Alex baseball looks back on a memorable season after loss to Brainerd

This wasn’t the way the Alexandria baseball team imagined a memorable season ending.

The top-seeded Cardinals had one of their best teams in recent history and felt it had the pieces to make a run at a section title. They came up just short of that goal as Alexandria fell a game shy of an 8-3A title game appearance after losing 7-6 to Brainerd last night.

Ben Allen charged and made a bare-handed play on a bunt in the first inning against Brainerd on Wednesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“This is the hardest way to lose, especially to Brainerd in front of all our fans and everything,” senior third baseman Ben Allen said from Knute Nelson ballpark on Wednesday. “It doesn’t get any worse than this.”

The Cardinals were three outs away from matching up against eventual section-title winner Rocori. Alexandria led 6-5 going to the top of the seventh inning before Brainerd’s Nate DeChaine drilled a Blake Stockert slider to center field for a two-run home run.

“I just hung it,” Stockert said. “I was kind of second guessing it when I threw it. I don’t know. I just threw it, left it up. I didn’t keep it down where I was supposed to. He’s a good hitter and he did what he was supposed to do with it.”

Stockert battled through six innings before Jake Booth came on to get the final three outs of the seventh. Stockert settled down and threw four scoreless frames after allowing four runs in the first. The Cardinals used that to battle back and take a 6-4 lead in the fifth after an RBI double by Allen.

Brainerd kept applying pressure, though. The Warriors finally broke through again with a sacrifice fly that scored a run in the sixth. They then took advantage of a lead-off walk in the seventh before DeChaine connected on a pitch up in the zone.

“There’s nothing we can say as coaches that’s going to make them feel any better,” head coach Russ Hinrichs said. “I think they’re hurting, but they put a lot into it. You get out of it what you put into it, and they put a lot into this season. It’s not the way we wanted to finish, but I’m proud of them. I thought we played hard all year. We very easily could have quit in that game, but we didn’t. We kept battling and took the lead. They’re going to remember this season for what they accomplished for a long time.”

Senior Grant Becker went into his slide right before Brainerd’s Tom Graumann applied the tag in a close play at home after a wild pitch. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

What they accomplished is a 17-8 record and this program’s second Central Lakes Conference title. The only other league title for Alexandria came in 2002 when the Cardinals finished 12-2, one game ahead of Rocori. The Spartans and Alexandria both finished 11-3 this season.

“We really came together during the whole season,” Stockert said. “As the season went on, we just started killing teams. We played really, really well. As we got to the end of the year, I don’t know. We didn’t piece together what we’ve done the whole season. We just didn’t pull it out like we needed to do right at the end.”

The Cardinals will have those memories to fall back on once the disappointment of Wednesday’s loss disappears. Games like a walk-off winner over Rocori after the Cardinals trailed 3-0 going to the final inning on May 10 will stick with these guys.

“Walking off against Rocori for sure,” Allen said of what he will remember most from his senior year. “And just spending time with this team. It’s a lot easier when you’re tight like this team. Compared to all other sports I’ve been involved with, this team is a lot more fun to be around.”

That’s ultimately what Hinrichs wants these players to remember. He knows coming up short of their final goal will hurt for a little while, but what he doesn’t want it to do is take away from what this group accomplished over its entire body of work.

“To win a conference title, that’s a big step for this program,” he said. “Our goal, every year when we sit down is I want coaches to say, ‘We’re going to have to beat Brainerd, Rocori and Alexandria.’ I want to get our program into that little trio of teams, and I think we’re there. I think every year people will know we’re going to fight and battle. This team brought a conference championship to Alexandria and that will be their legacy. They’ll hang a banner and 17 wins is not easy. It was a good season and we have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Stockert still confident in this team, himself after 10-0 loss to Brainerd

Alexandria baseball coach Russ Hinrichs was as surprised as anybody at the way the top-seeded Cardinals played on their home field in a 10-0 loss in six innings to Brainerd on Thursday night.

“I told the kids, I saw a hungry team come here against a team that was overconfident, for whatever reason,” Hinrichs said. “We weren’t ready to play and they were. That’s hard to explain. We haven’t been 10-runned all year. To play that way at home, in front of a good crowd again, is disappointing. You don’t get many opportunities to put yourself in that position. Now we’re going to have to come back and muster up the energy and the courage to come back through the loser’s bracket.”

Alexandria’s Blake Stockert threw a pitch in the second inning against Brainerd on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria wasn’t the same team that Hinrichs has watched win 15 games to this point. The Cardinals weren’t sharp on defense with three errors. Their bats racked up only three hits and they didn’t get the start they are accustomed to getting from Blake Stockert.

The junior lefty, now 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA, was dominant through his first five starts and his offense had backed him by 10-running every opponent. Brainerd made it clear that wasn’t going to be the case from the get-go.

“I felt fine,” Stockert said. “It’s just, they’re the best team I’ve faced yet this year. They just really knew how to hit the ball. They must have really been practicing hitting lefties. I mean, anything I threw, they were just pretty much making contact. Yeah, we made some errors and you can’t rely just on your pitching. You need your whole team also, and we just weren’t all there tonight.”

The Warriors got three runs in the first inning, aided by two Alexandria errors. That set the tone as a good Warriors team was never intimidated by a guy who can overpower opponents when he has all his stuff working.

“They just never quit,” Stockert said. “They were just hungry the whole time. Anything that you wanted to happen would just go completely wrong. They played the game of baseball, pretty much. That’s all you can say. They’re a good team.”

The Warriors are now 15-6, despite losing the two regular-season games they played against Alexandria. That had no bearing on the way they played on Thursday. Brainerd got a complete-game gem from lefty Tom Graumann, and its offense chased Stockert after four innings. The Warriors got to him for eight runs, five earned, on 11 hits and two walks. Stockert struck out three.

Senior Beau Backhaus planted and threw to first in an attempted double play as Brainerd’s Connor Gessell slid into second. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“He obviously didn’t pitch as well as he can,” Hinrichs said. “He was up, and he only had one pitch. He couldn’t throw anything but a fastball, and they’re a good fastball hitting team. We gave them a lot of extra outs, though. We didn’t do the things that have gotten us to this point. We weren’t sharp defensively. We weren’t backing up bases. We weren’t playing the way we played all year. That’s probably the most disappointing thing. When you get to the playoffs, you want to play your best baseball and we didn’t today.”

The opportunity is there for the Cardinals to bounce back next Monday. Alexandria will be at the MAC in St. Cloud where it will play either Big Lake or Sauk Rapids-Rice at 11 a.m. A win and the Cardinals would play right after that against either St. Michael-Albertville or Moorhead at 1:30.

This is an Alexandria team that hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season. Stockert, for one, is confident that won’t change as the Cardinals try to battle back through the loser’s bracket.

Junior Jake Booth came on in the fifth and threw the final two innings, allowing two runs on three hits. He struck out three. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“It sucks but we can’t let this get us down,” he said. “We need to come right back tomorrow and keep working. I feel 100 percent sure we’re going to win that game (on Monday). We just had one ugly game, and I know that won’t put us down. We’ll definitely win our next game.”

Hinrichs said senior Beau Backhaus will get the ball in game one on Monday. He is 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and has pitched in some of Alexandria’s biggest games this season. If the Cardinals win, Hinrichs said a game-two starter wasn’t determined yet but Stockert or senior Nick Knoblach are the likely candidates to get the ball. There is no doubt that Stockert would love another opportunity to get up on the mound in a must-win situation.

“Everyone is not going to have a perfect season,” he said. “Going 6-0, that’s pretty much almost unheard of. As soon as we win this next game, because I know we will, anything I can do to go up on that mound is just going to be another honor. I know I’ll do good.”

Alexandria can guarantee itself an opportunity to play back at home if it can make it through Monday. Next Tuesday’s games will be played at the highest remaining seed’s home field. That’s an advantage the Cardinals hope they have a chance to exploit as they take things game-by-game from here on out.

“We’re facing adversity,” Hinrichs said. “Now we need to see if we can fight back…the biggest thing for us is if we win two on Monday, we’re back here. It’s been a great year at home. We have to go there on Monday and just take one game at a time now.”

Osakis looks like a top seed in the 5A-West opener

The Osakis baseball team played like the top seed it is in the opening round of the Section 5A-West playoffs against ninth-seeded Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City on Friday afternoon.

The Silverstreaks got a combined three-hitter from four different pitchers. They played error-free defense and scored four runs through two innings to take control of what became an 8-1 win over ACGC.

Osakis’ Drew Fearing slid safely into third base in the playoff opener against ACGC on Friday afternoon. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“Our main message is just keep playing baseball like you’re capable of,” head coach Shad Schmidt said. “If they play like they’re capable, I think we have as good a chance as anybody in our section. That’s all I ask them to do. I don’t ask them to do anymore. I don’t want them to ever do any less.”

Schmidt and his coaching staff went into the game hoping to get some work for all four of their pitchers. That plan worked to perfection as Jordan Frederick, Ky Zimmel, Doug Zimmel and Lane Berberich all got on the mound.

Frederick started and was his usual self. The junior dominated the Falcons’ lineup with four strikeouts through three perfect innings. He has now allowed just four earned runs through 34 innings pitched this season.

Jordan Frederick went into his delivery during the second inning on Friday. The junior has allowed just four earned runs in 34 innings pitched this spring after tossing three perfect frames against ACGC. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“I was just excited,” Frederick said of starting the playoff opener. “I’m glad to be up there. I know I have a great defense behind me when I’m up on the mound, and I always love getting the start. I felt really good.”

Ky Zimmel took over in the fourth and made it five perfect innings to start the game by fanning three in two innings of work. The Falcons finally got their first hit in the sixth and their lone run on a two-out single in the seventh.

Any team that comes out of a section tournament at the high school level usually has to play solid defense, and Osakis set the tone for that in the opener. The Silverstreaks have committed just 17 errors through 16 games after making all the plays on Friday.

“That’s how we expect to play every time,” K. Zimmel said. “It’s disappointing when we don’t. That’s’ what we expect of ourselves is perfect games every time. An error here or there will happen, but that’s the defense we have. We’re capable of that every game.”

Zimmel was a big part of the offense too as he finished with two singles, a walk and three RBIs. His two-RBI single in the first inning got his team on the board. Brandon Giesler and Doug Zimmel added RBI singles in the game, while Grayson Fortenberry walked with the bases loaded in the fourth to drive in a run.

“We needed to get out on top of them,” Ky said. “They came out yelling and were ready to go too, but we jumped on top right away and shut them down.”

Ky Zimmel delivered a pitch in the fifth inning on Friday. He struck out three and didn’t allow the ball to leave the infield through two perfect frames. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

That’s exactly what Schmidt asked his guys to do when he met with them this morning. Osakis is in a new position as the number seed in the subsection. The Silverstreaks felt they could possibly surprise some teams as the eighth seed in the West last year but fell in a 3-1 game to Browerville in the opener.

They won’t have the chance to sneak up on anybody this spring. Osakis earned the right to be considered a favorite in the subsection through a 13-2 regular season. It’s a position this team relishes after growing up together at the varsity level over the past few years.

“It’s a great feeling,” Frederick said. “I feel like we’re finally getting some of the respect that we deserve. Starting three years ago when we started making this team, we’ve just been working our way to the top, and it just feels good to finally be there.”

Osakis will now play the winner of St. John’s Prep and Kimball next Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 in Cold Spring. Frederick will get the ball again after only needing to go three innings on Friday. Win or lose, Osakis will play again on Wednesday at the same location.

The Silverstreaks came into the season believing they had a team that could compete for a section title. They got off to a good start in their win on Friday. Now they’re eager to prove even more as the competition gets tougher next week.

“We’re really excited,” K. Zimmel said. “We’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one pitch at a time, one at-bat. We’re ready to just cruise, but we’re making sure not to overlook anybody.”

Alexandria’s Dalton Leuschke excited to be back home with chance to prove himself in the NWL

The Alexandria Blue Anchors unveiled their home and away jerseys at Fat Daddy’s on Wednesday night and also let the fans know there would be a familiar face in those jerseys this summer.

Future Blue Anchors players Tyler Beck (white jersey) and Ryan Mestnik modeled the team’s new jerseys at Fat Daddy’s on Wednesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria’s Dalton Leuschke has signed a full contract to play for the local Northwoods League team all summer after getting a taste of the NWL with the Beetles in 2012 on a short contract. He was at the jersey unveiling on Wednesday as his future Blue Anchors teammates, Ryan Mestnik and Tyler Beck of Augsburg College, modeled the new attire before answering a few questions from general manager Joe Dempsey. Leuschke just wrapped up his second season at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) where he hit .298 with 20 runs scored and 16 RBIs.

The Bears were ranked No. 1 in the Division II National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) polls at one point this season and finished with a record of 44-11. Their season came up short of where they wanted to get after losing 9-2 to Iowa Central Community College in a NJCAA Region XI elimination game recently.

“We ended on a sour note,” Leuschke told me when I caught up with him after the jersey unveiling. “Things just didn’t go our way. We had a good team, it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to. For me personally, I didn’t hit as good as I wanted to. I still ended up hitting all right, but defensively I felt comfortable.”

The former Alexandria Cardinals shortstop played a lot of right field and also caught a few games for the Bears. He hit .304 with 30 RBI and 32 runs scored his freshman season at DMACC in 2012. That earned him a shot with the Beetles in the NWL early last summer where he hit .182 in just 22 at-bats. The short contract left him with about two months where he played some with the Miltona Tigers in the Resorters Amateur Baseball League. It wasn’t the day-to-day action that he was hoping for to keep his game sharp before heading back to DMACC.

Dalton Leuschke waited for a pitch as a member of the Alexandria Beetles early last summer. (Echo Press file photo by Eric Morken)

“I kind of had two months off before I started playing again and that kind of hurt me,” he said. “But I think being on a full contract will be awesome this year. It will help me get ready for next fall and keep everything intact, my swing and then just staying healthy for next fall and hopefully keep things going.”

Leuschke is excited for the opportunity to work with Blue Anchors manager Al Newman again. Newman was Leuschke’s coach on a traveling all-star team through the Minnesota Baseball Academy, owned by new Blue Anchors’ co-owner Adam Barta.

Leuschke will have the comfort of knowing he has the opportunity to prove that he can play at the NWL level over the course of an entire summer. The new ownership group has made it clear that they want to have a lot of Minnesota players on this team in the coming years, and having a local product fits exactly what they are looking for. That’s exciting for Leuschke, who says he’s eager to try to prove that you can build a winning team in the NWL with Minnesota players.

“Obviously, being from Minnesota, people don’t really see you as a baseball player because it’s not a really warm state,” he said. “But I feel like there are a certain amount of kids who work hard to show people that they can do it, and I think they use it to their advantage. They like to prove people wrong. For me, being from Alexandria and playing in front of everyone, it’s a chance for me to show them that I can play at this level and prove to them that Minnesota kids do work hard and like to play and can play at the highest levels just like the kids from down south that get to play all year around.”

Leuschke hopes a good summer will lead to some big opportunities in the fall. He said he has some Division II offers for baseball and is also getting strong interest from a few Division I teams. One of those is the University of North Dakota, where he says he hopes to play next fall.

“I’m pretty sure it’s everyone’s goal as an athlete to get to the highest level,” he said. “Division I has always been a dream of mine to play. All the perks that come with it – the flying, the traveling, getting to compete at the highest level you can compete at.”

Miltona Tigers won’t field a team this year, hope it’s a one-year thing

For the first time since its inaugural season in 2004, the Miltona Tigers amateur baseball team won’t field a team in the Resorters League this summer.

Alexandria’s Mark Whiting checked his swing during a game against the Carlos Cougars on June 16, 2012. (Echo Press file photo by Eric Morken)

It was news that came as a surprise to teams across the league, but a decision that simply came down to a lack of player availability. Manager Paul Walsh called it a perfect storm of events with a lot of players getting close to retirement, college students having to be out of the area on internships and other regulars getting to a point where living out of the area and having families made it impossible to commit every weekend.

“We’re looking at this, hoping this is a one-year thing,” Walsh said by phone on Thursday morning. “We hope to get some younger players next year who are maybe still playing Legion ball this summer and can’t commit to this. We feel bad for the community of Miltona. They have supported us so much…It’s something that we’re looking at as a bump in the road.”

Walsh said not being able to field a team was a surprise to him even after it became somewhat difficult to find enough guys for games toward the end of last season.

“Quite frankly, up and down the league, there’s only a couple teams that don’t have that problem,” Walsh said. “Kids are very busy these days. They have a lot going on. These are young men that, ever since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had guys who were coaching and giving back to the baseball community, at least a couple guys coaching VFW and then maybe one or two coaching Legion…We started up nine years ago and some of those guys have families and don’t live around here anymore. It can be hard to commit to coming back on the weekends.”

The Tigers have built some strong teams and strong rivalries with other surrounding communities. The hope is that those will continue in 2014 after a one-year hiatus.

“We had a great run,” Walsh said. “And we still think we can put something back together.”

Osakis baseball looks like a section contender through seven games

The Osakis baseball team will have to go through tougher competition than the 0-6 Hancock team they beat 23-1 last night to reach its ultimate goal.

The Silverstreaks know that. But there’s no doubt that this team passed the eye test in what was a dominating performance at Knute Nelson ballpark in Alexandria on Monday night. Osakis pounded out 23 hits and walked six times on its way to a perfect 7-0 record.

“These guys are focused,” head coach Shad Schmidt said. “They know what our goals are, and they’re kind of keeping their eye on the prize. I remind them every day, and they probably get tired of it, but that’s what coaches are supposed to do. They make it easy for me too because they look sharp, they’re focused and that comes from playing a lot of baseball.”

It’s a team that looked focused down the the finest detail against the Owls. Even before the game, Osakis warmed up with a purpose. The Silverstreaks were sharp and fast in everything they did.

Osakis head coach Shad Schmidt (left) and Doug Zimmel share a laugh after Brandon Giesler (right) crushed a two-RBI double before getting thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple in the first inning. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

They then went out and played the exact same way. Junior Lane Berberich got them going with a clean first inning on the mound. His offense then gave him five runs to work with after starting a rally with two outs in the bottom of the inning.

The veterans in the middle of the lineup set the table as Drew Fearing, Doug Zimmel, Ky Zimmel and Grayson Fortenberry all reached with two outs. The youngsters then drove them in as freshman Michael Herringshaw had a two-RBI single before sophomore Brandon Giesler followed with a two-RBI double.

That was just a prelude to a 12-run second inning where the first eight guys reached before an out was recorded. Osakis sent 17 to the plate in all as Fearing (2), Fortenberry, Ky Zimmel, Herringshaw, Hunter Scherr (2), Jordan Frederick, Doug Zimmel and Austin Rollag all had RBIs in the frame.

“It’s strong one through nine,” Doug Zimmel said of this lineup. “We got people who can drive the ball hard everywhere around the field.”

Berberich not only got the win on the mound, but he finished with five hits, three runs and two RBIs. Fearing added four hits, three runs and three RBIs. Giesler, D. Zimmel and Herringshaw all had three RBIs, while Jordan Frederick, Scherr, K. Zimmel and Rollag each added two.

Zimmel crushing the ball at cleanup

It’s an Osakis lineup that is filled with veteran guys who don’t give at-bats away. Seven of the players in the starting lineup on Monday are hitting .300 or higher through the early season. Fearing is batting .565 with 13 runs and 15 RBIs from the third spot in the lineup, and he has a guy with even better numbers behind him.

Doug Zimmel was all smiles as he stood at third base during a pitching change in the middle of a 12-run second inning for Osakis on Monday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Doug Zimmel has gotten off to a torrid start after being named the 2012 Prairie Conference Co-MVP last season. The senior clean-up hitter is batting at a .739 clip with 17 hits in 23 at-bats. He leads the team with 17 RBIs and four doubles to go along with five walks and 10 runs scored.

“I’m feeling good,” Zimmel said. “The ball is coming in like a beach ball. It feels good just to hit it hard somewhere and get the runs in.”

Zimmel also has seven strikeouts, allowed just two hits and has yet to give up a run through eight innings on the mound. When he’s not pitching, he’s anchoring third or calling the game behind the plate.

“I think just consistency is the word with Doug,” Schmidt said. “He just does everything right. He’s smooth. He never gets cheated in at-bats. He knows what he’s doing. It’s kind of a high comparison, but he’s almost like a right-handed Joe Mauer. It doesn’t matter the count, you know he’s going to put the ball in play, and if he’s not going to put the ball in play, he’s going to take a walk. No matter if he’s catching, third, pitching, I’d put him at short or second and he would get the job done.”

Sights set on a section title

Zimmel anchors a team that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Even the younger players in the lineup like Herringshaw (.412 BA) and Giesler (.389) have proven they know how to handle the bat through this 7-0 start.

“We got a lot of bats, a lot of hitting, a lot of depth,” Ky Zimmel said. “We’re going to come out strong with our offense. I’m thinking it’s going to be hard to hold us down.”

Lane Berberich came off the mound to field a ground ball during the first inning on Monday night. Berberich got the win in three innings of work. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

The pitching and defense have been equally as impressive. Frederick leads the staff with 12 innings pitched and an ERA of 0.58. Doug Zimmel (8IP, 2H, 0R, 7SO)  and Berberich (8IP, 8H, 1ER, 7SO) are also experienced arms on a staff that has thrown six different pitchers. Behind them is a defense that has committed just five errors.

“I’m confident in all our pitchers,” K. Zimmel said. “We have a lot of depth in pitching. I’m not too worried about the crammed schedule because we have a lot of pitchers who can throw well.”

The result of all three phases coming together has been a dominant start to the season for Osakis. The Silverstreaks have outscored their opponents 83-12 during this opening stretch.

Schmidt said before the season started that this could be the best team he has ever coached at Osakis. That’s why his sights for them were set on a state tournament appearance. So far, they have done nothing to diminish those expectations.

“They definitely have lived up to expectations, actually exceeded them in some sense,” Schmidt said. “I knew our offense was going to be pretty good, but I was a little worried about what our lower lineup was going to do. Tonight, they showed they can hit and play…it’s scary to think what we are capable of, but I think also when we see a little stiffer competition, we’ll see where we’re at.We have some big games coming up, and we’ll see what type of team we’re made of.”

Alex baseball shows no signs of rust in doubleheader sweep

The Alexandria baseball team showed off a common recipe for success in a doubleheader sweep over Willmar on Tuesday night at Knute Nelson ballpark.

The Cardinals got great pitching from seniors Beau Backhaus and Nick Knoblach in a 2-1 win in game one. Junior Blake Stockert followed suit with 11 strikeouts in five innings on his way to a win in game two.

Grant Becker (left) waited to congratulate left fielder Christian Anderson near the dugout after Anderson made a diving catch to save two runs and preserve a 2-0 lead in game one. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Their defense didn’t commit an error all night and got a diving catch by Christian Anderson in left field that saved two runs in the opener. Their bats then came to life in the nightcap as Alexandria scored seven runs in the fourth inning to carry them to a 12-2 win.

The Cardinals believe if they can continue to get clutch hitting that they will win a lot of games this spring behind their pitching staff. I wrote about that rotation and how it’s anchored by two legitimate aces in Backhaus and Stockert for Friday’s issue of the Echo Press.

Here is some more from my interviews with both those guys and head coach Russ Hinrichs after Tuesday’s games.

BEAU BACKHAUS

On how excited he was to come out in game one and set the tone after such a long spring: I was beyond excited to finally get out here and play baseball. I’m sick of being in the RCC and in the gym, taking ground balls and doing flat grounds. It’s just the worst and it’s awesome to play again.

Beau Backhaus threw on to first after fielding a soft ground ball during game one of Tuesday night’s doubleheader against Willmar. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

On how he feels about the depth of this rotation during a season where having multiple pitchers will be so important with so many games in so few days: I think we have a great pitching rotation. We have Jake Booth that can come in and put out seven innings for us. Parker Bowden is another starter for us. Then you have Ben Allen and Nick Knoblach coming in and shutting the door.

BLAKE STOCKERT

On how moving up to varsity midway through his sophomore season last year helped him coming into this spring: It just makes you so you’re not as nervous when you come in. I think if you become nervous, you’re not going to be able to play at your best. Once you get a couple games in, you just feel a lot more comfortable up there and you’re able to do what you want.

On what his immediate success (1.03 ERA, 34SO, 20 1/3IP last year) did for his confidence coming into this year: When you come in and get all the luxuries like getting all these strikeouts and everything, not trying to sound cocky at all, but just the way it all unfolded [really helped]. Everything is going really good right now.

Blake Stockert (left) gets congratulated after striking out the side in the first inning of game two on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

On how many pitches he has in his repertoire and what he was relying on against Willmar: I have four pitches. I just didn’t use the change-up because there wasn’t really a need for it tonight. Fastball, curveball, change-up and my slider, which I threw a couple times. But usually that curveball is what sets [hitters] off, just the speeds and the rotation on it.

COACH RUSS HINRICHS

On what he thought of the way his guys played after a long spring practicing inside: You come out here the first game, and we’ve done a lot of practicing inside and over at the Runestone, but you never really know. I think the kids are definitely excited and were ready to play a game.

Pitching and defense are definitely going to be our strength. If we can pitch like we did tonight and play defense like we did tonight, we’re going to be in good shape. The hitting is going to come and go, but we can always stay in every game. To see the way our infield played in the first game, that bodes well for the whole season.

On what went into the decision to have senior Nick Knoblach start this year after he primarily served as a closer last season (Knoblach will get a start against Brainerd today, Thursday): I think he did a great job for us last year. He appeared in 10 games, but I know during the summer he threw some and he started. I think I’d like to see him be that third starter for us and then we can go with [Mitch] Thompson or Ben Allen at the end.

I think Knobby deserves that. I think he deserves it as a senior to pitch a little more, and I know he wants to have a chance to start, and I like having those three guys.

On what he thought of the way his offense played after not facing much life pitching outside coming into the opener: It was great. One thing we talked about as a coaching staff is we love our speed. We’re going to threaten the defense just by putting the ball in play, especially with the top of our order.

I think the second game, it came down to us having some two-out hitting. We had some guys on base and it was just a matter of getting them in. I have no doubt we’re going to get guys on. We can bunt, we can hit the ball on the ground; it’s just, can we get the two-out hitting?

In the second game, you saw that Beau got a big hit there to break it open. Then Mitch Thompson came through, and I thought Knobby, Grant [Becker] and Ben, the top three in our order, were just fantastic all night.

On Stockert and his ability to overpower guys and miss bats: Blake has a bright future. He strikes out a lot of guys so as a result his pitch count gets up there a little bit, so hopefully we can just build his arm strength. He certainly has a bright future. It’s to the point where we were in the dugout, I think he struck out the first four guys, it’s just one, two three, one, two three.

Osakis baseball off to a torrid start through four games

The Osakis baseball team couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start after four games.

The Silverstreaks have yet to allow an earned run on their way to a 4-0 record with 14-4 and 10-0 wins in five innings over Eagle Valley on Monday night. Osakis allowed just one hit in the nightcap and its defense has committed just three errors over the first four games.

“Really just a great way to start the season,” head coach Shad Schmidt said. “Our pitchers have been impressive in giving us a chance to win each game. Offensively, we are getting some big hits and been able to string some hits together. We have done a nice job taking advantage of the other team’s mistakes.”

Doug Zimmel adjusted his chest protector during a game against Browerville last season. (Echo Press file photo by Eric Morken)

The Silverstreaks never gave Eagle Valley a chance in either of the games on Monday. They scored nine first-inning runs in game two after putting seven on the board in the first frame in game one.

Senior Doug Zimmel has picked up right where he left off during a Prairie Conference Co-MVP season in 2012. He got to Eagle Valley for five hits, including a double, five RBIs, two runs and a walk. Zimmel is 10-for-13 with two doubles, seven RBIs, two walks, four runs and no strikeouts through the first four games.

He was part of a big night all around for the Osakis offense. Jordan Frederick had two hits, including a double, four RBIs, two walks, two stolen bases and scored six runs in the two games. Drew Fearing added four RBIs as well.

The offense made things a little easier on freshman Michael Herringshaw in the nightcap. He went three innings and allowed just one hit, while striking out three. Hunter Scherr followed suit the rest of the way, striking out two over a couple perfect innings.

Lane Berberich was equally as impressive in game one. He went the distance, scattering five hits and two walks, while striking out five. All four runs he allowed were unearned and came in the fourth inning in what was already a 12-0 game.

“He really should have had a shutout but a few errors cost him that,” Schmidt said.

All in all, it’s exactly the kind of start Schmidt was envisioning for this team coming into the spring.

“A few things can be cleaned up and a few guys need to get going offensively,” he said. “But I am happy with the start. Pitching and defense have been solid and the bats are coming alive.”

Al Newman talks Blue Anchors, why he chose the NWL

Alexandria Blue Anchors field manager Al Newman has already been in town helping to stir up excitement for the upcoming Northwoods League baseball season.

I sat down with him on Tuesday afternoon to talk about why he wanted to coach in Alexandria and what he wants out of his players this summer. You can read much of that interview in Friday’s issue of the Echo Press. Here is more of what we talked about that didn’t fit in the print edition.

EM: What did you know about Alexandria before you took the job with the Blue Anchors?

AN: What I knew about Alexandria is that I loved coming here in the winter to snowmobile with the Dan Gladdens and the Kent Hrbeks back in the day. We would come and stay at the Arrowwood. We met some nice people.”

EM: Some may look at this and see that you have played and coached at the highest level of baseball and ask why you would want to take this job in the Northwoods League. So why did you?

AN: I would say to anybody who would ask me that question, because I know what I feel inside my heart, is that after I retired as a player and became a minor league manager for the Twins, I felt like I wanted to be a teacher of the game. When you teach the game, you love the game, and it’s not so much getting the credit.

 EM: You have coached at the major league level and you’ve also coached legion ball and younger kids at the Minnesota Baseball Academy. Are you excited to work with guys who are kind of in-between those levels and guys who will be hungry to reach that upper level?

AN: For sure. Felipe Alou told me when he was my Triple-A manager that he enjoyed the lowest levels of the game because that’s when you teach and you see the feedback of hard work. So these kids are coming here as college players. They’re looking to become a professional player and the Northwoods League is a pretty good test of that.

First of all, you play 70 games in 75 days. You travel on buses, which is something you would do in rookie ball. I can tell these guys what it was like. Now there’s players in the big leagues that were rookie ball players when I managed – Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Torii Hunter, I can tell them that these guys were just like you fellas, and we had to teach them to have that work ethic. Not taking any credit for anything those players have accomplished, but first you must learn the work ethic to get there. If you claim you want to get there, you have to be ready to practice more than a high school player.

EM: Many field managers in the NWL are assistant coaches in college who are getting a taste of leading their own teams and will use the experience to move up in the coaching ranks. You are obviously in a different situation. How long could you see yourself managing this team in Alexandria?

AN: I’m planning on being here until I’m tired. I know right now, the plan is a couple two or three years…If I wasn’t doing this I would probably be coaching legion baseball or trying to put together a travel team to travel in the summer to compete.

The game is in the blood, and if it’s in the blood, it’s life sustaining. I just don’t want to sit around and not do anything. I watch enough baseball as it is. I’d like to extend a helping hand to players who aspire to get to the next level. I hate to say the major leagues because I know how hard that is to accomplish. There’s only 800 of them and now it’s truly an international game, but there’s plenty of opportunity to make money in the game of baseball.

EM: How much does your experience in the game and playing in the major leagues, winning a couple World Series titles, how much does that help you when it comes to trying to get your point across to some of these younger players?

AN: I don’t use that. That speaks for itself, but I know one thing, I know how hard it is to get there. And having been a bench player, a backup, as people like to say, a bench warmer, I know how and what it took to be able to sustain and build a career in the major leagues and that’s by hard work, desire, dedication and determination. That’s where I think a lot of players fall short. They’re quick to try to blame. The reason I didn’t make it is because…as a manager, I can take that away from them and let them know that it’s mostly internal fortitude and desire to get it done.

EM: How would you describe yourself as a coach?

AN: The same way that I had to play and earn my time. You put your time in and the coach recognizes that you’re working hard, you get love. You don’t put your time in, you have no expectations of playing and you make that self determination. I like to say I treat everybody the same but different. I have no favorites, but I know I love the 25th man on the team because I know he’s getting after it every day because he wants to play.

Sometimes the guys that, I like to say the guys who sit down and eat, sometimes they don’t work hard. They don’t have to. They’re at the upper echelon of ability of everybody. A Kirby Puckett, he worked hard though, Joe Mauer, they work hard, they’re just better than everybody else. The rest of us must sit around and serve these guys. There aren’t but two or three of them that are elite, elite. The rest of the guys have to work extra hard to maintain their spot.

Reilly still working on securing local buyer for Beetles

Alexandria’s Shawn Reilly is still in the process of trying to secure a local owner for the Alexandria Beetles but felt pretty good about those prospects with a deadline looming.

Reilly said this morning that he has until the end of November to sell the team before the Northwoods League would take over the franchise. He has also been assured by league president Dick Radatz Jr. that that is not what the league wants to do.

“I’ve had some very nice, candid conversations with him,” Reilly said. “He doesn’t want to take this over. He doesn’t want to run it, I should say…I’ve had a good working relationship with him. I’ve been pleased about that. He’s making it very clear, ‘Try to take care of this locally.’ That’s good to hear.”

Reilly said there are two different scenarios for selling the team that are still realistic options. He said he has two individuals who are interested in buying the whole team.

Another option is putting together a group of five who would each purchase 20 percent of the team. Reilly would remain a part of that ownership group. He said he has two others who have agreed to be a part of that as well, meaning he would have to find an additional two to make that happen.

“I’m still feeling good about the two individuals,” Reilly said. “All along, I’ve kind of felt like I won’t believe it till I see it, but I’ve talked to a lot of people. Talked to a lot of people about selling. I feel really good. There’s a local connection for both of them.”