Royals create state tourney buzz with first-round upset

This pitch was the decisive moment in Thursdays state quarterfinal baseball game between Watertown-Mayer and Minnehaha Academy, when Brett Johnson was awarded first base on a catcher's interference ruling with the bases loaded. The play resulted in the long run of the game, sending the Royals ahead to the state semifinals despite nearly being no-hit by Minnehaha Academy's John Pryor.
This pitch was the decisive moment in Thursdays state quarterfinal baseball game between Watertown-Mayer and Minnehaha Academy, when Brett Johnson was awarded first base on a catcher’s interference ruling with the bases loaded. The play resulted in the long run of the game, sending the Royals ahead to the state semifinals despite nearly being no-hit by Minnehaha Academy’s John Pryor. (CCN staff photo by Matt Bunke)

To many people in attendance, the way Watertown-Mayer won Thursday’s state quarterfinal baseball game at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud was about the most peculiar way imaginable. But for those who hadbeen following the Royals’ playoff run, it was pretty much par for the course.

Watertown-Mayer, which struck out 14 times and didn’t get its first hit against Mr. Baseball finalist John Pryor until there was one out in the seventh inning, still managed to beat Minnehaha Academy 1-0 when the game’s lone run crossed the plate on a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning. That play, combined with yet another pitching masterpiece from Michael Herd, helped the Royals advance to Class AA’s final four and a matchup with Perham on Friday.

“We keep finding ways,” Watertown-Mayer coach Justin Stohs said. “That’s the way the whole season’s gone. We’re finding ways to win games, and that’s what matters. The guys have faith we’re going to find a way to do it.”

The decisive fifth inning started when Joe Reinert reached on an error. When Mark Sandquist drew a walk with one out and David Gallus drew another with two outs, Brett Johnson stepped to the plate. His late swing with two strikes knocked the glove off Minnehaha Academy catcher Eamonn Manion’s hand, and gave the Royals all the “offense” they needed.

“It wasn’t the best way to win, but a win’s a win,” said Watertown-Mayer third baseman Brendan Weege, whose impressive leaping grab in the third inning saved his team a run.

In a cruel bit of irony for Minnehaha Academy, and Manion in particular, the Redhawks argued vehemently in the first inning that Manion should have been awarded first base because of what they believed was catcher’s interference on Johnson, the Watertown-Mayer catcher. It would have given the Redhawks runners on first and second with just one out, but if interference did occur, the home plate umpire didn’t see it, and he didn’t change his call after conferring with the base umpires.

The Redhawks were none too happy when the catcher’s interference call went against them in the fifth, but the Royals were certainly willing to take a run however they could get one with as well as Pryor was throwing.

The Royals knew they’d be in for a tough battle against Pryor, who boasted a 7-0 record and 0.26 ERA on just one earned run in 53 innings this year. Pryor looked like every bit the ace he was billed to be, striking out the first five Watertown-Mayer hitters on his way to 14 for the game. Pryor throws in the mid-80s, but used a devastating curve ball as his strikeout pitch to render the Royals helpless most of the game.

As good as Pryor was, though, Herd was equally impressive for Watertown-Mayer. The junior extended his string of scoreless innings this postseason to 29.2 with a two-hit shutout against the state’s sixth-ranked team. His last start was a one-hit shutout of third-ranked Holy Family.

“We weren’t surprised,” Stohs said of Herd’s outing. “We knew he’d keep us in the ball game, and he really did today.”

Herd, not a particularly hard thrower who relies mainly on a fastball and changeup, mixed his speeds brilliantly and hit his spots with precision, as he has all year. With only three earned runs allowed this season, he lowered his ERA to 0.42 after Thursday’s superb outing.

“He’s just developed into an all-around good pitcher,” Stohs said. “He changes speeds and he keeps it down. But he’s also working about three inches inside and three inches outside. He’s really working the black of the plate, and I wish people could really study how he does it.”.

Herd struck out just three, and relied on his defense to do the rest behind him. Much as they have been all postseason long, the Royals were steady as could be defensively, saving several runs with impressive plays. Herd was quick to credit his teammates for his recent string of dominance on the mound.

“I think it’s the defense behind me,” Herd said. “They know what they’re doing, and they just keep going at it.”

The Royals made just one error, but it was actually a bad bounce that ate up shortstop Matt Elsenpeter to lead off the third inning. But, after a sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second with one out, Weege’s spectacular leaping grab on a line drive hit by Ford Schroeder saved a run and allowed Herd to get out of the inning by getting Ryan Evenson to pop out to short.

In the fifth inning, after Minnehaha Academy drew a leadoff walk, a ball smoked down the first base line by Josh Wintz appeared to be huge trouble for the Royals, but first baseman Joe Reinert, who had been holding the runner on, snared the ball out of the air and doubled the runner off to eliminate another Redhawk threat.

And finally, Manion’s sinking line drive to left center to lead off the sixth inning appeared ticketed for the gap, but Nick Tschida’s diving catch set the tone for a 1-2-3 inning for Herd. Herd also worked a 1-2-3 seventh, ending the game on a foul popout to Reinert at first.

Pryor, who already has three no-hitters in his career, flirted with his fourth, but gave up an infield single to Mark Sandquist on a ground ball to shortstop with one out in the seventh inning. As dominant as the senior lefthander was, though, he was tagged with his first loss, and fell to 7-1 on the year.

“This team has really come together,” Herd said. “I never expected this to happen. I never really expected that we’d be section champs, and here we are, in the top four in the state right now.”

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 

 

 

 

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