NILES - Throws were on line. Grounders were gobbled up without hesitation. Pitchers painted corners with regularity, and hitters executed bunts with near perfection.
The only things missing from the Niles-Howland baseball game on Thursday were Fred McGriff and the garbage cans from the Tom Emanski baseball training commercials of a few years ago.
Two teams that came into the season with lofty expectations played about as fundamentally sound as they have all season in a rivalry game at Wilder Field.
Niles came through with a few clutch hits and thwarted a number of attempted rallies by the Tigers in a fundamentally sound 4-1 All-American Conference, American Division victory.
"Any time Niles and Howland get together, it's a tournament-type game, so you expect the best out of them, and I'm sure they expected the best out of us," Red Dragons coach Mike Guarnieri said. "Pitchers dominated the game. We were fortunate enough to get a couple key hits."
Niles (16-6, 7-3) starting pitcher Jake Foster struck out nine, limited Howland (12-8, 4-5) to five hits and worked out of three jams - including a bases-loaded situation in the top of the seventh. Howland left two runners on in both the first and fourth innings, missing out on golden opportunities to get to Foster (4-2).
One key moment came in the fourth after Howland tied the game at 1. With a runner on second and one out, Michael Drew lined a single to center field. Niles centerfielder Justin Lopes fielded the ball and fired a strike to catcher Ryan Ifft, who dove to tag out Vinny Ruberto at the plate.
"I second-guessed myself on that," said Howland coach Sean Price, who also served as the Tigers' third-base coach. "I think if I had to do it again, I'm going to send him. There's a lot of ingredients that go into that for him to make that play. You've got to make them make that play."
Lopes, like so many other players from both teams, did indeed.
The Red Dragons carried the momentum into the fifth inning, scoring three times to break open a 1-1 game. Howland starter Ryan Fleming walked Chris Parry to start the inning, and leadoff hitter James Tate laid down a sacrifice bunt to move him to third. Lopes again came through, this time with an RBI single to left-center field. Tyler Wiery followed with a double, and Ifft and Foster each recorded RBIs with a fielder's choice and a single, respectively.
"We played a heck of a game Monday against Fitch," Guarnieri said. "We lost 1-0, and it was an unbelievable pitcher's duel. Very similar to this game. We had opportunities in that game and couldn't get the big two-out hits. Today we did. That's the difference in baseball."
Howland was on the other side of things - on a few occasions. After failing to score a run in the first and fourth innings with a pair of runners on, the Tigers loaded the bases with one out in the seventh. Foster, however, struck out No. 3-hitter Tyler Spain and got cleanup batter Jake Froats to pop up to the shortstop.
Foster's off-speed pitches had the Tigers baffled for most of the day.
"I was having trouble throwing my fastball for strikes, so being able to get my slider over was important," Foster said. "It's actually something I've struggled with this year. Normally, I've been able to throw it over easily, but this year, for whatever reason, I've had trouble, so today was nice."
Niles, the 2012 conference champs, has been playing some of its best baseball as of late and heads into the Division II playoffs with a good deal of momentum. The Red Dragons host the winner of Hubbard and Canfield at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
"A win like today is a huge one heading into the tournament. It gives these guys the confidence that they can hang with anybody. These guys are definitely peaking at the right time," Guarnieri said.
Howland hosts the winner of Boardman and Warren G. Harding in the Division I postseason tournament at 4 p.m. on May 17.