After losing their top two pithers from last season, it seemed as though the Watertown-Mayer baseball team might have a huge void in its pitching rotation this year.
At the very least, the departures posed serious concerns for a Watertown-Mayer team whose next most experienced pitcher logged all of nine varsity innings last year. The Royals were aware they had some quality young arms ready to step into bigger roles, but few probably would have expected the pitching staff to become the team’s unquestioned strength, at least not so soon.
“Oh my gosh, I never would have expected this,” Watertown-Mayer senior outfielder Nick Tschida said when asked about the domination of his team’s pitching staff over the last several weeks. “They came out of nowhere, and they’re just pitching unreal.”
“Unreal” isn’t much of an exaggeration. Since the start of the postseason, the Royals’ pitching staff has been nearly untouchable. The team boasts a 1.27 ERA through its first eight playoff games, and was a major reason the Royals surprised the rest of the Section 2AA field to emerge as a state tournament entrant for the first time in school history.
Junior pitcher Michael Herd, in particular, has put together a postseason for the ages. He’s logged 22.2 innings and has yet to allow an earned run. He’s only surrendered seven hits and four walks – equating to an almost unfathomable WHIP of 0.49 – and he’s struck out 14.
Making Herd’s streak of scoreless innings even more impressive is that seven of them came against Holy Family, the third-ranked team in the state. Herd hurled a one-hit shutout against the Fire last Tuesday in Belle Plaine, keeping his team alive to play another day and sending the Fire home.
Perhaps most remarkable, however, is that Herd returned to the mound just two days after that masterpiece against Holy Family to throw 2.2 innings of perfect relief in Game 1 of the section finals against St Peter. He entered Game 1 against the Saints in the fourth inning with one out and a man on third, but got a strikeout and a groundout to get out of the inning. He then retired the side in order in the fifth and sixth.
“The coaches asked me if I was doing OK, and I told them I could go a couple innings,” Herd said of returning on just one day of rest. “My arm was pretty sore after the game, but that was the least of my worries. We needed the win.”
Herd wasn’t the only one to log a gutsy performance on the mound last Thursday against St. Peter. As impressive as the Royals’ pitching staff has been, it really only goes three deep, and with four games in three days, several of the pitchers had to do yeoman’s work to help the Royals punch their state tournament ticket.
Andrew Nichols started and picked up the win in the team’s second of two games game last Tuesday, June 4, a win over Glencoe-Silver Lake, the state’s eighth-ranked team. He threw six innings and allowed only one earned run in that game, and just like Herd, he returned on one day of rest to pitch in relief against St. Peter on Thursday.
Nichols’ appearance against St. Peter came in Game 2. He went three innings in that game, and though he surrendered two runs, they were innings his team desperately needed from him. Combined with the five innings he pitched in a win over Tri City United on the previous Saturday, Nichols threw a combined 14 innings in a five-day stretch,allowing a grand total of five earned runs (2.50 ERA) in those games.
Brendan Weege has also been impressive on the mound this postseason. The regular third baseman has logged only 5.1 innings, but like Herd, he also boasts a 0.00 ERA in the playoffs.
“Our pitchers know how to compete out there,” Watertown-Mayer coach Justin Stohs said. “We’ve been going with three or four guys that we know we can put on the mound and have a chance to compete against anybody.”
Weege hasn’t been the only position player logging key innings for his team. Shortstop Matt Elsenpeter, who had thrown only a handful of innings all season, mostly in a closers role, was called on to go six innings in Game 2 of the section championship. He started the game on the mound and allowed two runs in four innings before giving way to Nichols. But, when the game went to extra innings, Elsenpeter returned to the mound to pitch the eighth and ninth innings, picking up the win after he scored the winning run in the top of the ninth.
Elsenpeter also picked up the save in Game 1 against St. Peter. Though he isn’t accustomed to logging that many innings, he said he was prepared for that possibility given the desperate situation his team was in with so few pitchers, so many games, and so few days in between them.
“I was told there might be a chance (of pitching a lot of innings),” Elsenpeter said. “My arm felt good, so I just kept going.”
Contact Matt Bunke at email@example.com