WHITING | Kenny Mahala picked the right time to find his rhythm.
He also chose an opportune setting for his first stolen base of the summer.
The Highland native and Andrean grad started slowly this summer with the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, but a recent surge helped him earn a rare appearance in the No. 3 spot in the lineup for Tuesday’s Midwest Collegiate League playoff opener.
Mahala was a catalyst from that spot as the Oilmen drilled visiting Lexington 12-3 to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three league semifinal series at Oil City Stadium.
“It was an outstanding night for us all-around,” Oilmen manager Justin Huisman said. “Our offense hasn’t had a night like that in a while.”
Game 2 is at 7 tonight at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The defending champion Oilmen improved to 5-0 all-time in MCL postseason competition.
Mahala’s dad, Ken Sr., has been working on drills to help Kenny’s batting eye, hitting in a cage with a broomstick and focusing on backspin and pitch location.
Mahala reached base on all four of his plate appearances, including three walks, and scored three runs while driving in one.
“Earlier in the year I was taking pitches that I should have been swinging at and vice versa,” Mahala said. “Lately I’ve been trying to let the ball travel more, seeing it deep and then letting my hands work.”
Fittingly enough, Mahala was scheduled to sign autographs after the game with teammate Jimmy McNamara, who had a gem for five innings and survived a season high in earned runs to escape with a seven-inning win. The two have three prep state championships between them and are looking to add a title this summer.
“Our mindset is that we want to win, but you can’t get over-excited with it being tournament play,” Mahala said. “If you treat it as a normal game, the normal flow will still be there.”
Mahala extended his hitting streak to seven games with a run-scoring base hit in the second to give the Oilmen a 3-0 lead.
Mahala walked in the first inning and stole his first base of the summer, then scored the game’s first run on Nick Bartolone’s RBI single.
Lexington starter Tyler Sabol and McNamara entered the game third and fifth, respectively, in the league in ERA. Sabol sported a 0.99 mark, McNamara a 1.18.
Oilmen first baseman Tyler Baar’s two-run double in the third made the score 6-0 and chased Sabol after just 2 2/3 innings, six hits and six runs, all earned.
The domino effect of Sabol’s departure was a bullpen burnout. By the eighth inning, Lexington had to use a position player who hadn’t pitched in a game all summer. First baseman Adam Ariola promptly allowed three runs.
McNamara, a Lake Central grad and Central Michigan sophomore-to-be, got into some trouble starting with his 50th pitch but dominated the first five innings.
“Definitely coming out and getting a few zeroes on the board was a confidence-booster,” McNamara said. “I had to just pound the zone and get a lot of strikes.”
After facing one over the minimum and allowing just two hits through five, McNamara allowed back-to-back doubles leading off the sixth, walked the bases loaded and surrendered three runs on a groundout, a single and a fielder’s choice.
The only lefty hurler on the Northwest Indiana roster, McNamara took a comebacker off his throwing hand with two out in the seventh but recovered to induce a groundout for the next batter.
“It kind of stung, but after about 10 seconds I was OK,” McNamara said.
Bartolone, the all-time RBI leader in the short history of the Midwest Collegiate League, singled in the first and third to drive in runs Nos. 38 and 39 of the season.