(As submitted to Ortonville Independent 7-11-16)
The Ortonville Rox opened a much anticipated, weekend home stand against Appleton on Friday, July 8th at 8:00 p.m. The Rox took care of business winning 7-0 over the Appleton A's. Going into Saturday evening the team was prepared for a close game against the undefeated, Morris Eagles. If fans left early they missed a dramatic finish, with the Rox rallying in the bottom of the ninth inning to win 3-2.
Versus Appleton on Friday evening, the first pitch was a bit delayed as the Rox cheered on their younger teammates, the Big Stone Legion team was playing a tough game against the Morris Legion club. When things did get underway for the Rox, Curt Schake took the hill in his first start of 2016. C. Schake pitched five shutout innings allowing only one hit. C. Schake handed the ball to Joe Fuller, who pitched beautifully. While C. Schake was effective, but not overpowering, Fuller changed things up a bit by throwing a number of fastballs past A's hitters. In three innings Fuller struck out seven batters, although his performance was electric, his lack of innings showed just a bit as he allowed three base runners on a combination of two walks and one hit batter. Chance Haugen threw the ninth inning keeping the shutout intact. This was not a save situation, but Haugen did what any solid closer would have, by ending the game striking out all three batters. Rox pitchers combined for a complete game shutout of the A's, allowing only one hit and striking out 12. With that pitching performance there was not much needed from the offense.
Leadoff hitter Riley Sammon got things going in the top of the first inning with a sharply hit single. Sammon advanced to second on a single by Haugen. Following a well-timed double steal, both runners were in scoring position for Chris Doney. With two outs Doney hit a single into left field scoring Sammon and Haugen. The Rox took a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the second with the intentions of keeping the pressure on. Isaac Knutson led off with a walk followed by a single from Tony Schake. With one out and two men on Sammon hit a ball the third baseman fielded, but threw away both Knutson and T. Schake were able to score. Later in the inning Sammon would score on a single by Haugen. After jumping out to a 5-0 lead through two innings the offense slowed down. The Rox added two runs in the 4th inning to take a commanding 7-0 lead, but went the final four offensive at bats without scoring.
Offensively, it was a mix of hits, runs scored and runs batted in from multiple people. But, there were a couple strong performances, Haugen led the team with two hits, but also scored a run and batted a run in and Riley Sammon ended the day scoring three runs with one hit. After beating Appleton the Rox quickly began to focus on Saturday's game against the Morris Eagles.
Over the past decade the Eagles have been a tough team to beat in Land O' Ducks competition. That has been particularly true in 2016. Entering their game against the Rox on Saturday, Morris was ranked 7th in the state with an undefeated season (9-0 in Land O' Ducks play, 16-0 overall). The much talented Eagles have become known for their power hitting, dominant pitching and solid defense. Earlier in the week the Rox heard Morris' Ace Sam Mattson would be on the mound. Mattson is having a phenomenal season, entering competition with the Rox, Mattson was 7-0 with a 0.28 ERA, and had allowed only one run in 32 innings. The Rox were prepared with their Ace Chris Fellows and solid number two Tony Schake to put an end to the Eagles and Mattson's perfect season
As anticipated tension between the Eagles and Rox was high, only a few pitches were thrown before the dugouts were exchanging pleasantries and everyone at the park could guess, there would be no love would be lost between these two intensely competitive teams. It seemed as if each team knew it was going to be a low scoring game and players on both sides were looking an edge.
Entering the sixth inning the game was tied 0-0. Mattson had allowed only three base runners on two hits and a walk. The Rox offense was struggling to get anything going, only one base runner had made it into scoring position. Fellows had allowed only four hits, and with the Rox defense behind him, he held the Eagles scoreless until the sixth inning. In the sixth, the Eagles led off with a single, followed by a hit batter and walk. With the bases loaded and no outs, Fellows and his defense got the next three batters out, with only one run scoring on a sacrifice fly to centerfield. The Eagles continued to hit the ball well in the seventh, a leadoff double followed by a one out RBI single gave the Eagles a 2-0 lead. Fellows had pitched a strong game allowing only two runs on seven hits and struck out eight. But, he knew it was time to let T. Schake take the mound. T. Schake worked quickly getting two of the next three batters out without allowing a run. While the Eagles were scratching together two runs, Mattson had continued to shut out the Rox in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. T. Schake shut the Eagles offense down with his two-seam fastball keeping the game at 2-0 as the Rox came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Now, through 39 innings Morris Eagles pitcher Mattson had allowed only one run, but to win, the Rox needed three runs in only one inning. Leading off the bottom of the ninth was Fellows with a single. Chris Smith entered the game for Fellows as a pinch runner. Chris Doney was now up and hit a fly ball to the left fielder, which was misplayed allowing Smith to advance to second base. Jonathan Wermers was entered to pinch run for Doney at first. With one out, Chance Haugen hit a single and was replaced by Isaac Cloos as a pinch runner, to load the bases for Joe Fuller. Fuller hit a clutch single into centerfield scoring Smith easily, third base coach Matt Fellows was sending Wermers home from second base, on a play at the plate Wermers dove in scoring the game tying run. The Morris team and pitcher Mattson were noticeably rattled. Now with the game tied, one out, Cloos the winning run at third and first base empty the Eagles intentionally walked Isaac Knutson to load the bases with John Thomas on deck. At bat, Thomas patiently watched three straight pitches from Mattson, who suddenly lost his ability to confidently attack the strike zone. With the count three balls and no strikes Mattson made sure he got the next two pitches in for strikes. The veteran Thomas remained patient at the plate on the three ball two strike count, Mattson was hoping to get Thomas swinging at a slider that moved off the plate for ball four. Thomas walked Cloos scored from third and the Rox beat the Eagles on a walk of walk in the bottom of the ninth inning. The win was not exactly how young ball players dream of getting it done, but as many will say, in that situation, "a walk is as good as a hit," and "a win's a win."
And with that win the Rox (10-1) took sole possession of first place in the Land O' Ducks Wood League. Player/manager John Thomas said, "this was a pivotal weekend for us, while it is nice to be in first place, the upcoming weekend has major playoff implications." Next weekend the Rox will have two tough games to finish the season. On Saturday, July 16th the Rox head to Chokio for a 7:30 p.m. game against the Coyotes (7-3), a 2015 state tournament team. Sunday afternoon will not bring any rest as the Rox host the Clinton Cards (9-2) at 2:00 p.m. As Thomas indicated next weekend will be especially tough since the top three teams in the Land O' Ducks Wood League get an automatic bid to the eight team Region tournament. To remain in the top three teams the Rox will likely have to beat either Clinton or Chokio, but both Clinton and Chokio will be playing tough since they are battling each other to be in the top three teams. The Rox are considering both must win games as remaining in first place will keep them as the top seed for the region tournament bracket and is the only way of guaranteeing a bid to the region tournament.