Zawatzke, Backowski homer as Little Falls wins opening two playoff games
By PATRICK SLACK
A controversial balk call rescued Milaca from one baserunning gaffe as it tried to mount a last-inning rally.
But there was no one to rescue the Wolves from their next one, as host Little Falls survived a first-round scare with a 3-1 win in Section 6AA play, Tuesday.
The Flyers followed that up with a 3-0 shutout over Minnewaska Area at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud, Wednesday, advancing to the third round of winner’s bracket play.
After hanging around all afternoon in the postseason opener, despite the shutdown pitching of Little Falls senior Josh Wenzel, Milaca opened the top of the seventh inning with a leadoff double, bringing the tying run to the plate.
Wenzel spun and threw to second to catch the Milaca base runner inexplicably leading too far off the bag, only for the home plate umpire to issue a delayed balk call to negate the pick off.
The Wolves took advantage of the extra out by placing the tying run on first with one out following a throwing error, bringing the potential go-ahead run to the plate.
After a conference at the mound, the Flyers regrouped, with Wenzel working ahead of the Milaca batter.
Then, after a swinging strike three, junior catcher Alec Zack immediately sprung up from behind the plate and pegged the Wolves’ base runner straying too far from third base, bringing a sudden and relieving end to the game for Little Falls to advance into the double elimination portion of the section tournament.
“We have spent a lot of time this year working on the mental side of the game and how to ‘flush it’ and move on,” Little Falls head coach Chad Kaddatz said. “We had a ‘questionable’ call that took away an out in the seventh inning and then the next batter reached on a throwing error, but we never panicked.
“It is situations like that where sometimes the ‘wheels come off’ and one mistake becomes two or three,” he said. “But we kept our composure and our focus and moved on to the next pitch.”
After playing to a scoreless tie through seven innings before finally breaking through with an extra-inning win during the regular season, the Flyers wasted no time getting on the board quickly in the contest.
Wenzel drilled a base hit to right field and never stopped running, hustling into second with a leadoff double before proceeding to score following consecutive singles by seniors Gabe Ploof and Collin Eckman.
“That was exactly what we are looking for out of the leadoff spot,” Kaddatz said. “It was especially big in a playoff game. You never know if people will start off a little tight or press a bit, so to have him lead off the game with not only a hit, but a real hustle play and stretch a double out of a ball that 95 percent of people would have pulled up at first and taken a single, was huge for setting the tone for us.”
Little Falls pushed its lead to 2-0 in the third, as senior Spencer Fenske delivered a run-scoring hit after Eckman, who finished 3-for-3, collected a two-out single and stole second base.
Milaca answered with a run in the fourth to get on the board and pull back within a run, before sophomore Bryce Zawatzke stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the inning.
Playing in his first career varsity playoff game, the first baseman launched a no-doubt home run over the fence in left field, providing a crucial insurance run as Milaca attempted to rally late.
Wenzel allowed only five hits and one walk, striking out 10 in the complete-game win on the mound.
With the victory, Little Falls moved on to a match-up against Minnewaska Area, which defeated Pequot Lakes 5-3 in its first-round game.
The heavily favored Flyers had little trouble getting runners on base from the start, getting a quick run in the first on a base hit by senior Matt Stumpf.
In the bottom of the second, just as Zawatzke did the night before, senior Nate Backowski provided a home run jolt from the bottom of the order to make it 2-0 Little Falls.
“Both were huge home runs at crucial times from guys that we need to produce for us,” Kaddatz said. “At this time of year, you never know who is going to be the guy that steps up and has a big game.
“It was exciting to see both Bryce and Nate hit those home runs – Bryce playing in his first playoff game and even more exciting for Nate Backowski, who is a senior and has given us everything we ask for this year,” he said. “For him to get a big hit like that will be a memory that will last a lifetime.”
Little Falls tacked on its final run in the sixth as Fenske knocked in Wenzel with an RBI single.
The Flyers left 13 runners on base in the game, but junior starting pitcher Kyle Boser required only the minimum amount of offense.
Making his first varsity playoff start, Boser overwhelmed the Lakers’ lineup with a three-hit shutout striking out 10, capping a dominant opening two rounds for the Flyers’ pitching staff.
“We set the rotation for the first three games last week and had confidence in Kyle to give us that type of performance,” Kaddatz said. “I was anxious to see how he would start the game off – if he struggles, it is typically in the first inning when he is a little amped up.
“He came out and threw strikes and really dominated the game. I don’t think we could have asked for or hoped for anything better than what he gave us. We know that pitching and defense will win games this time of year, and to get one run allowed and 20 strikeouts in our first two games, and knowing that we have Gabe Ploof and Spencer Fenske who have not appeared yet, is very reassuring.”
Flyers close regular season with sweep over Zimmerman
Little Falls took control of its regular-season concluding doubleheader at Zimmerman in its opening at bat, May 23, rolling past the Thunder 11-2, 9-2.
The Flyers jumped ahead with six runs in the first inning in the opener and scored three times in the opening frame of game two.
Fenske led the Flyers on the evening, going 2-for-3 in both games with three runs and six RBIs, while also tossing three no-hit innings to earn the win in the second contest.
Stumpf and Backowski also clubbed two hits apiece in the opener, with Eckman reaching base three times and scoring two runs and Wenzel knocking in a pair.
Ploof struck out five over three shutout innings to record the win.
Eckman added a double and three RBIs in the finale, with Wenzel and junior Michael Fregin each scoring and driving in a run.
Little Falls is scheduled to play Pierz in the third round, Friday.