By John Bohnenkamp
KJ Baker wasn’t sure what he would get out of his first summer-league experience.
But the Burlington Bees left-hander has adapted well.
Baker picked up his first win in the Prospect League, giving the Bees 2 2/3 strong innings in relief in a 4-3 victory over the Normal CornBelters in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader at Community Field.
The CornBelters won, 8-0, in the first game.
Baker was a starting pitcher this season at Columbia State (Tenn.) Community College, going 2-2 with a 10.88 earned run average in 10 appearances.
He’s been sharp with the Bees, going 1-1 with a 2.42 ERA, all in relief.
“This is my first time playing in an actual summer league, so it’s been a great opportunity to play,” Baker said. “It’s way different than travel ball, or anything like that. It’s just a great opportunity to be looked at by other schools, even pro scouts.
“At the beginning of the year, I was kind of hurt, so I didn’t get to throw much. So that’s why I came here. I had to play summer ball.”
“KJ’s been huge,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “When he came in here, I didn’t know what we would get out of him. He didn’t have a great freshman year. The kid has gotten better and better. He’s mature on the mound, throws strikes. He goes at people. With his delivery, he hides the ball, and it gets on people quicker than they expect.”
Baker’s success has come with better control. He has 19 walks and 32 strikeouts in 26 innings with the Bees, compared to 30 walks and 37 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings at Columbia State.
“It’s been about getting ahead in the count,” Baker said. “Getting ahead, no walks.”
Baker said he had to adjust to coming out of the bullpen.
“It’s way different from starting,” he said. “It’s different, but I’m getting used to it. I kind of like it, actually.”
Baker entered the game in the fourth with the score tied at 2 and runners on first and second with one out, but got Drew Davis to ground into a double play to end the inning.
“That fired me up, gave me a lot of confidence,” Baker said.
In the sixth inning, with runners on second and third with one out, Baker struck out J.D. Bogart and Drew Davis to end the inning.
Baker’s night ended with a walk to Andy Bunton to lead off the seventh inning. Grady Gorgen surrendered a double to Will Carpenter to cut the Bees’ lead to 4-3, but Gorgen retired the next three hitters for his third save of the season.
The doubleheader was the last thing McClure needed this late in the season as the roster dwindles in the final days.
“I’m glad we made it through it, it’s over, and we got a win out of it,” McClure said.
Brock Reade, who will pitch for Southeastern Community College this fall, signed with the Bees just to give them a starting pitcher, and he delivered 3 1/3 innings, allowing two runs on four hits.
“He got us far enough into the game to get us into the bullpen,” McClure said. “Threw strikes, got his breaking ball over.”
The Bees scored two runs in the bottom of the fourth to break the tie. Rome Wallace was hit by a pitch and later scored on a wild pitch. Justin Boehler walked and scored on Kory Olsen’s second sacrifice fly of the game.
The Bees had no offense in the first game, getting just four hits off Normal starter Caleb Buehrle (4-0) and reliever Jacob Lotz.
Burlington (27-30 overall, 12-16 second half) is three games back in the Great River Division with three to play.
“I just want them to know I’m proud of the guys who are here,” McClure said of the message for his team in the closing days. “Just keep grinding — for this city, for the Bees, for this team, it’s huge.”
Photo: KJ Baker was the winning pitcher in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)