Amateur baseball: Second season begins tonight
WORTHINGTON — Throw out the records, the amateur baseball season begins anew tonight with the start of the playoff season.
Saddled with a losing regular season record? Everybody starts 0-0 tonight in the annual First Nite League and Gopher League postseason scrum.
Best-of-three series get under way at 7:30 p.m. in various southwest Minnesota towns. The schedule: Hadley at Windom, Worthington at Pipestone, Milroy at Truman, Heron Lake at Adrian, Minneota at Jackson and Tracy at Fairmont. Wilmont and Luverne, who sit 1-2 atop the Gopher League standings, enjoy firstround byes. Lakefield, which forfeited its regular season victories due to an ineligible player, is eliminated from postseason play.
Three teams from the region will qualify later for the state tournament.
The biggest longshot of the first round may reside in Tracy, which finished last in the eight-team Gopher League standings. As a reward, the Express must open against the First Nite League Fairmont Martins, who placed second last year in the state tournament.
Another team with high hopes, the Jackson Bulls — second place in the Gopher League behind Fairmont — enters tournament play with a battle-tested veteran lineup.
“We swing the bats as well as anybody. We’re proud of our veteran leadership,” said manager Scott Bahr. “I don’t know if we do anything a lot better than anyone else, but when you take the consistency and the veteran leadership that we have, that probably takes it up another notch.”
The Bulls are expected to go with pitcher Ryan Rasche as their first-game starter. Veteran hurler Tom Hady is also ready.
Jackson is led offensively with four veterans, including leadoff hitter Andy Wolf (SS-CF), Pat Rients (2B), Blaise Jacobson (1BDH) and Mike Wierson (OF). Rients, the youngest of the group at 24, is tied for fifth all-time in home runs as a Bull — and with all 25 of those homers hit with a wood bat.
Jackson has lost just three times this summer — once to Wilmont and twice to Fairmont. Bahr believes the Bulls are ready for whatever comes next.
“We’re excited about how we’ve been playing,” he said this week.
Despite the fact that the Worthington Cubs enter tournament play with a 4-14 on-field record (6-9 in league, adjusted after the Lakefield forfeits), player-coach Josh Wasmund has persisted in looking at the positive side. Several of the team’s losses have been by slim margins.
“I don’t think our record tells what kind of team we have, by any means,” Wasmund said.
The Cubs have been performing better on defense since early in the season, Wasmund pointed out, and the pitching has been fairly consistent. The hitting, however, still needs to be more consistent throughout the lineup.
Adam Munkel will start on the mound tonight against Pipestone. He sports a 1-3 record and 3.06 earned run average, with 36 strikeouts in 41 innings.
Wasmund (1B) leads the team with a .306 batting average. Eric Koob (INF-OF) is batting .288 and Mitchell Jensen (C-INF-P) is hitting .286.
Worthington and Pipestone didn’t face each other this summer. But Worthington played Pipestone in the first round of the postseason tournament last year after losing to the A’s 11-1 in the regular season. The Cubs stayed right with the A’s in the playoffs, losing a pair of games by one run.
Windom enters tournament play on a mixed note. The Pirates lost 2-1 Sunday to Worthington but defeated Minneota Sunday night, 5-4, on a walk-off ninth inning hit by Brett Mattson.
The Pirates’ first-round opponent, Hadley, is coming off a 9-7 loss to Jackson. The Buttermakers led that game 7-5 through the first six innings.
Adrian awaits its series with Heron Lake sporting a 9-12 record. Heron Lake is 9-13.
“I think we match up pretty well. I think we’re very similar teams,” said Adrian manager Levi Bullerman.
The A’s are led by Glen Kruger (3B-2B-1B) and Joe Kruger (1B), both who boast of batting average above .350. Matt Gades (C-OF) and Zach Dingmann (OF-P) are batting in the .300 range. Dingmann has been the team’s top pitcher this summer.
Bullerman says his A’s are motivated to reverse a recent trend. In 2012, they were swept by Jackson in the first round of the tournament, and they haven’t qualified for the regionals since 2008.
“Since then we haven’t fared very well in the playoffs,” Bullerman said.
Standing in Adrian’s way this year is Heron Lake. The Lakers began the season 6-3, then struggled through a rough middle stretch where scoring was hard to come by. Manager Chad Knutson says the team still struggles at times to come up with the key hit, but the Lakers’ versatility is seen as a plus.
“We’ve got quite a few guys who can play anywhere, really,” he said.
Knutson is happy with what he perceives as a deep pitching staff. Matt Franks (3-4 record, 3.84 ERA) has thrown the most innings this year, and Lon Eichenberger (3-2, 4.89) and Ben Scheevel (2-0, 5.81) are also solid. Alex Meyer, the team’s No. 3 hitter, is seen as a valuable relief ace.
Meyer hits at a .288 clip. Luke Henkels is at .302, speedy leadoff hitter Eric Milbrath is at .279 and Lucas Knutson is hitting .259.
Adrian and Heron Lake met on June 2 and Heron Lake won it, rallying from a 4-1 deficit to prevail 5-4.