Despite sweep from Fargo North, Devils Lake baseball's competitive drive is on the rise
The scoreboard this season hasn't been too indicative of the Firebirds' progress throughout this entire season. Bringing a team to the field with only three seniors, who were sophomores the last time they played for the Firebirds, the window for growth has been a wide one for Devils Lake.
The Firebirds have not picked up an EDC win in over two weeks, defeating Wahpeton 6-2 on April 22. However, games have been longer and tighter in every outing for Devils Lake. On Saturday, in a pair of rescheduled games against Fargo North, the Firebirds would drop both games, 8-1 and 9-5, but saw a rise in their competitive presence.
"The first game we were able to get through five innings and that has been our Achilles heel lately," Firebirds head coach Brent Luehring said. "We were playing really good and that one inning the wheels just fell off. The second one we competed at least. Simon through some strikes and we got some early runs. We took advantage of when we had guys on base."
Game one turned into a defensive battle early, coming down to see which team was going to crack first. Going into the top of the seventh, seeing the Spartans with a narrow 2-1 lead, they would pour on six runs breaking down the Devils Lake defense. By the time the dust had settled, a one run deficit had turned into seven with three outs left in the game to catch up.
Luehring said a lot of what happened in the seventh inning of the first game can be attributed to discomfort in the situation, and that being something that comes with a younger squad like Devils Lake.
"When kids feel uncomfortable, that's when we learn," Luehring said. "We felt uncomfortable in that inning and you gotta learn how to play through it and make the right decisions. You always have to know the next pitch is the best pitch and put everything behind you."
Fatigue also played a factor in both finishes for the Firebirds on Saturday as they have played over 20 innings of baseball in a little over 24 hours, and six games since Tuesday. Devils Lake played a series against West Fargo the night prior. The long week had a lasting effect on the Firebirds pitchers the most according to Luehring.
Devils Lake ran three pitchers in their series against the Spartans: junior shortstop Caleb Schneider, junior catcher Hayden Hofstad and sophomore first baseman Simon Beach. Schnieder would play six innings in game one, allowing two runs on five hits, striking out four.
Hofstad would close out both games, allowing six runs on three hits, striking out two in half an inning in game one, and allowing three runs on two hits, striking out one in a half-inning in the second game. Beach would play the bulk of game two, allowing six runs on five hits, striking out two over four innings.
"Simon did his job today and got the ball to the plate, but you could tell he wasn't playing at 100 percent because of how much he's played for us lately," Luehring said. "Caleb kind of got tired for us in the fifth, sixth inning. He controlled the game for the first five innings for us. Hayden hasn't thrown a lot and is so valuable as a catcher. We needed someone to get us through the inning and we were down, so we just wanted to see what he had. If I had to rate it, that's what it's probably going to look like on the back end of six games."
While the pitching didn't really benefit from back to back series, the hitting was on the rise for Devils Lake, allowing them to keep close in a tighter second game. After Fargo North would jump out to a 2-0 lead in game two, Devils Lake matched their pace, holding a 4-2 lead at one point. Even when they were down, the Firebirds managed to continue to close the window and give themselves a chance late.
Following the Spartans takeover of the lead, freshman catcher Beau Brodina would slam one over the right-field wall to pull Devils Lake within one in the fourth and juicing up the Firebirds offense when they needed it. Luehring said seeing two hot arms the night prior from West Fargo gave them a stronger approach the next day against Fargo North.
"I thought our approaches were a lot better tonight," Luehring said. "We attacked the pitches we knew we could. I thought we let that first pitcher in the first game dictate a little more because he was around the zone so often, and we could've been a little more aggressive with him. You just got to tip your hat to him. He just threw the ball over the plate and we just hit it in the wrong spots."
Throughout this season, alongside getting better every day, Devils Lake has been focused on how they can stand out in the mesh that is the EDC standings. West Fargo Sheyenne, Fargo Davies, and Fargo Shanley have begun to run away with top of the EDC, but as for seeds three through 11, it's very wide open.
Devils Lake is currently in ninth but has an opportunity to catch up in facing Grand Forks Central (May 11) and Grand Forks Red River (May 14) before the regular season comes to a close. The Knights recently snapped a losing streak against Fargo South and the Rough Riders dropped a tight series on the road to Shanley, similar to Devils Lake earlier this year.
"Our games next week are in our similar area of wins and losses, so if we can get one, we can build on it and get to the next one," Luehring said. "Like I told the kids out in the huddle, we're just going to treat every game the rest of the way like a one-game season. Whoever practices the best and plays the best, we're going to give them a shot because we have nothing to lose."
In leaning in on a next-man-up mentality, the Firebirds younger core may benefit from this perspective. Brodina, a freshman, had the biggest offensive conversion of Saturday's games and Beach continues to stand as one of Devils Lake's stronger hands on the mound. At the same time, the Firebirds are very much focused on improving every day from here on out.
"Our focus is to still get better every day," Luehring said. "We play so many young kids and we know we're going to have some blunders and that we'll have some errors. It's about if we can limit them and see if they're learning, and enjoying themselves. No matter what happens, we're still trying to get better and we're still trying to improve."