Talk about a switcheroo.
The last time the Bluejays and Lumberjacks met on a baseball diamond, the teams combined for 39 runs as Merrill took both ends of a home doubleheader as part of a major push into a tie for second place in the Valley.
Let’s just say that the runs weren’t exactly piling up in Tuesday’s WIAA Regional opener, also played in Merrill. This one the Bluejays captured by a 2-1 tally on a walk-off fly ball from pitcher Brian Stockowitz in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“As tough to win as that was, it was fun to win that way,” MHS coach Brian Artac said. “We do have a sense of the dramatic. I don’t know why we do that. I don’t want to have the big one (heart attack) right here, the way Fred Sanford used to say it.
“I told the kids it was not going to be the same as the night we played two. Everybody’s coming in with a different attitude. We’re back to 0-0 (records). I didn’t tell them how hard it is to beat a team three times in the same season, but it is.”
Neither team cracked the scoring ice until the fifth inning when both did. East stranded four runners in scoring position in the first three innings, and had the bases loaded in the second. Merrill left Mason Reinhardt on second in the first and Ty Grunenwald on third in the fourth.
East finally got on the board with help from a single, wild pitch, sacrifice bunt and off-line throw to the plate on a sacrifice fly. But Merrill immediately tied it started by Brad Juhlke fouling off numerous pitches before singling into right field. Pinch runner Drew Hoff was pushed to second by a solid Cole Gustke bunt, he stole third on a pitch in the dirt, and raced home on a wild pitch.
“We had to scratch to get that early run,” Artac said.
East threatened to take the lead in the seventh when two singles put runners on first and second. But Stockowitz got out of it with a fly ball to left and a super play by Gustke at second, where he dove to the middle to knock down the ball, then flipped it to shortstop Grunenwald at second.
Juhlke walked with one out in the bottom of the inning, advanced on Gustke’s first-pitch hit to left, and they both moved up on a wild pitch. Stockowitz hit a fly ball deep enough to left to assure Juhlke would score and the celebration began.
Stockowitz collected the win. Reinhardt (2-3), Grunenwald (1-1, 1 W, 1 HBP), Juhlke (1-2) and Gustke (1-2) came up with Merrill hits.
Wausau E.– 000 010 0–1.
Merrill– 000 010 1–2.
MP: Brian Stockowitz 7 I, 8 H, 3 W, 3 K, 1 R, 1 ER).
The East win set up Merrill with a Thursday visit to top seed and 10th-rated Bay Port. The Jays took a 3-1 lead in the third inning, but gave up four in the bottom of the fourth and three in the fifth of the 7-1 loss.
“It was a good game until the bottom of the fourth,” Artac said. “We were ahead and we had a chance to be ahead by more than one, too. The best-hit ball was by Brian Stockowitz. We thought it was gone, but it got near the fence and just died for a fly out.”
Bay Port offered a strong pitching staff, but Artac believed his squad was prepared.
“Their pitching was good,” he said. “We had Zach (Wendorf) and Alex (Grunenwald) throw to the kids in practice. They saw enough to get ready.”
The Jays had trouble with a combination of free passes and free swings.
“When you’ve got as many strike-outs as they do walks, it’s trouble,” Artac said. “We had seven walks and two hit batters. The defense goes to an almost at-rest position. To quote Bill Helmuth, ‘There’s no defense for the walk.’ (Former Everest coach) Mark Simon did some research an found that 70% of the time you walk the lead-off guy he scores. In the fourth and fifth, we hit and walked guys and they both scored.”
Mason Reinhardt walked to lead off the third and was moved up on an Alex Zettler bunt sacrifice. After a fielder’s choice, Ty Grunenwald scored on Alex Klug’s double.
Merrill– 001 000 0–1.
Bay Port– 000 430 x–7.
MP: David Pophal 5-1/3 I, 5 H, 6 W, 3 K, 7 R, 7 ER; Brian Stockowitz 1-1/3 I, 1 H, 1 W, 0 K, 0 R. MH: 5 H, 4 W, 2 HBP, 10 K; Pophal 2-3; Klug 1-4, 2B; Brad Juhlke 1-3, Cole Gustke 1-3.
The Bluejays closed out a 11-13 season with the game, with late losses to state-ranked SPASH and Bay Port and a win over then #1 Marathon (D3).
“We won five out of our last seven games, which is not a bad finish,” Artac said. “We also had to climb. We never reached .500. We did tie for second in the Valley (at 6-6), but the other two teams (Wausau West and D.C.E.) were still playing Tuesday. We beat Everest twice, and they’re in the sectionals and we’re not.
“We’ve got some kids back that will be okay, and the JV had a decent year this year. All those kids have got a chance to shine.”