REGIONALS: Sheyenne-New Rockford edges past Midkota to advance in winners bracket
"It was a typical region baseball game for ya."
The Black Sox took a sigh of relief as junior catcher Koby Duda tagged out the final Mustang batter for extra certification in the bottom of the seventh at-home plate. The batter had already swung out on senior pitcher Alex Harrison's second K of the inning, but the tag was made by Duda just to make sure it was over.
Sheyenne-New Rockford held a 2-0 for the majority of the game, but a late push from Midkota, seeing them pull within one of the slim lead, had the Black Sox's defense on edge until the final out.
Off the hot hands of Duad, seniors Evan Ulrich and Johnny Grann, and Harrison, coinciding with a strong defense behind them, S-NR would squeeze by Midkota/Dakota Prairie/Lakota/GCC, 2-1 to advance in the winners' bracket of the Region III tournament. The Black Sox play in the field is something that made them a competitor throughout the regular season and allowed them to stay in the drivers seat Thursday afternoon.
"Both teams played pretty good defense and it really came down to pitching," Black Sox head coach Elliott Belquist said. "We got a couple of big hits, but they played some really good defense on a couple of our shots out to center. But we got a couple of clutch hits and that was the ballgame."
Early on, it was becoming obvious that it was going to come down to who was going to crack first on defense. Both teams managed to find their way on base, but the challenge was getting home, or even getting past second in some cases. Midkota didn't register a hit until the sixth inning, however, they took advantage of any opportunity to get on base.
For the Black Sox, they were getting the hits and inching closer to home. The Mustangs were still tight on defense, but S-NR was sitting at third, ready to pounce early on. In the third inning, junior Kaden Jensen, who originally got on base off an error, would put the Black Sox on the scoreboard off a double from Caden Price.
Midkota would push again in the fourth and fifth innings, but couldn't break past second and if they did, the third out had been called. S-NR would strike back again the fifth, off a single from Harrison to score senior Koven Walford, pushing the Black Sox lead to 2-0. The offensive advantage was in S-NR's favor, but it was their pitching that had continued to hold them steady from first pitch to the final out.
Duda would be the chose pitcher the Black Sox would use up in game one, seeing him pick up a shutout over five innings, striking out three, allowing one hit, and walking six. Ulrich would follow, allowing one hit and striking out two in an inning and a half. Grann would take the mount next, allowing one hit over a quarter of an inning.
S-NR ran a lot of arms, but according to Belquist, it was all part of the Black Sox overall plan. With Duda maxing out his pitch count, there were some innings to fill before the Black Sox could throw out Harrison to close. If it was going to be a one-run game, S-NR wanted their top hand in Harrison to close but didn't want him to run up a high pitch count, preserving him for further down the road in the tournament.
"A lot of it is about pitch counts in the tournament and where we are in the game," Blequist said. "We kind of had a game plan of bringing some of these guys in, if we had to, and keep them under a certain amount of pitches. For once this year, it worked out for us."
Harrison would step up to the mound in the ladder end of the sixth inning. He would slam the door to victory for the Black Sox, allowing one hit, no runs, and striking out three in a little under an inning. Harrison, alongside junior Nick Berglund, has headed the Black Sox deep pitching unit and are arms that S-NR wants to keep fresh.
In being a five seed in a very wide-open region, the Black Sox are looking at all different equations as to who can go, when they can go, and what will be the right time. Pitching has been the spearhead to S-NR's defensive success and they want to continue to sharpen it as the post-season progresses.
"I really like our pitching," Belquist said. "I wish we could have more pitches because I guy like Alex Harrison has a rubber arm and can throw a lot more than what they give us. I like the three solid starters we have. It's going to come down to that fourth, fifth game and who we got left."
At the same time, the Black Sox play behind the mound came in clutch through the game. After junior infielder Cade Stein found his way on base in the seventh off a fielding error, acting as the tying run, S-NR did not crack. Stein would strike again to steal second, but S-NR's defense stayed tall. Stein would then go for third, and Harrison would make a decision against his coach, to push for the out at third, and it worked.
A quick decision play that could've gone either way for the Black Sox, would all but secure the game for S-NR. The next batter up, would strike out and propel S-NR to the next round.
"That's a gutsy play," Belquist said. "I was yelling one, one, one, but at times Alex does what he believes he can get, and it was a heck of a throw. It was spot on and we got it done. It was a no, no, no, yes play."
S-NR's defense forefronted the win, but Midkota's press on both offense on defense put the Black Sox into a handful of uncomfortable situations. Senior pitcher Cole Hendrickson would pitch the entire game for the Mustangs, allowing two runs on six hits and striking out five.
On offense, players like Stein and junior outfielder Garrett Haakenson pushed just about every base they could get. Haakenson's shot to center field in the sixth inning with the bases loaded would force the fielder to sacrifice a run, seeing senior infielder Brody Berg score, allowing the Mustangs to stay alive. The bats may have not been there for Midkota, but they did not stop pushing until the final out.
The Mustangs get the bulk of Monday off as they wait for the next opponent. They will face the loser of game four in the single-elimination bracket, which will be either Kidder County or Carrington. Midkota has split both regular-season series against both teams, most recently defeating Carrington 11-6.
However, one thing that Region III has shown is that it's up for grabs. S-NR meets No. 1 LaMoure-Litchville/Marion on Monday, whose only loss of the season is to No. 5 S-NR. In having such a competitive region, the Black Sox know that they'll need to look to their edge on the mound to elevate their game.
"These kids know that we can play with every team, and it really comes down to pitching," Belquist said. "Who we're pitching, who they're pitching, not giving away free bases and maybe getting a break along the way. I'm expecting a good ball game. They're [LaMoure-Litchville/Marion] a good team and we're going to have to play clean."