State tournament awaits Tri-City Red

While the summer American Legion baseball season might not get as much attention as the spring high school season, the Legion season tends to be much more of a grind, with more games compressed into a shorter amount of time. The Tri-City Red American Legion team found that out last week while participating in the sub-state playoffs.

Tri-City Red, the second seed, played five games in five days in some toasty temperatures and emerged victorious on Saturday to clinch a spot in this week's state tournament.

Red head coach Steve Grasley, who is certainly familiar with how much work the American Legion season can be, was happy that his team won and relieved that it was over.

"We’re going to give them a couple of days off," said Grasley, who played on Red's World Series championship team in 1999. "It’s been a long five days."

'Today it got a little gritty'

Tri-City Red wrapped up those five days with a 7-3 victory over Stillwater on Saturday afternoon at White Bear Lake Area High School. The win secured a spot in the state tournament, which Red will play in for the second year in a row and for the third time in the past four years.

"We’re excited to be going back again," Grasley said.

Tri-City Red entered the finals as the only unbeaten team left in the tournament, which meant Stillwater needed to win twice on Saturday to prevent Red from going to state. That was the only advantage Tri-City enjoyed, however, because of the format of the tournament.

Despite winning its first three games, Tri-City Red was forced to play a fourth game prior to the finals. That meant Tri-City and Stillwater had played the same number of games entering the finals.

Against Stillwater, Red got a solid pitching performance from Drake Gran and also benefitted from a three-run third inning. Tri-City went in front to stay in the bottom of the third and continued to add runs to make Gran's job easier.

Gran threw a complete game and gave up three runs on nine hits. He walked two, hit three batters and struck out four. Gran's best innings were the fourth and eighth when he set down the side in order.

"It's been huge, huge," Grasley said of the pitching performances during the playoffs. "To put ourselves in the position to go deep into games, it changes everything. We still have guys ready to go."

Tri-City gave Gran an early lead with a run in the second inning on a single by Nick Lovdahl.

Stillwater answered with a run in the top of the third but Red regained the advantage for good in the bottom of the inning. Alec Abercrombie led off with a single and was followed by Charlie Callahan, who walked. Wyatt Meyer's sacrifice bunt advanced both runners, who later scored on Joe Fredrickson's double. Fredrickson later scored on Lovdahl's second hit of the game.

In the fourth inning, Abercrombie again led off with a single, went to third on Callahan's base hit and scored on Meyer's squeeze bunt. Grasley said being able to produce runs that way was key.

"Today was really good execution," Grasley said. "We had a lot of bunts. That was the biggest thing today, focusing and executing."

Stillwater got a run back in the fifth and added another in the sixth before Red iced it with single runs in the sixth and seventh. In the sixth, Callahan doubled with two out and scored on Meyer's single. In the seventh, Ross Indlecoffer led off with a single, took second on Nick Hronski's sacrifice bunt, moved to third on Lovdahl's base hit and scored on Ben Mezzenga's squeeze bunt.

"Today it got a little gritty, which is fun," Meyer said. "Usually we're a hitting team but it was fun getting a few squeezes in there."

Tri-City finished with 14 hits, five walks and a hit batter. Stillwater's pitchers recorded three strikeouts.

Continuing to apply pressure offensively was another important aspect of the game according to Grasley.

"I think we learned a lot from the last few games when we’ve gotten leads, how important it is to keep putting runs up," said Grasley. "We’ve really learned that the last three nights when teams came back on us and we had that cushion."

Earlier tournament play

Closing the game out in nine innings was also a plus. Earlier in the tournament, Tri-City Red played a pair of 11-inning games.

Tri-City opened the post-season on July 21 with a 22-3, seven-inning win over North St. Paul Cavalry. The next night, Red beat Stillwater 8-7 but it took 11 innings. In game three, Tri-City beat top-seeded Lino Lakes 8-6 to guarantee itself a spot in the finals.

The extra game in the bracket for Tri-City Red turned out to be another marathon as fifth-seeded Forest Lake pushed Red to extra innings. Tri-City emerged victorious 10-9 in 11 innings on the warm and muggy Friday afternoon/evening.

Things didn't look good early as Forest Lake's first three batters of the game reached and scored against Tri-City Red starting pitcher Erik Holloman. It took until the fourth inning for Tri-City to answer as Meyer doubled, Fredrickson singled Meyer home and Indlecoffer doubled home Fredrickson.

Tri-City took its first lead in the fifth as Mezzenga scored on a groundout and Abercrombie, who singled, scored on Callahan's base hit.

Forest Lake retook the lead with two runs in the sixth but Fredrickson's solo home run in the bottom of the frame knotted the score at 5-5.

In the seventh, Meyer's sacrifice fly scored Ryan Nickel, who singled with one out before making his way to third base. Nickel also came up big in the eighth with a double that drove in Lovdahl and Mezzenga.

With a three-run lead going to the ninth, Red was sitting pretty but that didn’t last long. Five hits, including a bunt single, led to three runs for Forest Lake and a trip to extra innings for Tri-City for the second time in three days.

After a scoreless 10th inning, Forest Lake took a one-run lead thanks to a double and a pair of wild pitches.

With backs against the wall, Tri-City rallied in the bottom of the inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, Indlecoffer worked the count full before dumping a single into shallow right-center to score Abercrombie with the tying run and Meyer with the winning run.

"That was great to see those young guys step up in those big spots and perform under pressure like that," said Meyer. "It's really great for the team in general."

Nickel, Indlecoffer and Holloman just finished up their sophomore years at Mounds View High School.

For most of the veterans on the team, the appearance in the state tournament will be their second but for Mezzenga, it is his third. Following his freshman year at Totino-Grace High School in 2012, Mezzenga made the team that qualified for state. He also played on last year's state team.

"It always feels good going back to state," said Meyer. "Hopefully we can keep hitting and keep pitching like we are and see how far we can get. It’s a great way to go out for us seniors."

State tournament

This year's state tournament is hosted by Chanhassen and the main field is Storm/Redbird Stadium at Chanhassen High School. Chaska Athletic Park, Braemar Field in Edina and Round Lake Stadium in Eden Prairie are also hosting tournament games.

Tri-City Red opens the tournament Friday at 1 p.m. at Braemar Field against Sub-State 11 champion Maple Grove. A win means a 7 p.m. game that night while a loss results in a 4 p.m. game that afternoon. Also in Red's four-team "pod" for the first day of the tournament are Sub-State 1 champion Austin and the Sub-State 7 champion North St. Paul 39ers.

The 10th District leads with five teams (Champlin Park, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove, Princeton, Wayzata) in the tournament and the Third District is second with four (Chanhassen, Hutchinson, Prior Lake, Woodbury Blue). The Fourth is the only other district with more than one team in the tournament (Tri-City Red, North St. Paul 39ers).

The First, Second, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth districts have one team each in the tournament while the Fifth and Ninth districts got shut out. The Ninth District had only six teams compete in sub-state tournaments and the Fifth District had only five.

Of the 16 teams in the tournament, only five are back for a second consecutive year. New Ulm Gold, Tri-City Red, Champlin, Alexandria and Hutchinson played in last year's state tournament while the other 11 teams in this year's field are new this year.

Alexandria is in the tournament for the third straight year but New Ulm Gold holds the longest current streak of state appearances at five.

The host team, Chanhassen, is playing in its first legion state tournament. Most of the players on the roster helped lead Chanhassen High School's baseball team to the Class AAA state championship last month.

Austin ended the longest tournament drought when it won the Sub-State 1 tournament in Rochester on Sunday. Austin's last legion state tournament appearance came in 1989.

Other Tri-City teams bow out early

Also playing in Sub-State 8 were Tri-City Blue and Tri-City Maroon. Unfortunately, their stays in the tournament were short.

Tri-City Blue, whose roster is made up mainly of players from St. Anthony Village High School, was one of four teams forced to play in the single-elimination first round. Blue, seeded ninth, lost 7-1 to eighth-seeded White Bear to end its season.

Tri-City Maroon, made up of players from Irondale High School, was the fourth seed following a solid regular season but couldn’t come up with a victory in the playoffs. Maroon opened the post-season by hosting fifth-seeded Forest Lake, a team Maroon beat during the regular season. Forest Lake turned the tables in the second meeting, however, and emerged with a 7-5 victory.

The loss dropped Maroon into the losers' bracket, where it faced White Bear. Maroon couldn’t get the offense untracked and lost 4-1.

Brian Meyers can be reached at bmeyers@lillienews.com or 651-748-7819. Follow him on Twitter @BMeyersNews.

 

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