By John Bohnenkamp
It was an inning Jackson Gray knew his grandfather would have appreciated.
Gray, a left-handed pitcher who had just joined his hometown Burlington Bees, pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the 7-3 win over the Alton River Dragons on Thursday night at Community Field.
Gray, who graduated from Notre Dame High School and played at nearby Carl Sandburg College and Western Illinois University, heard the cheers from family members as he walked off the field after facing four batters in the inning.
It was an emotional moment for a player who grew up coming to games at the ballpark with his father, Tom, and his grandfather, Ed Larson, who served as the Burlington Baseball Association’s president and then later served as Midwest League president for one year and vice-president for 30. Larson died during the 2019 season, in what turned out to be Bees’ last season in the Class A minor league.
“It was a lot of fun, a lot of memories because of my grandpa,” Gray said. “I had a lot of family here — I could hear them screaming, cheering. I know it meant a lot to them. It meant so much to me. I can’t explain the emotions going through my mind on that first pitch.”
Gray was a senior at Western Illinois this season, going 1-1 with an 8.25 earned run average in 11 games.
“It’s going to be my last year in baseball, so it’s good to end it in a Burlington Bees uniform,” he said.
Gray smiled as he recalled what it was like when he saw that uniform for the first time.
“Oh, beautiful,” he said. “Snazzy.”
Gray struck out Clayton Dean to open the inning, then hit Adam Stilts with a pitch. Gray then picked off Stilts at first before giving up a double to Bryce Zupan that left fielder Marcos Sanchez lost in the night sky. He then got Gabe Briones on a grounder that second baseman Zane Zielinski snagged with a dive, throwing out Briones by a step at first.
“He threw the ball extremely well,” Bees manager Gary McClure said of Gray. “I liked what I saw. He’s going to help our club a lot from the left side.”
Gray signed with the team on Wednesday.
“(McClure) wanted me to come play,” Gray said. “I was like, ‘That’s perfect. A perfect fit.’”
“It’s a great thing,” McClure said. “The more kids we can get from Iowa, and locally, it just attracts more attention to our ball club. That’s something, as long as I’m coaching here, we’re going to continue to do.”
The Bees (5-2) won their fifth consecutive game to take sole possession of first place in the Prospect League’s West-Great River Division.
Burlington got seven innings from starter McLain Harris (2-0), who gave up six hits and struck out eight. Reece Wissinger, another Burlington native, struck out the side in the ninth for his second save.
“(Harris) did well tonight,” McClure said. “They dropped a few in, blooped a few in, got some runs early. But he really got better, I thought, as the game went along. He got sharper and sharper, and did a great job. (Wissinger is) a great guy to have at the end of the ball game.”
The Bees rallied from a 3-0 deficit with a four-run fourth inning. Jackson Jones and Zielinski had run-scoring doubles, and Reid Halfacre and Sanchez drove in runs with singles.
Mason Land had a solo home run as the Bees got two in the fifth. Burlington closed the scoring in the eighth on Halfacre’s RBI single.
Gray threw 13 pitches in the eighth, every one carrying the emotion of the moment.
“I was able to go out there and compete,” he said. “Being able to compete makes it a lot more fun.”
Photo: Burlington Bees left-hander Jackson Gray pitches in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against the Alton River Dragons at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)