By John Bohnenkamp
A.J. Henkle’s college baseball season ended in his first at bat in the first game.
The bat flip as his seventh-inning grand slam left Community Field capped his return.
Henkle hit for the cycle, driving in six runs in the Burlington Bees’ 15-5 win over the Quincy Gems in the Prospect League opener for both teams on Wednesday night.
Henkle was 4-for-5 on a night when the Bees had 18 hits. He had an RBI double in the first inning, a single in the fourth, and a run-scoring triple in the fifth.
When he hit in the seventh, he knew what was on the line.
“It was definitely in my head,” Henkle said. “But I wasn’t swinging for it or anything.”
Henkle turned on what he called a “nice inside fastball” from Gems reliever Kolby Kiser, launching a home run to deep left field.
Henkle took three steps as he watched his home run that ended the game on the 10-run rule, then he flipped his bat while his teammates celebrated.
Henkle, a sophomore at Illinois-Chicago, tore a tendon in his left thumb in the Flames’ season opener at New Mexico State on February 18. He sat out the rest of the season, and was cleared to play for the Bees last week.
“He texted me, said, ‘I’m all cleared, O,’” said Bees manager Owen Oreskovich, who was a coach at McHenry County College when Henkle played there. “I was like, ‘I can’t wait.’”
“Just taking the field, it felt amazing,” Henkle said. “All of the hits, none of that mattered. Just running out there, that’s what really felt good.”
Henkle played for the Bees last season, and knew he wanted to return this summer.
“Coach O, I’ve known him since he was young,” Henkle said. “My host family last year was great. I knew the situation here would be good. I’d get a lot of (at bats).”
“I’ve known A.J. since he was a little guy,” Oreskovich said. “I’ve always wanted him to play for me.”
Henkle also threw out Quincy’s Andrew Fay at the plate after Gabe Swansen’s fourth-inning single.
“He was throwing about 93, 94, from the outfield back (at McHenry County),” Oreskovich said. “I knew he had it in him. And I know that’s his favorite thing to do besides hit.”
The Prospect League offers opportunities to players who didn’t get a lot of playing time this season, and Henkle wasn’t the only one taking advantage.
Starting pitcher Jared Townsend, who didn’t play at Iowa Western Community College this season after suffering a foot injury, threw 80 pitches in three innings, allowing four hits and four runs while striking out five.
Oreskovich said he wanted to keep Townsend around 50-60 pitches.
Townsend was at 60 pitches when he gave up a flyout to left field with runners on first and second with one out in the second inning. He was backing up the play at third base when Oreskovich advised him of the pitch count.
“I said, ‘You’re at 60,’ and he basically (waved it off), said, ‘I’m good,’” Oreskovich said, smiling. “In the dugout after that inning, he was like, ‘I want one more.’”
Steven Escarcega, who didn’t pitch this season at Hawaii Pacific, threw a scoreless seventh inning, allowing one hit while striking out one.
Townsend got a cushion because of the Bees’ five-run first inning. They added one more run in the third, three in the fourth and two in the fifth.
Adrian Nery (1-0) was the winning pitcher. Bennett Stice (0-1) took the loss.
Every Bees hitter got at least one hit. Charlie Terrill had three hits, while Chase Honeycutt and Sam Monroe had two.
Oreskovich said he’s known he would have a good offensive team since the players arrived for their first workouts last weekend.
“Our guys have taken unbelievable BP in the last three days, four days, however long we’ve been here,” he said. “What I’ve preached since I’ve got here is these guys having fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re relaxed, and you’ll actually do well. That’s the mindset I’m trying to build in these kids this summer.”
Photo: A.J. Henkle (left) is greeted by Burlington Bees manager Owen Oreskovich after a grand slam to end Wednesday’s 15-5 win over the Quincy Gems. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)