Merrill Legion cruises to regional title, qualifies for state
The season hasn’t been all wine and roses for Merrill American Legion Post 46 baseball team, but the squad has steadily improved throughout.
The improvement hit a zenith on Sunday, when Merrill wrapped up a perfect regional record with an 11-2 triumph over Antigo in the finals to wrap up a state berth.
Post 46 knocked off Antigo twice, wrapped around a win over Rhinelander, to achieve a 3-0 mark in the tourney.
“It’s a great feeling to win and we only had to play three games,” Merrill manager John Annis said. “We played well all weekend and the kids were ready to play all three days. They didn’t let Friday’s rain delay get to them.
“I have no complaints about the way they played or the way they acted. They acted like ballplayers and were classy. It was a great fun weekend.”
Merrill will hit the AA state tournament with a misleading 8-13 record. They played numerous games in the highly-competitive Valley that is filled with AAA-level teams, and they posted a 5-2 record over the last two weeks of the season that included two extra-innings losses to Stevens Point. The early season was littered with close losses in games the boys led late.
Post 46 will play Holmen at Kewaunee County in Friday’s 2:00 p.m. game to start the state tournament. The time of Saturday’s game will depend on an opening win (5 p.m.) or loss (11 a.m.). The locals dropped a 6-5 contest to Holmen in the second round of the Merrill Invite on July 12.
Had Antigo managed to win Sunday’s game-and the score was 3-2 heading into the fifth inning-the Typhoons would have needed to win again as the losers’ bracket champion in the double elimination event.
But a six-run sixth inning to follow up a two-run fifth made that a highly unlikely proposition.
“I was hoping to win it in the first game and the kids came out like they wanted it,” Annis said. “Everybody came up with clutch hits. It’s good to have other guys come up big. We’re not relying on one guy.”
In the fifth, Alex Klug walked and took second on a wild pitch. Ben Anderson out-ran a bunt that would have put runners on the corners, but both runners continued on after the wild late throw to first. Anderson scored easily after reaching third on a wild pitch and David Pophal doubled to deep left field.
Cole Gustke started the sixth-inning rally with a one-out single. Ty Grunenwald ripped a two-out double down the right-field line to score Gustke from first, and Klug singled him home and took second on the wide play at the plate. The bases loaded up when Anderson was hit by a pitch and Garrett Pagel hit an infield single. Pophal was hit by a pitch to send in one run, and Ben Hintze provided deep insurance by doubling the bases clear.
Brad Juhlke (3 H, 6 W, 8 K, 2 R, 0 ER in 7 I) put the finishing touches on a solid performance by striking out the final two batters looking.
Anderson (3-3, 2 R), Klug (2-2, 3 R, 2 W), Grunenwald (2-3, 2B, 3 R), Hintze (2-4, 2B, 3 RBI) and Pophal (1-3, 2B, 2 RBI) helped Merrill reach 11 hits and 6 walks.
Merrill fell behind Rhinelander 2-0 by the second inning of Saturday’s second-round contest.
A five-run third turned that around and three more in the fourth gave Post 46 an 8-2 advantage.
The Rebels threatened to make a game of it, scoring two in the sixth on a one-out double, but Juhlke shut the door inducing three pop flies and striking out two for the final five outs.
“Juhlke threw hard and put them back on their heels,” Annis said. “Four of our first six outs, we hit the ball hard at them. We got down two-nothing, but the kids didn’t lay down. They re-grouped.”
Anderson and Pagel both hit RBI singles in the third. Merrill powered the inning with six hits and two walks along with some creative baserunning that led to throwing errors. Four hits, including Anderson’s two-run single, put Merrill up 8-2.
Brian Stockowitz (4 H, 6 W, 3 HBP, 5 K, 4 R, 2 ER in 5-1/3 I) won, and Juhlke (1 H, 2 K, 0 R in 1-2/3 I) closed.
Gustke (2-3) and Anderson (2-4, 3 RBI) pushed Merrill to 9 hits.
When Friday’s 8-2 triumph over Antigo finally got underway after a 1-3/4 hour rain delay, Merrill wasted little time putting three runs on the board.
Alex Cordova led off with a hit, Anderson and Pagel were hit by pitches after two outs, and Pophal smoked a bases-clearing double.
“Pophal had some huge hits,” Annis said. “He hit a three-run double in the first, and I feel it set the tone for the tournament.”
Antigo cut it to 3-1 in the 4th, but Post 46 matched it with a Hintze walk and back-to-back singles by Tom Zuelsdorff and Gustke.
After Antigo got within 4-2 in the sixth, Merrill had another answer. Klug’s two-run single capped a four-run rally, aided by two errors, two other hits and two walks.
Pophal (2-3, 2B, 3 RBI) and Klug (2-4, 2B, 2 RBI) boosted an 8-hit, 3-walk attack.
Coleton Bloch (1 H, 0 W, 2 K, 1 R, 1 ER in 4 I) collected the win, and Cordova (4 H, 0 W, 6 K, 1 R, 1 ER in 3 I) saved.
Merrill lost its second one-run, extra-inning game to Point in the span of seven days with last Monday’s 11-10 tally.
“It was a great game after the fourth inning,” Annis said. “We were down eight-nothing after two, but instead of laying down and calling it quits, the kids battled back.”
Post 46 had dropped a 3-2 game in 10 innings the previous Tuesday, and were looking up at an 8-0 deficit after pairs of four-run rallies. A Zuelsdorff single, Gustke walk, and Pophal single loaded the bases for a Klug RBI hit in the third. A passed ball scored another run. Pophal made it 9-3 in the fourth with a run-scoring single.
After Point bumped it to 10-3 in the fifth, Merrill pulled within 10-9 in the sixth, using singles from Hintze and Pophal, five walks, a hit batter and an error. Bloch doubled and scored in the seventh with help from a pair of sacrifices to send it to extras. But a throwing error and wild pitch let Point score in the eighth, and Post 46 stranded Anderson-who had singled and moved up on a Pagel bunt-on second in the bottom of the inning.
Pophal (2-2), Zuelsdorff (2-2), Klug (2-4), Cordova (1-2, 2 sac.) and Bloch (1-1, 2B) helped Merrill reach 10 hits.
Juhlke (4 H, 5 W, 8 R, 7 ER in 1-1/3 I) was roughed up. Bloch (4 H, 7 W, 8 K, 3 R, 1 ER in 6-2/3 I) relieved.