Nickelson flirts with no-hitter as Hornets flatten Spartans

Ryan Boland/FULTON SUN photo: Fulton junior starter Jake Nickelson delivers a pitch in the first inning against Moberly on Tuesday at the high school field. Nickelson didn't allow a hit until surrendering a one-out single in the fifth, en route to an 11-1 NCMC victory over the Spartans.

Ryan Boland/FULTON SUN photo: Fulton junior starter Jake Nickelson delivers a pitch in the first inning against Moberly on Tuesday at the high school field. Nickelson didn't allow a hit until surrendering a one-out single in the fifth, en route to an 11-1 NCMC victory over the Spartans.

Through 4 1/3 innings, Fulton junior starter Jake Nickelson toed the rubber and pursued perfection like every pitcher sets out to do but doesn’t ever talk about for superstition’s sake.

The right-hander had walked two but allowed no runs and, more importantly, no hits in Tuesday night’s North Central Missouri Conference game against Moberly at FHS Field.

But talking about it and thinking about it are two different issues. And the thought had crossed the mind of Nickelson’s head coach, Darren Masek.

“I don’t know if he was aware of it or not, but we were,” Masek said.

A one-out bloop single by Moberly sophomore right fielder Ricky Webb over the head of Hornets junior second baseman Burke Echelmeier in the fifth inning broke all that up. And, for clarification, Nickelson knew what was going on.

“I did know at the time and I thought that little bloop that they hit Burke would get,” Nickelson said. “I wasn’t talking about it, but I knew.”

Though it proved not to matter much. Fulton’s lineup busily scored in bunches and gave Nickelson plenty of back-up in an emphatic 11-1, six-inning win over the Spartans on Tuesday night. Nickelson logged the win by giving up just the one hit in five scoreless innings, striking out four and walking four to help send the Hornets to their fourth straight victory.

“I felt like I did pretty good today,” Nickelson said. “At first my curveball couldn’t get over, but as the day went on, it started going over and everything kind of worked out.”

Nickelson’s curve might not have broken the way he wanted at the start, but in no way did it put a damper on his effectiveness from the rubber. After being tagged for seven earned runs in just a third of an inning in his last start at Marshall on April 14, Nickelson mowed through Moberly’s first nine batters Tuesday night — facing the minimum through three innings while tossing only 32 pitches.

“He’s very cool and collected on the mound,” Masek said of Nickelson. “He’s got composure and fight in him, and I like that. He doesn’t let the pressure get to him and he’s a competitor, which is what you want in a pitcher.”

Nickelson allowed a one-out walk in the top of the second to Moberly junior third baseman Austin Nickerson before getting out of the jam by inducing freshman first baseman Jeff Kinder into a double play, one of two that the Hornets turned in the game.

The play helped preserve a 2-0 lead that Fulton (8-6, 5-4 NCMC) had built with two hits in the first. It was also an advantage that was never in any real danger. After going in order in the home half of the second, the Hornets tacked on two more runs in the third by way of a milestone hit of sorts by Fulton senior right fielder Nick Christensen.

After a leadoff walk by senior left fielder Joel Matthews, Christensen sent a 1-1 offering from Spartans starter Dylan Huffman down the left-field line and over the fence for a two-run home run. For Christensen, it was his second home run of the season but it also happened to be the first hit at the Hornets’ new baseball facility located directly east behind the high school.

“There’s been a lot of firsts at this field and we had practice one night and had everything from the first overthrow to the first foul ball,” Masek said. “Tonight we had the first legitimate home run; Nick hit the ball well and he’s been hitting it exceptionally well lately.”

Fulton’s new digs are dimensionally bigger than Hensley Field, so home runs won’t be easy to come by. Still, the Hornets did their damage by spraying hits into the shallow holes of the Spartans’ defense. The bottom of the fourth saw back-to-back singles by senior catcher Brandon Hammerstone and senior first baseman Dayton Depping to start the inning.

Matthews had the big blow of the inning when he lined an 0-2 delivery from Huffman up the middle to score Hammerstone and Depping to make it 6-0. Huffman gave up seven runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings in taking the loss.

The Hornets finished with eight hits and have piled up 34 runs in their last four games after scoring just four in the previous three games. Tuesday night’s contest could have been a lot more lopsided, and over a lot sooner, had the Hornets not stranded 10 runners.

“We’re hitting the ball a lot better up and down the lineup, and guys are going up with better approaches at the plate and have better at-bats,” Masek said. “They’re not always getting hits, but they’re having better at-bats and we’re starting to get more guys on base and scoring more runs.”

Moberly (6-7, 4-5 NCMC) produced its lone run in the sixth on senior center fielder Corey Embree’s solo homer off Fulton senior reliever Cody Attebery.

The Hornets travel to Hallsville at 5 p.m. Thursday.

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