CEDAR RAPIDS — Baseball players can be a superstitious bunch. At the very least, they can be married to routine.
Wartburg senior pitcher Tanner Eckhart balked at sharing his minor ritual this season. He said he has enjoyed a game-day omelet when he takes the mound. The Knights’ left-handed ace kept to his normal meal, including a little cheese and sausage with the egg concoction, before the postseason opener.
“That’s kind of my deal,” Eckhart said. “You better believe it. I make my own.”
Eckhart and Wartburg have discovered a winning recipe. He served up seven scoreless innings and earned his seventh victory, helping the second-seeded Knights blank No. 3 Coe, 5-0, in a semifinal of the Iowa Conference baseball tournament Thursday at Memorial Stadium.
Eckhart allowed just five hits, improving to 7-2 this season.
“We’re excited that Tanner was on top of his game,” Wartburg Coach Joel Holst said. “We gave him some runs early that he could relax, so that was big for us.”
The Knights (25-11) provided all the support Eckhart and reliever Austin Bohling would need in the first inning. Wartburg rattled off four runs with two outs, sending nine batters to the plate in the first.
Cody Hyler smacked a two-run double, scoring Eric Willis and Blake Mahoney. Former Linn-Mar and Marion preps Manny Jeffery and Parker Ridge added RBI singles for the 4-0 edge.
Eckhart said things get easier with the early advantage
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“I can just set back,” Eckhart said. “I can just pound the zone and let the defense make plays. They’re the No. 1 defense in the nation, right now, so I’m throwing strikes we’re going to get a lot of the outs.”
Coe (23-17) threatened a couple innings, stranding the bases loaded in the second and leaving two on against Eckhart in the third and sixth. Eckhart only allowed one runner to reach third and retired seven straight at one point.
Eckhart has been relied on a lot in the last month. He has been throwing on three days' rest and benefited with an extra day since his last performance.
“Fastball early was helping a lot,” Eckhart said. “Then, the breaking ball in the later innings gave me that extra pitch to keep them off their feet.”
Holst said pitching and defense have been strengths this season The Knights recorded some key outs, including shortstop Clay Henning’s running grab of a shallow looper to left in the fifth, a diving stab by Ridge at third base in the seventh and an inning-ending double play later that frame.
“It’s a big relief,” Eckhart said. “It’s a nice comfort to have, knowing I can just go out there and throw strikes and my defense is going to make the plays.
“The last couple outings I’ve had there’s been some spectacular plays by the defense and it just makes my job a heck of a lot easier.”
Jeffery led the Knights with three hits and two RBIs, hitting an RBI double in the seventh. He has been a good addition as designated hitter.
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“Whenever he’s been in the lineup, he’s been productive,” Holst said of Jeffery. “At the end here, we’ve just gone with him, so I’m hoping he will continue to do that.”
Coe advanced to the semifinal with a 4-3 victory over sixth-seeded Buena Vista. Coe’s Kevin DeLaney scored the first run of the game and hit an RBI single to drive in T.J. Johnson with the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth.
Wartburg will face top-seeded Dubuque (22-15) in the winner’s bracket final, starting at noon Friday. The Spartans scored the final nine runs for an 11-1 victory in eight innings over Luther Thursday.
The Norse (24-14) beat Loras, 7-0, in their first game.
Coe will play a team yet to be determined in an elimination game at 6 p.m. Friday.
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