Three batters into his start against Plainfield East, you could certainly excuse Neuqua Valley left-hander James Kulak for feeling a little déjà vu.
Just like it did a year ago against Kulak, Plainfield East’s first three batters had reached safely.
You might believe a two-run deficit three batters into the first semifinal of the Class 4A Oswego Sectional might have had Kulak rattled a little bit.
But then you don’t know Kulak that well.
In six innings on Wednesday, Kulak permitted the 12th-seeded Bengals to just those two runs as top-seeded Neuqua Valley cruised to a 12-2, six-inning victory.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” he said. “I know our team can produce runs. As long as I knew I went out there and pitched better innings than what I did the first inning, I think we could win.”
The Wildcats’ four-run response in the first – highlighted by junior Trevor Tesmond’s two-run triple – put any of Kulak’s nerves to rest.
All told, five Wildcats had at least two hits with junior right fielder Jack Rigoni’s 4-for-4 with two doubles leading things.
Rigoni’s error on Jacob Knoebel’s RBI single in the first allowed a second run to cross home plate as the Wildcats were handed a 2-0 deficit.
But he was keenly aware of how he could atone.“Defense – sometimes you make errors. It’s just human nature,” Rigoni said. “I think I came in and I was confident in the box. I rebounded from that mistake in the first inning and I think whenever you do bad on one side, you got to make it up on the other.”
A 10th straight victory in hand, Neuqua Valley (34-1-1) now owns the second-most victories in program history as it sits a victory shy of a fifth sectional title.
Third-seeded Plainfield North (28-9) – which eliminated Neuqua Valley in a sectional final last year – awaits Robin Renner’s team on Saturday.
Back on April 28 against the Tigers, the Wildcats used an eight-run seventh to turn an one-run deficit into a 12-5 victory.
Butler-bound shortstop James Gargano certainly hasn’t forgotten the 11-3 drubbing the Tigers handed down last year.
“We’re pretty evenly matched, to be honest. Just last year, playing them in the sectional, they got us,” said Gargano, who went 2-for-3 with a solo homer and scored three runs on Wednesday. “They got us pretty good. So a little redemption would be nice.”
Now afforded that opportunity to try and enact some revenge on Plainfield North, Neuqua Valley has Kulak (9-1) to thank for it.
Kulak struck out seven over the course of his six innings to run his career postseason record to 4-0 to go with a 0.94 ERA in 22 1/3 innings.
Those 22 1/3 innings have only seen him permit three earned runs and two of the four victories have been shutouts.
“I think the postseason – I’m just more focused than during the regular season,” Kulak said. “I think I just kind of realize the importance of the game and try to rise to the occasion.”