It wasn't pretty as their first outing against the Spartans, and it was a lot closer than most Magic fans probably wanted, but at the end of the night, Monticello's baseball team got the outs they needed in a 4-3 heart-pounder against the always tough Rocori Spartans.
"This was what a section championship should be like," said Cole Deibele, coach of the Magic baseball team. "It shouldn't be easy, and against Rocori, it never is. They have been here so many times and they're a class act of a program."
The day, for Monticello anyway, started when No. 6 St. Cloud Apollo, who had had a hand in ending the seasons of three different teams, took a 1-0 loss to the Spartans in the afternoon game, putting Rocori into a rematch situation against Monticello.
"The first inning is the biggest inning against a team like that," said Alex Otto. "Get those first three outs and we'd be in good position."
It was not nearly the same kind of game, and that was clear right from the start. In the first playoff game between these two teams, it took until the second inning for Rocori to get a baserunner and until the sixth inning to get their first hit. This time, working against Monticello ace Ethan Bosacker, they got both their first baserunner and first hit in the first inning.
"Ethan battled all game," said Deibele. "The strike zone for both teams was really tight, which meant pitches had to be a little more over the plate than pitchers usually like. He gave us everything we had."
In fact, Rocori got three total runners on base in the first inning, but with the help of two different runners being caught stealing by the arm of sophomore catcher Calvin Schmitz, the Spartans were unable to get on the board in the top of the first.
"I knew they were going to be aggressive and they weren't going to let up," said Schmitz. "If I don't throw those kids out there, they can run all game. If they can run against me, it's a whole different ball game. That set the tone."
Monticello manufactured two runs in the bottom of the inning. Tommy Blackstone reached on an error to lead off the bottom of the first, then stole two bases before scoring on a wild ball-four pitch to the next batter, Jason Axelberg. Axelberg stole second on the first pitch of Otto's at-bat, then took third when the Spartans got caught napping on the ball-four pitch to Otto. Otto then stole second with Bosacker batting, but it was Isaac Frandsen dropping a ball into short center that also should have been caught that scored Monticello's second run in the inning.
"Our baserunning was amazing again," said Deibele. "If anybody was here watching us the last two games and how we ran the bases, it has to be scary. We play so well on this surface with how fast we are."
The inning ended with Monticello stranding runners on second and third. That sent action back to Rocori, and they made Bosacker pay for some uncharacteristic wildness. Their first hitter hit a ball into the hole at short, and while Otto made a great diving play to keep the ball from going into left field, his throw was just a little late. That was followed by a single, and after a strikeout for the first out, third baseman Jackson Pribyl threw wildly at his brother Jace at first and when Jace couldn't catch his throw, Rocori scored the first run Monticello allowed all postseason.
Bosacker's second strikeout of the inning allowed Magic fans to breathe a little, and after an intentional walk to lead-off batter Jack Steil, Bosacker got one last strikeout on a 3-2 pitch that was almost certainly ball four had the hitter not swung and missed at it.
After doing all their damage in the first inning before two outs were on the board, two-out hitting got the job done in the bottom of the second for the Magic. After Jace Pribyl and Schmitz struck out, Blackstone singled to center. He stole second, and on the same play also moved to third because the ball got past the Rocori catcher and went all the way to the backstop. He then scored on another Rocori error on a ball put in play by Axelberg, and a third error by the Rocori pitcher later in the inning scored Axelberg from second, which he had stolen early in Otto's at-bat.
"The turf gave us a little more speed and we took advantage of the pitcher's leg kick," said Deibele. "We had a lot of easy steals today. That meant we didn't have to give up outs with bunts and our guys could just swing away."
That was all the Magic would get in that inning, though they would again leave runners on at second and third, and in the rest of the game, as it turned out.
Two quick outs in the top of the third were followed by two walks and a hit batter that loaded the bases again, but another swinging strikeout for Bosacker ended the inning. The first 1-2-3 inning for either team came in the bottom of the third when the Magic went quietly and sent Rocori right back to bat.
"You can never control the umps," said Schmitz. "The ump did a fine job. You just have to make sure they don't decide the game, you decide the game."
Bosacker wouldn't escape the top of the fourth unscathed. He hit the lead-off batter, who then moved to second on a rare wild pitch. The runner was almost stranded there, as Bosacker got a strikeout and a weak flyout to center, but the fourth batter of the inning came through with a single to center that scored the Rocori runner and when the throw came through to the plate, the batter took second.
Bosacker's third hit batter of the game put another runner on in the fourth, but the next hitter finally ended the damage when he grounded out to third, where Jackson Pribyl made up for his earlier error with a nice play on the run.
Schmitz got on to lead off Monticello's fourth inning with an infield single, and after he was pinch-run for by Bret Schoen, Schoen took second when Blackstone was hit by the Rocori starter Steil. Schoen was forced at third on a bunt by Axelberg, and despite Blackstone and Axelberg both stealing their next bases, Otto and Bosacker struck out to end yet another promising inning for the Magic.
The fifth was Bosacker's cleanest inning by far, as he got two quick outs to start and though it appeared the strike zone was squeezed a little on a two-out walk, he came right back with a strikeout to end the inning.
"It was huge [for Ethan to get through five innings]," said Deibele. "Ethan had to go a little longer than we probably wanted him to in order to keep guys fresh in case we needed to play tomorrow."
Another Monticello rally that had runners at first and second was squashed in the bottom of the fifth when Jace Pribyl and Schmitz both struck out, and neither were happy with the pitches that were their final strike.
"We didn't get the clutch hits we wanted," said Otto. "It all worked out pretty well."
Thomas Van Culin was the first man out of the bullpen for Monticello, and he threw Monticello's first, and only, 1-2-3 inning of the game in the top of the sixth. A double play hit into by Bosacker ended yet another inning where Monticello had got two runners on, and Monticello proceeded to the seventh holding on to the same 4-2 lead they had held since the fourth.
A quick and easy death for Rocori's chances was not in the cards for the Magic in the seventh. Van Culin struck out the first man he faced, but then quickly walked the next two despite several pitches appearing to be uncalled strikes. Otto was then summoned to take the mound.
"Otto is at his best when the pressure is at its highest point," said Deibele. "He never gives in. It was an easy decision to bring him in, because I knew he would come in and throw strikes."
After throwing his warm-up pitches, he dispatched the first hitter he faced on just three pitches to put Monticello one out away from the state tournament.
"Deibele asked me in the fifth inning if I could go," said Otto. "I was anxious and scared to go in, but I tried to take it head on. When I threw nothing but balls in my warm-ups, I was peeing my pants, but then my first pitch was a nice hard strike and that took a lot of pressure off. I just kept trying to hit the strike zone and it ended up in our favor, but it was pretty scary."
It appeared that he had gotten the grounder they needed to win it with the next batter, but a low throw by Bosacker (who had moved to third after being replaced on the mound by Van Culin) wasn't cleanly handled by Jace Pribyl at first and that allowed the runner to reach. That would have left the bases loaded, but the runner at second had strayed a little off the bag. Noticing that, Pribyl tried to gun him out at second, but the ball got past Blackstone and into the outfield. That gave the lead Rocori runner the chance to try and score.
The Rocori runner barreled into Schmitz, keeping him from securing the ball and tagging the runner out.
"We tried to make a good play but we couldn't make a play," said Otto. "I thought we would have the guy at home. Cal was set up right by the plate, it hit a little low and he missed it, and he got trucked. I didn't like the ump didn't call that, the ump said the guy was just trying to slide in, but I saw him lowering his shoulder. It was a tough call to make in a clutch time like that."
That left runners at first and third and Monticello in desperate need of an out, with the lead holding by a thread at 4-3. On the second pitch of the next at-bat, the Rocori runner at first broke for second.
"Two pitches earlier, we put the fake throw on," said Schmitz. "Nine times out of ten, that runner [at third] never flinches. The one time it works, the one time we needed it to work, it worked."
Schmitz worked his fake-out perfectly, drawing the runner just far enough off the third-base bag to deserve a throw down to try and pick him off.
"Nobody was expecting that," said Otto. "Cal saw it, and right when he was throwing it I was so scared. I just said to myself, 'Please God catch it.'"
Well, you can see the result of that play here.
Here was the play. pic.twitter.com/oowWF9XW5j— Nathan Rengel (@TeacherNate101) June 6, 2019
"It takes a lot of guts to make that throw as a sophomore knowing that that is the tying run at third," said Deibele. "Cal struggled here last year and he worked hard through the summer and throughout this year. Anyone who watched him this year can say he's having a great year. I don't know if we would be here if he wasn't back there handling our pitching staff."
The final out allowed Magic fans to stop chewing their fingernails down to the beds and celebrate the 4-3 win that won their team its first-ever section championship.
"I'm proud of the guys that they were able to get over the hump," said Deibele. "Luckily we were able to put enough little things together to score four runs."
The win sends Monticello to the baseball tournament for the first time ever. Their seeding for said tournament will be announced in a few days, but their first game will take place at Siebert Field some time on June 13.
"We're going to enjoy ourselves for a little while," said Deibele. "We're going to get ready to play again on turf. It's a little different setting, but we're just going to play who we play and take things one game at a time. The ultimate goal is to make it to Target Field, but we have a few games to win before then."
Final Game Stats
W-Ethan Bosacker; 5 IP, 5 hits, 2 R (1 earned), with five walks and 10 strikeouts and three hit batters
L-Jack Steil; 6 IP, 8 hits, 4 runs, five walks and nine strikeouts with one hit batter
Save-Alex Otto; 2/3 IP, 0 hits, 0 R (third run goes to Van Culin but was unearned)
Key stat of the game: If the Hub is correct, Monticello tallied 13 stolen bases against the Spartans, with each player that scored a run stealing at least one base during the game. Tommy Blackstone and Jason Axelberg were the main culprits; Blackstone stole four bases and Axelberg stole six (!). Alex Otto also added two steals.
Note: This post will be altered slightly for next week's newspaper, as quotes from both Ethan Bosacker and Coach Deibele will be added for perspective on Monticello's first-round opponent at state.