Legion baseball: Luverne gets big win in state tourney opener
LUVERNE – Luverne played the way head coach Barry Shelton has wanted to see it play all season Friday; “with heart, integrity and confidence.”
Post 123 – the only team that entered as an automatic qualifier rather than a district champion -- advanced to the American Legion Division II state tournament semifinals with a 5-2 win over 2013 champion La Crescent Post 595.
“It feels great,” said Luverne’s winning pitcher Josh Slieter, who also went 3-for-4 at the plate. “There’s nothing better than this. This is probably the most fun I’ve had playing baseball.
"It proved we belong here. It proved we can play with anybody.”
The game’s turning point came in the fifth.
The home team got a huge defensive play in the top of the inning to keep the deficit at 2-1. Post 595 had Matt Wieser on second with two outs when Zack Melbostad snuck a seeing-eye single through the left side. Wieser wheeled around third and looked like he was about to score. But Luverne left fielder Luke Nibbelink threw it right on the money to Connor Crabtree behind the plate. Wieser slid right into the tag for the third out.
That proved to be huge.
“That got us rolling again,” Shelton said of the play. “That play opened everything up and the rain started pouring down.”
“Luke came up big,” Slieter added. “He saved the game for us right there. That’s just one example of how it was a whole team effort.”
Luverne put together its big rally in the bottom of the inning. Connor Hoffman and Logan Norman were both hit by pitches to open the inning. For the second time of the night, it was Slieter providing the initial fireworks when he doubled to deep left, pushing Hoffman around to tie it up.
Gunnar Olson, the next batter, sent a chopper towards La Crescent’s drawn-in second baseman. He alertly threw home, but the toss was low. Post 595’s catcher went down to snare it, but Norman leaped over him and landed on the plate for the go-ahead run. Slieter and Olson scored on a wild pitch and a throwing error, putting Post 123 up 5-2 at the end of five.
“We had a spark after Luke’s play,” Slieter said. “(Luverne High School) Coach (Mike) Wenninger always says that hitting is contagious. We just really wanted it.”
The defending champions struck early when starting pitcher Melbostad led off with a double. Two groundouts allowed him to move up 90 feet each and La Crescent grabbed a 1-0 lead.
Post 123 saw a great opportunity to at least tie things up fall by the wayside in the bottom of the second. Slieter beat out an infield single to start the inning. He was still on first with two outs when Tommy Vajgrt walked to keep the inning alive. Crabtree followed that with a picture perfect push bunt to the left side and easily reached first to load the bases.
Unfazed by the jam, Melbostad got his fourth strikeout of the contest to end the threat.
Post 595 added some insurance with a bizarre run in the top of the third. Dillon McKinnon laced it up the middle for a leadoff single. He moved up to second on a passed ball before tagging to third when Olson made an impressive diving catch in right-center. Luverne appealed to second, claiming McKinnon had left early. When Slieter turned and threw to the base, McKinnon broke for home and scored his team’s second run.
Luverne got one back in the home half of the inning. With two outs, Skyler Wenninger hit a bloop single to shallow center. The throw back to the infield got away from its intended target, allowing him to advance to second. He eventually came around to score on a cue shot to left by Slieter, cutting the La Crescent lead to 2-1.
“He’s done it all year for us,” Shelton said of Slieter. “He’s a clutch player. He’s one of the leaders on this team and that’s how you expect leaders to play in a game like this.”
Slieter went the distance in the win for Post 123. He surrendered two earned runs on four hits while fanning two and walking two. He also led the way at the plate, going 3-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored. Wenninger was 2-for-4 with a run scored. Olson, Norman and Crabtree had a hit each.
Despite the big-time effort, Slieter said the kudos belonged to his teammates.
“Basically team defense is what won that game for us,” he said. “I’m not taking any credit for it.”
Melbostad took the loss for La Crescent. He went the first five innings and allowed three earned runs on seven hits, struck out six, walked two and plunked three. Connor Nelson pitched the sixth. Melbostad added two of Post 595’s four hits.
Luverne will take on St. James, which defeated International Falls 1-0 in its first round game Friday, in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Redbird Field.
St. James — which got a perfect game from pitcher Walker Froehling in its win — defeated Post 123 twice this season. The first time was a 5-0 win for St. James on July 7 before Luverne dropped an 18-8 decision at the District II Tournament.
“The third time’s the charm,” Slieter said. “Skyler’s going to be pitching and it’s going to be a great game.”
R H E
La Crescent 101 000 0 – 2 4 2
Luverne 001 040 x – 5 8 0