If they exist, the baseball gods must have been smiling down upon the Watertown-Mayer baseball team last Thursday night in Belle Plaine.
After winning four consecutive elimination games to advance to the championship of the double-elimination Section 2AA tournament, it seemed as if the Royals’ postseason magic might finally be about to run out. Needing to beat St. Peter twice in a row to earn the first state tournament berth in school history, the Royals entered the seventh inning trailing 2-1, and for the first time, staring elimination right in the face.
But then, as should almost be expected with this never-say-die team, opportunity knocked once more. Back-to-back St. Peter errors to open the seventh inning and another error later on in the frame paved the way for the Royals to score four runs, all with two outs, to claim a 5-2 victory in Game 1. The Royals used the momentum from their stunning Game 1 win to pull out a 6-4, nine-inning win in Game 2 to advance to this week’s state tournament in St. Cloud.
“When we got in the dugout, there was a lot of urgency,” Watertown-Mayer senior captain Nick Tschida said of the leadup to what turned out to be a season-defining seventh inning. “Everybody was pretty stressed and nervous, but once the inning started, there was a lot of focus and energy. Everybody was just going crazy, and that sparked things.”
P.J. Hangartner reached on an error to open the fateful seventh inning, and when Michael Herd laid down a sacrifice bunt in an attempt to move Hangartner to second, both runners were safe when St. Peter pitcher Tom Steidler tried to eliminate the lead runner but threw the ball into center field.
St. Peter nearly recovered from the miscues after Watertown-Mayer failed to get down a bunt that would have moved the runners to second and third, and then Steidler got a strikeout for the second out of the inning. But that’s when Watertown-Mayer’s Matt Elsenpeter came up huge for the Royals once again, knocking a base hit up the middle – his second RBI hit of the game – to plate Hangartner and tie the game at 2-2.
Brendan Weege’s ground ball should have ended the inning for St. Peter after that, but it instead rolled between the Saints’ shortstops legs and into left field, allowing the lead run to score for Watertown-Mayer. The error also allowed Joe Reinert to come to the plate, and he delivered a pair of insurance runs for the Royals with a two-run double.
“It just took a little bit for these guys, a little bit of positive energy, and then boom, all of a sudden it just exploded,” Watertown-Mayer coach Justin Stohs said of the seventh inning. “That’s all it takes sometimes is that one little spark, and luckily, we got it.
Elsenpeter, who was front and center in both games of the sweep of St. Peter, came on to pitch the seventh inning. He struck out the first two batters he faced, allowed a two-out single, but then closed the game with his third strikeout of the inning to force a Game 2.
Elsenpeter, who went 3-for-4 with two RBIs in the first game while hitting from the left side of the plate, played a huge role in the second game as well. As if his 4-for-5 performance — hitting from the right side of the plate this time — wasn’t enough, the regular shortstop started the game on the mound, gave the Royals four quality innings, and later returned to the mound to pitch the eighth and ninth innings after St. Peter rallied late to force extra innings.
Elsenpeter’s one-out single in the top-of the ninth even sparked the Royals’ game winning rally, and he came around to score the go-ahead run when Weege’s line drive single skipped past the St. Peter left fielder and rolled all the way to the wall. Andrew Nichols added a bloop RBI single to left later in the inning to give the Royals a 6-4 lead, and Elsenpeter made it stand up by working around a leadoff single in the bottom of the inning to retire the next three hitters, with the final two coming on strikeouts.
Overall, Elsenpeter’s day included going 7-for-9 at the plate with four RBIs, six innings on the mound, a save, a win, and nine strikeouts.
“I’d say it’s definitely right at the top,” Elsenpeter said when asked where the day ranked in his baseball career.
Elsenpeter, who pitched more innings in the two games against St. Peter than he had all season long, was mobbed on the mound following the final out, but it was the gutsy performances from two other pitchers who put the Royals in a position to win. Just two days after throwing a seven-inning one hitter to beat Holy Family, Herd returned to the mound to pitch 2.2 innings of perfect relief in Game 1. And just two days after he pitched six innings in a 3-1 win over Glencoe-Silver Lake, Andrew Nichols returned to throw three quality innings of relief in Game 2.
The strong pitching performances – Brendan Weege also started Game 1 and allowed only two unearned runs in 3.1 innings – allowed the Royals’ bats to win the games late. St. Peter decided to throw its ace at the Royals in Game 1, and it took the Royals awhile to get to Steidler. However, Elsenpeter’s RBI double down the right field line with two outs in the fifth inning finally cut St. Peter’s 2-0 lead in half, and set the stage for the Royals’ winning rally in the seventh.
St. Peter jumped in front in Game 2 as well, when the Saints scored a run on a suicide squeeze in the second inning. However, the Royals, who took advantage of nine St. Peter errors on the day, tied the game in the second inning thanks in large part to several St. Peter miscues.
Brett Johnson opened the inning by reaching on an error on the St. Peter third baseman, and then stole second base. After Tschida flew out to right field, Johnson moved to third on a single by Elsenpeter. Weege followed with a ground ball to shortstop that appeared to be an easy inning-ending double play, but Weege ended up with an RBI after the shortstop bobbled the ball and could only get one out at second base.
St. Peter took the lead again on an RBI single from Luke Regner in the fourth inning, but Watertown-Mayer surged ahead with three runs in the top of the fifth, when a St. Peter error once again opened the floodgates for the Royals.
David Gallus led off the inning with a single, and when Johnson laid down a bunt, the St. Peter pitcher threw errantly to first, putting runners on second and third with nobody out. Elsenpeter later drove in two with a one-out RBI single, and Nichols added a two-out RBI single to make the score 4-2.
St. Peter tied the game with single runs in the bottom of the fifth and sixth innings, but Watertown-Mayer shut the Saints down the rest of the way, allowing the Royals to pull out the win in the ninth.
Elsenpeter said the need for his team to win not just one, but both games on the evening, may actually have worked in his team’s favor as opposed to St. Peter, which knew it had to win only one game.
“We were the underdogs the whole time, and they were playing not to lose,” Elsenpeter said. “We were playing our hearts out to win two.”
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]