Whiting, Ind. – Aug. 9, 2022 – If Tuesday night was Chris Baker’s final game at Oil City Stadium, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen veteran bookended the home portion of his Oilmen career in a grand way.
Turn the clock back over six years, and a younger Baker snapped out of an early-season slump with a grand slam over the right-field wall on the first pitch he ever saw at Oil City Stadium to help the Oilmen to a victory over the Michigan City Lakers in June 2016.
And on Tuesday night, in a winner-take-all semifinal game against the rival Southland Vikings, Baker stepped up to the plate in the third inning with the bases loaded and the Oilmen trailing 5-2. You know what happened next.
“Before the 3-2 pitch to Nick Anderson, I had a feeling I was going to get up and hit a grand slam,” Baker said. “I knew he had to come in the zone to me, and when I hit the ball it was an unreal feeling. It was euphoria. It’s been a fun ride with the Oilmen. It’s been a grind year in and year out, but it’s a fun time to look back at the years of success here and get to this point while still having fun with the game.”
The poetic grand slam, which traveled over the right-field fence, rearranged the scoreboard in Northwest Indiana’s eventual 14-5 victory over the Vikings to advance to the Northern League Championship Series.
“For the last couple weeks, Chris has been battling a hand injury,” Oilmen manager Adam Enright said. “He’s just starting to get things back on track offensively. He’s had a couple extra-base hits the last few games. You don’t want anybody else up in the spot. He’s stayed toward the bottom of the order because he’s ignited innings where we’re trying to turn the lineup over, and we have his bat down where there’s a lot of RBI opportunities. That’s huge for us.”
Baker’s big swing helped the Oilmen advance to the Northern League Championship Series for the fifth consecutive year and the eighth time in 11 seasons. He was part of the team’s most recent league title in 2018 and also hoisted the trophy in 2016. This year, he returned to the squad after a three-year hiatus, taking advantage of the league’s new rule that allows graduated players with pro potential to participate.
“It’s been fun to be the veteran,” Baker said. “A lot of guys will ask me questions, and when I have answers, I’ll give them. Some of the guys are like, ‘Come on grandpa.’ And I’ll call them ‘little kid.’ It’s been a fun time. I’m playing with kids who have played with my little brother. I’ve seen them grow up from a baseball standpoint.”
The Vikings jumped in front with five runs on six hits in the bottom of the first, bouncing Oilmen starter CJ Byrdak from the game after just 2/3 of an inning. Enright turned to Jake Ostrowski out of the bullpen, who twirled 7 1/3 dominant innings of shutout ball while scattering five hits and walking one. The Oilmen pitching staff permitted just one free pass in the contest.
“Jake has become so confident in who he is and what he does on the mound,” Enright said. “He’s found an identity. He’s thriving right now. That’s what the summer is all about – figuring yourself out and being better in the fall when you go back to school, wherever that may be. Luckily, in his case, that’s for me at Trinity Christian.”
Baker’s grand slam put the Oilmen ahead 6-5, then neither team scored until the seventh, when Baker added an RBI double. NWI pushed across four in the eighth and three in the top of the ninth to break the game open.
The Oilmen will meet the Lake County Corn Dogs, who beat the Joliet Generals 3-1 on Tuesday, in a best-of-three Northern League Championship Series. Due to rain on Monday pushing back the playoffs, the series will start with a doubleheader on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Legacy Fields in Crown Point. The teams will play two seven-inning contests.
Corn Dogs manager Justin Huisman will seek his second Northern League (previously known as the Midwest Collegiate League) title after winning one in the inaugural season of Oilmen baseball in 2012, while Enright will seek his third (2016, 2018). This will be the first championship-series matchup between two managers who own previous league titles. Entering this season, Enright and Chris Cunningham are the only managers with multiple league championships as Enright attempts to become the first manager in league history to win a third.
“Tonight shows that our guys are competitors,” Enright said. “The mixing and matching and the grind of the whole season doesn’t tell the whole story of how talented we are and the way we can play when we have everyone out here and have a lot of energy in the dugout with a good lineup on the field. This was refreshing to see.”
Wednesday’s doubleheader at Legacy Fields will be carried on the Oilmen Broadcasting Network with Brandon Vickrey and Leo Staudacher on the call.