Millers prove they belong in state tournament
The New Richmond Millers proved they belonged in the Wisconsin Amateur Baseball state playoffs with their performance against the top-seeded La Crosse A's on Saturday.
The intense game wasn't decided until the final pitch, with La Crosse hanging on for a 6-5 victory. La Crosse then defeated Grantsburg on Sunday to advance to the final level of the state tournament, which will be played this weekend in Haugen.
The Millers qualified for the state tournament with a 9-7 record. La Crosse was one of the most publicized teams in the Ellsworth bracket, bringing a 9-2 league record into the tournament.
If the Millers thought they were underdogs in the game, they didn't show it. Millers manager Ryan Stephens had to make a difficult decision before the start of the game. It was unclear whether pitcher Tim Brown would be able to make it to the game in time after getting off work. Stephens elected to have second-year Miller Cody Torkelson take the starting assignment.
Torkelson gave the Millers the start they needed. He started with three shutout innings. La Crosse was able to get two runs off Torkelson in the fourth inning and two more in the fifth inning before Brown relieved him.
"Cody did one heckuva job," Stephens said.
It was the Millers that started the scoring in the game. They were facing a starting pitcher Austin Lubinsky, who plays for the University of Minnesota.
Millers catcher Matt Peterson led off the second inning with a walk. Peterson is a fearless baserunner and he quickly stole second base. Hayden Zimmerman followed with another walk. Curt Kleinschmidt then hit a hard grounder toward shortstop. The ball scooted between the feet of the A's shortstop, with Peterson scoring from second base on the play.
Ryan Telschow extended the lead to 2-0 when he flipped a single into right field. The Millers had a chance to do more damage, but the next two batters struck out to end the threat.
La Crosse tied the game with two runs in the fourth inning. The A's took the lead on a two-run homer in the fifth inning. The homer came one pitch after the Millers thought they'd gotten strike three on the batter, which would have ended the inning. This was part of an on-going difficulty all game long for the Millers.
Neither team could figure out the umpire's strike zone. The Millers struck out 13 times in the game, seven of them on called third strikes. The Millers and their fans didn't agree with most of the called third strike punchouts.
The Millers fought back to take the lead in the fifth inning. Mike Perillo led off with a single. Scott Emerson walked and Zack Watkins delivered an opposite field single to load the bases. Zimmerman then faced a La Crosse relief pitcher and he got drilled in the back with a pitch. It was a painful way to get a run in, but it cut La Crosse's lead to 4-3.
Kleinschmidt was playing with a painful arm injury, but managed to drill a single up the middle that scored Emerson and Watkins, putting the Millers in front, 5-4.
The two relief pitchers were effective until the bottom of the eighth inning, when Brown got in a jam against the bottom of the La Crosse order. He walked the number eight hitter and gave up a single to the number nine hitter. After a flyout to center, La Crosse put together a pair of run-scoring singles to take a 6-5 lead.
The Millers have played well in the the ninth inning all season and they nearly pulled out another win in Saturday's final inning.
Jon Will singled with one out. Emerson then hit a wicked liner up the middle, but the La Crosse shortstop was able to snare the ball with a full-extension diving catch.
Watkins followed with a single and Peterson walked to load the bases. That brought up Zimmerman, who had been struck in the back with fastballs in each of his previous two at-bats. He would have gladly trade more of that pain for the pain he suffered in this at-bat.
Zimmerman worked the count to 2-2. The next pitch appeared to cross the plate just above Zimmerman's ankles. The home plate umpire thought otherwise. His third strike call left Zimmerman stunned while other members of the team argued heatedly with the umpire.
Stephens tried to take the high road, but the frustration gradually came out.
"The umpire took the game out of our hands," was Stephens' summary statement.
The Millers end the season with a 17-12 record. Stephens said he thinks the team can build on the momentum of this season and be even better next year. He said he expects most of this year's players to return, but he will hold tryouts next spring to try to improve the team's depth.
The team awards for the season have also been decided. Will and Emerson share the Most Valuable Player Award. They ranked as the team's leading hitters this season.
Brown received the Top Pitcher Award, finishing with eight wins this season.
Matt Peterson was named the Most Improved Player. "The last three years Matt hadn't batted over .165. This year he batted over .300. He became an intelligent catcher," Stephens said. Stephens said Torkelson was among several other players who made considerable improvements in their game this season.
Will received the Top Fielder Award after committing one error all season.