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Les Knutson: Close games highlight area amateur baseball playoffs

WINDOM -- With a trip to this year's amateur baseball state tournament on the line, tonight's opening game of the third-place series between the Hadley Buttermakers and the Windom Pirates at Island Park is meaningful, to say the least.The winner ...

WINDOM -- With a trip to this year’s amateur baseball state tournament on the line, tonight’s opening game of the third-place series between the Hadley Buttermakers and the Windom Pirates at Island Park is meaningful, to say the least.
The winner of the series will join the Fairmont Martins and the Milroy Irish as Region 13’s representatives at the Class C state tournament, which begins Aug. 18 with games at Green Isle, Norwood and Hamburg, extending over three weekends, capped with the state championship game on Labor Day.
If the previous games of this year’s regional tournament are any indication, tonight’s matchup in Windom should be a dandy.
I have seen six consecutive playoff games which were each decided by one run. During that same span, there were two others (which I didn’t see) that were also one-run decisions.
That’s right, close games have been the norm throughout this year’s Region 13C action, which has paired 14 teams down to the final four with plenty of competitive action. Now, both Milroy -- which has won four straight games by a single run -- and Fairmont will play for the regional championship in a best-of-three series, which begins at Herb Wolf Field in Fairmont tonight.
The third-seeded Martins (21-8 overall this summer) and the fifth-seeded Irish (25-12) are both advancing to the state tournament after winning a pair of closely-contested series in the regional tournament. The top-seeded Buttermakers (19-10) and the seventh-seeded Pirates (17-10) are battling to keep their seasons going. The loser of the best of three-of-series is finished, while the winner advances.
After sweeping Ruthton by scores of 13-0 and 8-4 in the opening crossover series between teams from the First Nite League and Gopher League, Windom advanced to the Final Four with bookend wins (4-1 and 2-1) over Pipestone. The second-seeded A’s won Game 2 decisively (9-1) at Island Park. But those Pirates, especially when Collin Lovell is on the mound, have been tough in the playoffs with four wins in seven games. Both losses to Fairmont were by a mere run (5-4 and 2-1).
Hadley, which earned the region’s top seed after going 15-4 in league play this summer, received a first-round bye. The Buttermakers had a close opener in the regional quarterfinals, holding off a couple of rallies by the Lakefield Frogs in a 7-6 Hadley victory. A complete-game pitching gem by Luke Drooger helped the Buttermakers clinch the series with a 3-1 win at Laurie Mahon Field in Hadley on July 29.
It should be another great game tonight at Island Park (7:30 p.m.) before Game 2 is played in Hadley at 2 p.m. Saturday. If a third game is needed, that will be played at 2 p.m. Sunday, also at Mahon Field.
Game 2 of the Fairmont vs. Milroy series will be at Irish Yard (near Vesta, 16 miles straight north of Walnut Grove) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) with Game 3 (if needed) back in Fairmont at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Nine one-run games total
Beginning with a 13-inning, 3-2 win by Pipestone over Worthington in opening round action (at Worthington, July 21), there have been a total of nine one-run decisions in this year’s playoffs. Eight of those have come in regional action, including four one-run victories by those Milroy Irish, who have a knack of battling back and winning close games.
The first one-run game which I watched was Hadley’s 7-6 win over Lakefield at Stan King Field on July 26. The Frogs scored twice in both the bottom of the eighth and bottom of the ninth to erase a 7-2 deficit. Lakefield had the tying run on second in the ninth, but Drooger -- who pitched for Dordt College (Sioux Center, Iowa) this past spring -- was able to get a ground out to preserve Hadley’s first playoff win.
That same night, Luverne’s Skyler Wenninger -- who is an exceptional shortstop -- hit for the cycle, plus a double -- in the Redbird’s 10-4 victory over Milroy. That’s right, Wenninger was five-for-five at the plate with a single, two doubles, a triple and a home run.
Two nights later, I watched a thriller at Irish Yard as Luverne took an early 3-0 lead on a bases-loaded double by player-manager Brooks Maurer. Later, Milroy was leading 4-3 after a grand slam over the right-field wall by left-handed hitting catcher Brady Lanoue. The Irish went up 6-3 before Luverne scored in three straight innings on RBI doubles (Cody Zeutenhorst, Logan Norman and Cole Bosch) to tie the score. Mason Schnaible’s booming two-run double in the bottom of the eighth gave the Irish an 8-6 edge, but Luverne plated two more runs in the top of the ninth to tie the score. Milroy prevailed in the bottom of the frame as Derek Riley drew a bases-loaded walk, knotting the series at a game apiece.
Game 3 was back at Redbird Field on July 30. After Luverne assumed an early 5-0 lead, the Irish sliced the gap to 5-2 and then crossed the plate four times in the top of the ninth, held off the Redbirds in the bottom of the frame and advanced with a 6-5 win.
Earlier that same day, Windom won Game 3 of its series with Pipestone, edging the A’s by a 2-1 final.
Later, the Pirates were victimized twice by one-run decisions to Fairmont, putting them into the third-place series against Hadley -- which lost a pair of one-game games to Milroy.
I was able to watch Milroy’s 1-0 win over Hadley at Irish Yard on August 2, Fairmont’s 2-1 victory over Windom at Island Park on August 4, and Milroy’s dramatic come-from-behind 5-4 triumph over Hadley at jam-packed Laurie Mahon Field on August 5.
All three were tremendous games
Milroy’s Cody Mather and Hadley’s Sam Erickson (four years of pitching at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D.) locked horns in a true pitcher’s duel, highlighted by all kinds of fielding gems -- including a catch against the wall by Irish center-fielder Anthony Dolan, robbing an extra-base hit off the bat of Hadley’s Blake Rogers (college baseball at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa).
Lovell, who pitched a perfect game against Ruthton (July 20) and notched an amazing 18 strikeouts in a 10-inning one-hitter against Pipestone (July 26), was sharp against the Martins, but was so Brandan Alfson (Pipestone’s drafted player, pitching for Fairmont). Alfson had previously struck out 15 Pirates in Pipestone’s 9-1 win on July 28.
Last Saturday’s game at Hadley -- where the crowds are always huge and vocal -- was another one-run game, decided by Mason Schnaible (college baseball at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall) who drove a towering solo home run way over the right-field fence in the top on the ninth. Schnaible, the grandson of Adrian coaching legend Dean Schnaible, also picked up the pitching victory for the Irish, twirling from the eighth into the 12th. Tyler Peterson notched the save for Milroy, coming in with one out in the bottom of the 12th. In typical fashion, the Irish ended the game with a sweet double play, started by shortstop Dominic Dolan -- one of several turned by the Irish that day.
So, there you have it -- an amazing number of close, competitive games in this year’s area amateur or “town team” baseball action.
Large crowds, especially at Mahon Field and Irish Yard
“Amateur baseball is making a comeback,” says Windom’s Greg Rossow, who has been the Region 13C commissioner since 2001. “Our attendance and gate receipts are way up from where we were 16 years ago.”
Both Milroy and Hadley draw exceptional crowds, each drawing just over 300 paid fans at one of its regional home games.
“The games have been great,” summed up Rossow. “There are a lot of really good players competing and they seem to be able to step it up a notch at playoff time and really play well.”
Rossow relies on Luverne’s Jeff Sudenga, his umpire-in-chief, to line up quality crews to work the games. Adrian’s Randy Schettler often works with Sudenga, while Welcome’s Matt Prunty teams with Blue Earth’s Tom Bromeland, and the Jackson duo of Trent Sukalski and Corey Christoffer have been frequent umpires in the regional tournament. Worthington’s Larry Anderson, Windom’s Todd Thompson and Brad Huse (from the Blue Earth area) have also umpired their share of playoff games this summer.
The winner of the Windom vs. Hadley series will be the region’s third seed and open state-tournament play at Norwood on Aug. 19 (4 p.m.). The loser of the Milroy vs. Fairmont series is the second seed and will play at Hamburg Aug. 20 (5 p.m.). The regional champion is the top seed and draws an opening round bye before tangling with the winner of the Region 10B vs. Region 12C winner at Norwood on Aug. 25 (5 p.m.).
Before the state tournament, the three qualifying teams will be allowed to draft two more pitchers from any of the teams who competed in this year’s playoffs. According to a recent rule modification, the drafted players are not allowed to bat, only pitch.

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