AMATEUR BASEBALL: Jackson punches ticket to state with a 5-3 win in Game 3 over Wilmont
WILMONT -- On a near-perfect mid-summer day at Butts Probst Field, traditional amateur baseball rivals Jackson and Wilmont squared off in Game 3 of the semifinal round of the First Nite and Gopher League playoff series Sunday afternoon.
After splitting the first two games, the Bulls and Cardinals were pitted against each other in a decisive third game with the winner automatically advancing to the Class C State Tournament in St. Cloud later this month.
In a game which featured 17 strikeouts, 19 hits, 13 outfield catches, a pair of key sacrifice bunts, two excellent throws to gun down runners attempting to steal second, a game-ending play at the plate -- and an unfortunate fifth-inning collision -- Jackson prevailed with a 5-3 victory and the Bulls, the second-seeded team from the First Nite League, are headed to the state "town team" tournament for the first time since 2008.
"It was a lot of fun," summed up Jackson outfielder Mike Wierson, who smacked the ball hard in all five of his trips to the plate, finishing the day with a single and a pair of doubles. "It felt good hitting today."
Wierson also had three catches in the outfield -- two in right in the third inning and a nice runner in left field for Wilmont's first out in the bottom of the ninth.
The Bulls, in fact, caught a total of 11 fly balls in the contest, getting seven of their first nine outs that way.
"I don't throw very hard," said Jackson's Marcus Schultz, who pitched the first four innings before moving behind the plate for the game's final five frames. "I don't strike out many guys, so I need my defense to catch the ball, which they did."
Schultz, however, was in command as he retired Wilmont's first eight hitters before a walk to Cardinal second baseman Nick Ahrens ended his perfect game with two outs in the bottom of the third.
Meanwhile, Wilmont ace Lucas Henning -- a hard-throwing left hander -- was striking out the Bulls.
Finishing with 14 strikeouts (and just three walks) in seven innings, Henning fanned nine Bulls in the first four frames, including three in the first and two in each of the next three.
"Lucas pitched a very good game," praised Wilmont manager Todd Rogers. "He came through with so many strikeouts to end innings and get us back to the plate. But we need to score more than three runs."
The game was a scoreless pitcher's duel until the Cardinals plated the game's first run in the bottom of the fifth.
Jackson quickly answered with a solo home run blast by clean-up hitter Pat Rients in the top of the sixth.
The Bulls combined three hits with a pair of Wilmont errors to score three runs in the top of the seventh, claiming a 4-1 lead.
Ryan Rasche strokes key hit to lift Bulls
Ryan Rasche, who twirled six shutout innings in Jackson's 5-0 Game 1 victory, is better known for his pitching than his hitting.
But Sunday, with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the seventh, it was a hard smash off the bat of the left-handed hitting Rasche which snapped a 1-1 deadlock and gave the Bulls a three-run edge.
After third baseman Ethan Welter (3-for-4) tagged a one-out single and advanced to second on the game's first error, second baseman Jason Cook lofted a single to shallow center field, putting runners on the corners.
Andy Wolf, Jackson's veteran center fielder and leadoff hitter, drew his second walk of the game, loading the bases for Rasche.
"I had just struck out my last two times up," Rasche recalled about his fourth trip to the plate (first-inning walk) Sunday. "The bases were loaded and the infield was up. I needed to hit the ball and I'm glad I did."
So were the Bulls.
Rasche's hard-hit grounder just got past the right side of the pulled up Wilmont infield, as both Welter and Cook crossed the plate. Wolf slid into home, too, and Rasche advanced all the way to third (two-run single, two-base error) when the ball skipped past the Cardinals' right fielder.
"That was a big piece of hitting by Ryan," praised Welter about Rasche's clutch hit. "He knew what he had to do and got it done."
Henning struck out the next two guys to end the inning -- for the seventh time -- via strikeout, but the Bulls had broken open what had been an extremely close game.
"That was a big inning for us," declared Jackson third base coach Ty Wacker, who has been a vital part of the Bulls' organization for more than 20 years. "We came up with three nice hits and were able to get three runs across. That was huge. We really needed all of those because Wilmont was likely to score some more, too."
Cardinals trim lead to 4-2 in bottom of seventh, rally again in ninth inning
Wacker was correct.
The Cardinals, who had scored a run on a pair of hits in the bottom of the fifth, opened their half of the seventh with scorching back-to-back singles by Blake Rogers (up the middle) and Henning (right field) to put two runners on with nobody out.
Jackson's Caleb Rossow, the Bulls' shortstop during the first six innings, took the mound for the visitors in the seventh inning and displayed his fielding ability on an attempted sacrifice bunt by Jesse Teerink.
Rogers advanced to third on the play and Teerink was safe at first on a fielder's choice, but Rossow's strong throw to Wolf (now playing shortstop) forced out Henning at second.
With runners on the corners, Rogers crossed the plate on a wild pitch and Teerink advanced to second.
Rossow, however, recorded Jackson's second pitching strikeout of the game and after hitting Ahrens with a pitch, left both Cardinals stranded on base as Welter came up with his fifth groundball assist of the day for Wilmont's third out, leaving the score at 4-2.
"They (the Cardinals) kept hitting the ball at me," said Welter, who has not played organized baseball since graduating from Mankato East High School in 2007. "I had kind of a tough night over here last week (Game 1, Aug. 1), so I was really happy about making the plays today."
Welter caught a foul pop up in the second inning and handled grounders for outs in the first, fourth (two), fifth, sixth and eighth frames, giving him a total of seven defensive plays in the game, including starting a 5-4-3 double play in the fifth.
"Ethan had a nice day," summed up Coach Wacker. "Both in the field and at the plate."
After a scoreless eighth inning (1-2-3 for Rossow), highlighted by Wierson's second double of the day, the Bulls added an insurance run in the top of the ninth.
Cook drew a leadoff walk -- just Jackson's fourth of the game. Wolf cracked a single into right field and the Bulls had two runners aboard with no outs.
Rasche's well-placed sacrifice bunt advanced Cook to third and Wolf to second.
Josh Wacker -- Ty's grandson -- lofted a ball into shallow left field, which was not caught. Cook, who was ready to tag, raced home with his second run of the game, increasing Jackson's lead to 5-2.
But, Ahrens -- who also pitched the eighth for Wilmont -- retired the next two hitters, bringing the Cardinals to the plate for the bottom of the ninth.
Wolf's throw to Schultz at the plate ends game at 5-3
Blake Rogers was hit by a pitch, giving the Cardinals a runner on first to lead off the last frame.
Rossow induced fly outs (to Wierson in left and Rasche in center), putting the Bulls just one out from the state tournament.
But, Wilmont's Brandon Schroeder ripped a pinch-hit, cracked-bat, single up the middle, moving Rogers to second.
Both Rogers and Schroeder moved up a base on a wild pitch, setting up the game's final play.
Ahrens smacked the ball hard at Wolf, who mishandled the ball at shortstop -- Jackson's only error of the entire game -- allowing Blake Rogers to score easily from third.
With the ball bouncing into the outfield, third base coach Todd Rogers waved Schroeder home.
Wolf, who was a high school sprinter (in the spring) and played high school baseball on back-to-back Iowa (Bancroft) state championship teams in the summers of 1996 and 1997, quickly recovered from his mistake.
"I hustled after the ball and took a chance," Wolf said about his throw to the plate. "A lot of things were going through my mind, including that my arm's not that strong, but I threw it the best I could."
Although quite high, the throw was right on the mark and Schultz made the tag on a sliding Schroeder, who was called out, putting the finishing touches on an exciting baseball game.
"We had him," declared Schultz. "Andy chucked it right to me, it was a good way to end a great game."
Schultz, Jacobsen collide on high bunt in fifth inning
The well-played game (only three errors and five walks) did have a scary moment in the bottom of the fifth inning -- just prior to Wilmont's first run.
After a leadoff single by Henning (2-for-4), Teerink's attempted sacrifice bunt went airborne and both Schultz (pitcher) and Blaise Jacobsen (Jackson's catcher) hustled to make the catch.
While going for the ball, they collided heads and both fell to the ground.
Neither athlete moved for what seemed like a long time. Later after rolling over and getting to their feet, it was determined that Schultz was OK and stayed in the game, replacing Jacobsen as the catcher, while Pat Boggess came in to pitch for the Bulls.
Jacobsen suffered a dislocated left elbow in the accident and will likely miss several games.
"Blaise is the one who got us here," exclaimed Schultz about the long-time Bulls' catcher, who hit three doubles in the first two games of the series. "He's really been hitting the ball and is such a good catcher. We need to sustain this season for Blaise."
Boggess, who faced just six batters during the fifth and sixth innings, was credited with the pitching victory. He allowed only one hit and did not give up a walk.
Wilmont scored its fifth-inning run when Henning crossed the plate on the 5-4-3 (Welter-Cook-Rients) double play off the bat of Stuart Rogers.
Wolf had four catches in center field, including two remarkable ones on deep fly balls in the bottom of the sixth. Rasche also made four key catches in the outfield, two in left and two in center.
Wilmont catcher Steven Kremer made two great throws early in the game (second and third innings) to gun down Jackson runners attempting to steal second.
Rients's home run -- on the first pitch -- landed well over the fence in right-center field, quickly answering Wilmont's first run.
"That was a big momentum shift for us," praised Rasche about Rients' blast. "It tied the game right back up and gave us a lift we needed."
Eight players combined for 12 hits for Jackson, which left nine runners on base during the game. The Cardinals stranded six runners and spread seven hits among six players.
The Bulls will tangle with the Fairmont Martins, who have also qualified for the state tournament, in a best of three Region 13C championship playoff series, beginning Wednesday in Fairmont.
Meanwhile, Wilmont (21-7) will play Pipestone in a three-game series to determine the region's third state-tournament entrant. The first game will be at Butts Probst Field Wednesday, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
R H E
Jackson 000 001 301 -- 5 12 1
Wilmont 000 010 101 -- 3 7 2