St. Croix Central baseball team puts up a playoff battle
The St. Croix Central and Amery baseball teams both finished with .500 records in their respective conferences, so it was fair to expect a close battle when they met in the opening round of WIAA Division 2 regional tournament action last Tuesday.
The game was as close as anticipated. In fact, an extra inning was needed before Amery could claw past the Panthers, 4-3.
The Panthers finish the season with a 6-11 record. They finished 6-6 in Dunn-St. Croix Conference games.
Junior Brett Eckman got the pitching start for the Panthers. In the first inning, his pitches were coming in high and Amery was able to score two runs. Panther coach Jason Koele said that once Eckman got adjusted to the Amery mound, he pitched extremely well. Amery didn’t score again until the sixth inning.
Central’s hitters needed time to adjust. They had five consecutive strikeouts in a stretch through the first two innings. The Panthers didn’t get a hit until the third inning, when senior Logan Nelson slapped an opposite field single to leftfield.
Amery pitcher Zach Anderson maintained the one-hitter until the fifth inning, when the Panthers broke through for all their runs. Eckman started the rally with a walk and Nelson delivered a two-out single. Evan Nielsen then reached on an error to score the first Panther run. Nielsen immediately stole second base.
That set the stage for the Panthers’ biggest at-bat of the night. Cody Gostovich rifled a letter-high pitch into centerfield, scoring Nelson and Nielsen to put the Panthers ahead, 3-2.
Central’s lead lasted until the sixth inning. Amery’s Colin Bursick led off with a homer over the leftfield fence to tie the game.
Both pitchers worked complete games. Nielsen led off the eighth inning for the Panthers with a single. Koele said he passed on the option of having Gostovich bunt because he’s been swinging the bat well. Gostovich flew out to rightfield and the next two Panthers struck out, giving Anderson 11 strikeouts for the game.
With two outs in the Amery eighth, Bursick coaxed a walk from Eckman after a long at-bat. Eckman then threw a wild pitch. Anderson was the next Amery batter and he lined a single to the leftfield alley that scored Bursick with the winning run.
Koele said Eckman’s fastball was effective, using its natural break to keep Amery’s batters off-stride.
“Brett struggled with his curve,” Koele said. “All three of his hit batters were on curves.”
Koele said the Panthers’ ability to compete evenly with Amery shows how far the team has come in a season. The Panthers were beaten on the 10-run rule in their tournament opener against Somerset a year ago. Koele projected that this season’s growth is just the start of the Panthers’ progress.
“I think we’ll have a better start to next season,” Koele said.