By Kelly O’Day
The Merrill Little League Major Boys All-Stars battled back in last week’s District 5 tournament to the absolute brink of the finals.
And a day’s rain delay even brought a top pitcher back into the mix if Merrill could reach the second game of the finals.
But Wausau Northern spoiled the boys’ chances for a second shot at Everest National by knocking a two-run walk-off home run with two outs in the sixth and last inning of Thursday’s rescheduled contest.
“That’s the toughest way to lose a game,” Merrill manager Mark Spoehr said. “You’ve done everything you can and you lose that way. If I had to do it over again, I’d do everything the same way.”
Wausau then proceeded to lose 6-1 to Everest, securing Merrill’s distinction as the team to give the champs their best game of the tourney. Merrill lost 3-1 to Everest back in the second round. Wausau also dropped a 7-2 game to Everest on Tuesday, while Merrill was defeating Antigo 10-4.
“I honestly believe Merrill was one of the best teams there, if not the best,” Spoehr said. “We gave D.C. Everest their best game against their best pitcher.
“The whole tournament was a great experience. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how talented we were until that second game, that loss to Everest.
“If this was the Olympics, we’d be getting the bronze medal. Third place of 12 teams is a lot to be proud of, and these were the best 12-13 kids from each of these communities. “
After that Everest loss dropped Merrill to 1-1 for the tourney, the boys fought back with 4 consecutive wins before the Wausau loss.
“Coming back through the elimination bracket was tough,” Spoehr said. “It puts a strain on your pitching. You have kids that instead of pitching one inning now need to give you 2-3 innings, but our kids handled it well.”
Merrill jumped out 3-0 in the first inning on Wausau in Thursday’s elimination bracket final. Trevor Asmundsen, Drew Hoff and Ryan Golisch all walked to load the bases, and RBI’s came from singles by Moose Kleinschmidt and Jesse Homp wrapped around Jared Schmeltzer wearing a pitch. A controversial tag at the plate on Kleinschmidt on Homp’s hit kept the damage from being more.
Wausau got two back in the second, aided by a fielder’s choice RBI and a two-out double just out of center-fielder Tyler Belfiori’s reach.
In the fourth, Merrill again loaded the bases with no outs, this time on a Dylan Zahn triple and walks to Nick Bowe and Asmundsen. But a 5-2 force and 1-2-3 double play ended the threat. Jonathan Gruetzmacher led off the fifth with a towering home run to dead center field for a 4-2 lead. Schmeltzer and Kyle Juhlke both followed with line drive smashes to the second-baseman, especially tough to take since three Wausau hits came on seeing-eye grounders or soft loopers.
A one-out double in the fifth, after an infield fly ball safely dropped, cut it to 4-3. A hot grounder was knocked down with one out in the sixth, but the throw was wide. Merrill needed to make a pitching change since Hoff was over the 85-pitch limit, and Golisch came on. He struck out the first batter looking to get Merrill within one out of the finals.
Then disaster struck. Wausau starting pitcher Travis Lang hit the game-winning home run over the left-field fence.
“It came down to one batter to one pitcher,” Spoehr said. “Golisch had performed admirably in the past. The pitch was just above the kneecaps, not in (Lang’s) wheelhouse, but he got a hold of it.
“We had a couple of errors in the game, but to expect 11-12-year-old kids to not commit errors is expecting the impossible. Wausau Northern committed errors, too.”
Merrill finished with 4 hits and 7 walks and struck out 7 times. Hoff (7 H, 3 W, 1 K, 3 R in 5-1/3 I) and Golisch (1 H, 1 K, 2 R, 1 ER in 2/3 I) took all the pitches.
To even reach the Wausau game, Merrill needed to win its fourth consecutive game since the Everest defeat, and that was easier said than done due to Antigo’s quick 3-0 lead.
But Merrill took charge with a six-run third inning and boosted it to 7-3 in the fourth and 10-4 in the fifth. “Being kids, falling behind makes it tougher to play, but the kids did a nice job of realizing there was a lot of baseball left,” Spoehr said. “We did what we needed to do.
“Their team was a lot like ours. They hit very well and they sometimes came from behind to win. Throughout the tournament, I was very pleased with our batting.
“There’s probably a few things I could have done with our line-up, but the formula had worked and being a ball-player and a little superstitious, I left the order alone and the rotation the way it was going.”
Singles by Hoff and (Nick), walks to Golisch and Schmeltzer and three errors played a big role in Merrill’s six-run third. Kleinschmidt hit an RBI double in the fourth, and Asmundsen and Hoff hit back-to-back doubles in the fifth to score one and two runs respectively.
Hoff finished 3-3 with two doubles, and five other Merrill boys had hits to go with five walks.
A trio of Hoff (1 H, 3 W, 3 R in 1/3 I), Schmeltzer (3 H, 4 W, 2 K, 1 R in 4-2/3 I) and Golisch (1 K in 1 I) pitched, with Schmeltzer picking up the win.