 2000 as well.

But none of them shut down the opposition over as many innings as Jalen Cardinal did for the Alices in 2019, helping the school to its 19th consecutive season without a losing record.

“He was the true definition of an ace. Outside of the first two games when we had him on a pitch count, he finished every game he started,” Lincoln coach Tim Hutchison said. “That’s all you can ask for of any pitcher, to go out and finish what he starts. Without a doubt, he was the key to our pitching staff.”

It was an outstanding Lincoln pitching staff this season, boasting a 1.84 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). But it was Cardinal who did the heavy lifting.

The senior left-hander finished the season with a 6-3 record and 1.03 ERA, striking out 91 in 61 innings for a 1.49 per-inning rate. His WHIP was 0.97, and batters hit just .155 against him. He drew nearly all of Lincoln’s tough assignments too, notching a 3-1 record in four Big Eight Conference starts, giving up only two earned runs in 28 innings with 32 strikeouts.

“He took the pressure off our other pitchers, and we made sure he got the tough assignments,” Hutchison said. “I think we saw toward the end of the year that (opponents) can’t just sit on his fastball. If you do, he’ll throw a curve. And if you sit on his curveball, he’ll throw a fastball, or mix a change-up in there. Hitters had to guess which of the three were coming. The curveball was probably his best, coming through the backdoor against righties. It comes across the plate and down, and pretty much every hitter had trouble making solid contact against it.”

Cardinal is committed to throw next season for Eastern Illinois, but a Division I scholarship didn’t seem likely three years ago.

“His first outing as a freshman, he threw a pitch, and you could tell something was wrong. He threw another one, and we went out there. He was done. I don’t recall the exact injury, but it wiped out all of his freshman and sophomore years,” Hutchison said.

The injury was a torn UCL. Cardinal needed Tommy John surgery, and he didn’t throw again for Lincoln until his junior season. He wasn’t bad as a junior, but he also wasn’t anything near what he’d become as a senior.

“What has to happen for any player who has aspirations of playing D1 baseball, is that they have to have confidence. I’m sure he had doubts in his mind coming back from that injury as to whether or not he could cut it loose, snap off that curveball,” Hutchison said. “I think it clicked for him last summer. He saw in travel ball that he could compete at this level, and his determination was going to get him there. He carried that confidence into this season.”

Today Cardinal is named the Sun-Commercial Player of the Year.

Cardinal is joined on the all-area squad by Lincoln teammates Isaac Lane, Spencer Corrona, Ben Burson and Baron Vieck; South Knox’s Landon Onken, Noah Thomas and Tristian Wirth; Rivet’s Macaine Claycomb and Colten Mouzin; and North Knox’s Cole Jones and Brayden Thorne.

Mouzin, Claycomb and Lane all wrap up impressive senior athletic years. Mouzin was Player of the Year in soccer and basketball, while Lane was an all-area football pick and joined Mouzin as a first-team basketball pick. Claycomb joined his teammate on the all-area soccer squad and was a second-team basketball selection. They’re the only athletes to make three all-area teams this past school year, though Corrona, the football Player of the Year, may have equalled the feat had he not been sidelined this basketball season with an injury.

It’s the third consecutive appearance on the all-area squad for Mouzin and Claycomb, while Lane, Burson and Jones are repeat picks.

The Alices were the area’s best, notching a 22-9 mark which included a 10-game winning streak and a sectional title. North Knox followed at 11-10, South Knox 11-13 and Rivet 6-10.

JALEN CARDINAL

P-LINCOLN

Player of the Year

It was a less than stellar start to the season for Cardinal. After getting roughed up in his second start against Bloomington South, Cardinal carried an ERA over 5.00 and a WHIP over 2.00. But the senior was almost flawless the rest of the season. Cardinal yielded just three earned runs over his final 53 innings, including eight consecutive complete games. He tossed five shutouts and managed 26 consecutive scoreless frames to close the year, including a two-hit, five-inning shutout of Princeton in the sectional championship and a one-hit shutout of Evansville Memorial in the regional semifinals. He struck out 39 with just four walks during his season-closing scoreless streak.

Cardinal contributed with his bat as well, typically batting third or fourth in the order. He hit .326 with nine doubles, two home runs and 23 RBIs, good enough for second on the team.

“When you look at what he did, when he went on that (pitching) run, he finished every game, and we were in every game,” Hutchison said. “It all came from his offseason work. I would see him running in the neighborhood during the winter, or see him throwing the ball off the wall. He took it upon himself to get better and better, and he had good instruction during summer ball. Eastern Illinois saw his potential before anyone else, and I think they’re getting a real find. You don’t find a whole lot of tall lefties who can throw three pitches for strikes, and I think he has a bright future at Eastern.

“Offensively he seemed to have a knack for getting the big hit. He’ll probably only pitch at college, but he was a good high school hitter. He watched each pitcher to try and learn what they were going to do, and when they made a mistake, he’d make them pay for it.”

BEN BURSON

P-LINCOLN

After bursting onto the scene as one of the Alices’ top pitchers as a sophomore, Burson continued where he left off during his junior campaign. His record was just 3-3, but he managed a 1.70 ERA in 36 1/3 innings, while opponents hit just .209, and he produced a WHIP of .963. He was used sparingly down the stretch as he dealt with a shoulder injury, but he gave Lincoln a chance in the regional championship against No. 10 Silver Creek, retiring the first eight batters of the game before running into some trouble in the fourth inning. He also spent some time at second base for Lincoln this season and though he didn’t excel at the plate, he supplied the team’s first hit against Silver Creek, a fifth-inning single.

“He’s just one of those pitchers who no one ever really made solid contact against,” Hutchison said. “He didn’t strike out a lot of hitters, so when other kids watched him, they wanted to run up to the batter’s box. But his ball would move inside and jam people. Opposing coaches knew what kind of pitcher he was, and kids would put the ball in play against him, but not hard. After Jalen, he was probably our No. 2. His shoulder ailment kind of limited him in the postseason, but he was one we could count on to give us innings, and he always gave us a chance. He threw well for the second straight year, and we’re glad to have him back for next season.”

MACAINE CLAYCOMB

IF-RIVET

A slow start to the season prevented Claycomb from matching the over-.500 average he achieved as a junior, but his offensive numbers still impressed in his senior campaign. The 2018 Sun-Commercial Player of the Year finished with a .447 average, seven doubles, one triple, 14 runs, nine RBIs and five stolen bases. Though likely better at a corner infield spot, Claycomb played shorstop out of necessity, and he took off offensively late in the season when he was moved to the leadoff spot. Claycomb’s pitching wasn’t as sharp as a senior either, but he was still the Patriots’ ace, logging a team-best 41 innings with 34 strikeouts and just seven walks while facing the team’s best opponents. Claycomb was an all-Blue Chip Conference pick, and he’ll play next season at Vincennes University.

“The most impressive thing is that he was hitting just over .300 in the middle of the season when we had him in the three or four spot. We moved him to leadoff because he was getting absolutely no pitches to hit, and he hit well over .600 batting leadoff,” Rivet coach Brian McCrary said. “He accepted the new role well, and I think he was pressing a bit hitting in the three or four hole. He’s not your typical leadoff man, but he did the job perfectly. He was still a big-game pitcher for us, and he threw well most of the time. But our errors let him down, and he threw a lot more pitches than he should have.”

SPENCER CORRONA

OF-LINCOLN

Despite sitting out his junior baseball season and missing nearly his entire senior basketball season with a knee injury suffered in football, Corrona showed few signs of rust once the season got going. The Taylor football commit batted just .293 with four doubles, two triples and a homer, but he got on base at a .430 rate and managed 24 runs, mostly hitting in the nine, one or two spots in the order. But Corrona’s biggest assets were his defense and leadership.

“After a terrific football season, Spencer tore his knee up and rehabbed to get back for basketball. He came to us and said he didn’t want his senior athletic career to end like that and that he wanted to play baseball,” Hutchison said. “We welcomed him back. He had a rough first month, but as the season went on, he was huge defensively. He covered gap to gap as well as any centerfielder we’ve had in a long time. He had instincts that you get from football, tracking the ball. He struggled the first month, but around the end of April, things clicked. He was probably one of our top two hitters the last month. He could have easily taken the spring off to get ready for football in the fall, but he wanted to end his career the right way, and he ended up getting to play on a sectional winning team.”

COLE JONES

IF-NORTH KNOX

After an impressive freshman season, Jones continued to produce as the Warriors’ top all-around player as a sophomore. Primarily a shortstop, Jones batted .413 with 15 RBIs to go with nine doubles and 10 stolen bases, all while striking out just three times in 80 at-bats. He was North Knox’s ace on the mound as well, racking up a team-best seven wins with just two losses, a 3.81 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 54 innings. The sophomore also twirled a no-hitter against Wood Memorial and was an all-Blue Chip Conference selection.

“Shortstop was his main position, and he turned several nice double plays throughout the year,” North Knox coach Paul Jones said. “He led the team in at-bats, hits and RBIs, and only struck out three times. He’s a player that can play any position from catcher to center field. Cole had a lot of success on the mound, making key pitches and changing up his speed and location.”

ISAAC LANE

IF-LINCOLN

Not many in the area could do what Isaac Lane could do on a baseball field. Not only did the senior bat .419 with six doubles, two triples and a team-high 31 RBIs, but he also played slick defense and even made a couple appearances on the mound too. He got on base at a .514 rate, getting hit by a pitch 13 times, and while Lane primarily played third base for the Alices this season, he’s also shown the ability to play other infield spots and in the outfield, a position he may slide into next season for Vincennes University. The highlight of Lane’s season came in the sectional title game when he homered and tripled with six RBIs to complement Cardinal’s pitching in an 11-0 rout of Princeton in his final game at Hill Field. He was also the top-vote getter as an all-Big Eight Conference selection.

“He’s one of those kids who when people come and watch a game, he’ll stand out, either because of something he does offensively, defensively or on the bases. He just shows every game that he’s a true baseball player,” Hutchison said. “He played four sports in high school and made all-conference in three of them. Every year, he got better, and it usually took him some time to get going each season because he’d be coming off another sport. But he was just amazing for us, and he’d do anything you’d ask of him. In the regional, he made three or four really tough plays defensively that kept teams from having runners on base or scoring. He’s a wonderful young man, and VU is getting a really solid player. I expect him to do well there.”

COLTEN MOUZIN

IF-RIVET

Mouzin was a good enough athlete that he likely could have played anywhere on the field for the Patriots. He began the season in the outfield, and was one of the best in the area, but mostly played one of the middle infield spots for most of the year. The defensive switch didn’t affect his hitting. The senior hit .389 with three triples and four doubles, scoring 16 runs with three stolen bases. Mouzin also came on strong as a reliever, striking out 28 in 20 innings with three saves and only five walks, and he was named to the all-Blue Chip Conference squad.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the role that Colten took on,” McCrary said. “He had a lot going on off the field with his academic activities, and he missed some practices along the way. But was the type of kid that was wanting to come in late and get his work in. He’s a kid that does a lot of things through the school and for the community, and he’s a true team leader. Defensively he could cover foul pole to foul pole in the outfield, but we needed him in the infield. Whatever we needed, he never said no and never questioned. We’re definitely going to miss those two kids (Mouzin and Claycomb) next season. They’re great kids, and I can’t say enough about them.”

LANDON ONKEN

P-SOUTH KNOX

The Spartans graduated one of the area’s best pitchers from a season ago, Justin Heinz, so coming into this season, it was uncertain who might fill Heinz’s spot. Onken did an outstanding job in that role. The senior tied for the area lead with seven wins, striking out 47 in 46 2/3 innings with a 2.10 ERA. Onken’s best mound performance was probably when he twirled six scoreless frames against defending 3A sectional champ Washington. He also spun a two-hit shutout against Northeast Dubois with 10 strikeouts, and he allowed just one earned run in seven innings against North Daviess in South Knox’s regular-season finale. Onken was one of three pitchers named to the all-Blue Chip Conference team.

“He was definitely our big-game pitcher,” South Knox coach Mike Bezy said. “We relied on him a lot. He wasn’t a strikeout pitcher, and he doesn’t throw it hard, but getting a strikeout an inning is a testament to how good he was at putting the ball where he wanted. He came a long way throughout his high school career, and he just got better and better on the mound. He was someone we relied on, and the team fed off that. When he was on the mound, our defense was better, and when he was on the mound, we took the field with a lot of confidence.”

NOAH THOMAS

OF-SOUTH KNOX

A starter as a sophomore, Thomas missed his junior baseball season with a knee injury, and it was uncertain how much the senior would produce this season. He ended up being one of the top hitters around, batting .367 with three home runs, five doubles and a team-best 30 RBIs. He spent a lot of the season in left field, but injuries to teammates forced him to play some shortstop late in the year. Thomas also pitched some, and while his overall numbers weren’t great, he did throw seven shutout innings against Class A honorable mention Shoals with seven strikeouts before surrendering a solo homer in the eighth in a 1-0 defeat. Thomas also earned a spot on the all-Blue Chip Conference team.

“We knew he was a phenomenal athlete who could play a lot of different positions, but we really didn’t know (what to expect after his injury). We thought he might pick up where he left off his sophomore year, and he didn’t disappoint,” Bezy said. “He hit cleanup for us from day one, and he was a clutch hitter. It seemed like he had a much higher average with men in scoring position. He buckled down with men on base and got the job done. It was tough for him because he didn’t play last year, so to bounce back and have this kind of year was a big deal. He made four starts on the mound, and that Shoals game was his best by far. He didn’t get the win, but he gave us some really good innings when we needed it.”

BRAYDEN THORNE

OF-NORTH KNOX

Though he missed some time with a back injury, Thorne still managed to be one of the most productive hitters in the area. He batted .435 with a home run, nine doubles and 10 RBIs, and the sophomore was also a key piece of the Warriors’ outfield.

“Brayden had an injury that kept him out of some games, and in some games he had to be pulled and rested,” Jones said. “He played a good center field for us. He has good speed, can track down the ball, and he’s got a decent arm. He usually batted in the two hole and made a lot of things happen with his bat.”

BARON VIECK

P-LINCOLN

After a solid offensive season as a sophomore, Vieck struggled at the plate this season as a junior. But he more than made up for it on the mound. Vieck tied Cardinal for the team lead with six wins, and he only took one loss. He struck out just 27 in 36 1/3 innings, but his WHIP was 0.99 with a 2.10 ERA, and opponents hit just .164 against him. Despite Vieck’s offensive struggles, he still managed to come through at clutch times, finishing with 21 RBIs, trailing only Lane and Cardinal for the team lead.

“His offensive season wasn’t what any of us would want, and he’d tell you that he’s got some work to do, but on the mound he was solid,” Hutchison said. “That’s a strong win-loss record, and when he wasn’t pitching, he did a nice job at catcher or second base. He threw it hard, but what’s most impressive is that nobody seemed to make solid contact off of him. He didn’t walk a lot of guys, and he kept them off base. He kept us in every game he pitched, and tying Jalen for the lead in wins is impressive. Sometimes you can get in a slump offensively and just never get out of it, but he didn’t let that bother his pitching, and that’s a tribute to him.”

TRISTIAN WIRTH

OF-SOUTH KNOX

It can often take a while for freshmen to get acclimated to facing varsity pitching. While Wirth started the season on the JV, it didn’t take long for the freshman utility man to make an impact for the varsity Spartans. Wirth smacked a team-best .407 average to go with six doubles, a triple, seven RBIs and a tie for the team lead in runs with 21. Wirth spent time in the outfield and infield and also pitched. But he was most valuable for South Knox as a top-of-the-order hitter.

“He’s a competitor, and he did a solid job for us as a freshman,” Bezy said. “He came on about five or six games in, and after that he became a regular for us. We eased him in as a freshman, and we expect big things from him the next three years. He worked 13 walks at the plate too, so he did a nice job seeing the ball. He pitched as well. He didn’t get a win, but he did a nice job of logging some innings and getting some valuable experience as a freshman.”

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