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WORTHINGTON -- One season ago, the Wilmont Cardinals smashed a combined 25 home runs over the fence as a team on their way to an Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament appearance.
However, despite boasting a better record through the second round of the playoffs than last year's team, the Cardinals have hit just nine home runs and are relying more on their pitching to win them games rather than the power of their offense.
"Our pitching has been our bread-and-butter this year," Wilmont starting pitcher Justin Saufley said. "Last season, we were able to get a lot of extra base hits, but so far this year, we have not been able to do that. We have a good team average, but we just aren't getting all the extra base hits we got last year."
Point in case is Wilmont's 3-1 win over the Worthington Cubs Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Region 13C amateur baseball playoffs. The Cardinals used a dominant outing by Saufley to hold the Cubs offense to just one run in nine innings. Saufley pitched a complete game, striking out 15 batters while allowing just six hits, which allowed the Cardinals to claim the win after scoring just three runs.
"The name of the game is keeping the other team from scoring runs," Saufley said. "Our pitching staff has been able to do that all season long. Guys like Joe Ahrens, Nick Ahrens and Adam Diekman have all been pitching really well for us this season. We have four of five guys who go out there and always give us a good chance to win the game."
Not only have the Cardinals' starting pitchers been pitching well all year, but they have also gone late into games; allowing coach Todd Rogers to save the arms in the bullpen.
"Our pitching has been solid and all of our pitchers have been able to go six of seven innings in most games," Rogers said. "And when we do need to go to the bullpen, the pitchers who come in are doing their best to throw strikes, hit their spots and keep the other team's batters off balance."
In the case of Saufley, who is 6-1 on the season, he has never felt better on the mound than he has this season and it is showing both in his record as well as the way he approaches the game.
"I have felt as good as ever this season when I've been pitching," Saufley said. "I don't know if I am keeping myself in better shape as I'm getting older, or what, but this year has been better than any of my past seasons pitching for the Cardinals."
One thing that has given Saufley a boast on the mound is the development of a third pitch. Saufley added a change up to his arsenal of pitches and it has done wonders for him this season.
"Two or three years ago, I decided I needed to add in another pitch to my rotation, so I started to develop a changeup," Saufley said. "Having three pitches you can throw on a consistent basis is a lot better than just having two pitches. It has really been a game changer for me on the mound."
Even though the Cardinals have been relying on solid pitching to win them games, the team can still score a bunch of runs when needed.
"We have been hitting the ball really well this year and still scoring a lot of runs in most games," Rogers said. "We might not have the power like we did last year, but we are being aggressive at the plate and swinging at strikes."
The likes of Jay Scheidt, Lucas Henning, Blake Rogers and Steven Kremer have been leading leading the way for Wilmont on offense and are coach Rogers go to guys when he needs someone to drive in a run.
"Those guys have been hitting really well for us this season," coach Rogers said. "But we also have plenty of depth on the team that allows us to use a lot of different guys every game. A lot of guys can play a lot of different positions, so if we need to, we can move an outfielder to the infield or vice versa."
Along with their offense, the Cardinals' defense has been solid all year and makes it easier for pitchers like Saufley to throw strikes on the mound.
"It is a great feeling knowing that I have a really good defense behind me because I don't feel like I have to throw a shutout every game that I start," Saufley said. "The team as a whole has been playing really good defense this year and, this year, we are definitely better on defense than some of the other teams I've been on with Wilmont."
With Wilmont in the thick of the amateur baseball playoffs, coach Rogers feels the Cardinals are playing some of their best baseball of the season heading into Game 2 against Worthington on Saturday.
"This is the time of year that you need to be playing your best baseball and I feel like we are on top of our game right now," coach Rogers said. "If we want to keep playing at this high level, we need to keep our errors down, pitch well and hit the ball."
Game 2 of the 13C playoffs starts at 2 p.m. Saturday in Worthington, with Game 3 (if needed) scheduled to start at 4 p.m. Sunday in Wilmont.
"We all really like playing together as a team and we are all good friends," Saufley said. "We feel like we can win any game as long as we play the way we know we can. But we will take it one game at a time and try not to get ahead of ourselves."