ST. CLOUD - During the past two days the top-seeded Bemidji High School baseball team had to make a pair of six-hour round trips to St. Cloud to play baseball in the Section 8-3A tournament.
The Lumberjacks' opponent for those games, second-seeded St. Cloud Apollo, basically had to travel across the street to reach Faber Field on Tuesday and their home park, Dick Putz Field, on Wednesday.
On Tuesday the travel disparity could have been a factor, as the Lumberjacks lost 4-0 to the Eagles in the opening game of the section championship series.
Wednesday night, however, the Jacks did not allow their travel-weary legs to become an issue as they posted a 2-1 victory in the 8-3A final.
That triumph was rewarded with a return trip to the state tournament. Bemidji, 23-2, will open the tournament at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, June 14, against Section 4-3A champ Hill-Murray at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.
Unlike Tuesday's game, where Bemidji was unable to deliver the key hit at the crucial time, the Lumberjacks came through with a pair of clutch two-out knocks Wednesday.
Cody Jenkins delivered both of them.
With Bemidji trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning, Jenkins singled home Cody Rutledge with the tying run.
In the bottom of the third Jenkins came through again, this time with a drive to right field that was misplayed into a double.
Billy Baumgartner, who was pinch running for Collin Leif, raced home all the way from first base on the play and scored what proved to be the decisive run.
Sophomore pitching ace Ryan Hirt tossed a spectacular game, allowing only the one run on three hits. He walked only three and struck out six while earning his ninth victory in as many decisions.
"When you evaluate this game and the team we faced, this was one of the best-pitched games I've been involved with in a long time," said Bemidji coach Mike Fogelson. "Ryan is only a sophomore but he pitched like a seasoned veteran. And their pitcher, Reese Gregory, is the real deal. He had every type of pitch and he knew how to use them.
"This was a great pitching duel and tonight Ryan was one run better than their guy."
Both teams scored in the first inning, and both runs came home courtesy of two-out singles.
Tyler Mueller opened the game by drawing a four-pitch walk and gained second when Brandon Bloch bunted and the throw to second to try to nail Mueller was late.
Gregory followed with a comebacker that the BHS defense turned into a pitcher-to-third-to-first double play, but Apollo salvaged the inning as Dylan Jaeger delivered an RBI single to center.
The Lumberjacks responded quickly, however. With two outs in the lower first Rutledge walked and Leif was hit by a pitch. Jenkins followed with a single to left to plate Rutledge with the tying tally.
Bemidji advanced Sam Dwyer to second and Connor McNallan to first with one out in the second inning but the threat fizzled when Dwyer was picked off second.
BHS took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third and starting the rally was Leif who singled to right. Baumgartner pinch ran for Leif and when Jenkins' shot to right was misplayed into a double, Baumgartner was able to scamper all the way home from first base.
"Cody Jenkins had a couple of huge hits for us," Fogelson said. "And those types of hits were what we were missing Tuesday."
Neither offense threatened during the next two innings but Apollo gave the Lumberjacks a major scare in the top of the sixth when Gregory drilled a Hirt offering to the wall in left field. BHS outfielder Nick Hovila, however, was able to race to the fence and make the grab.
Hirt retired the next two Eagles on a called strike and a soft liner to shortstop Mitchell Hendricks to escape any further harm.
Leif collected his second single of the night to begin the bottom of the sixth and Baumgartner, who came in to run for Leif, gained third on a stolen base and a tag. But the opportunity died when Nick Conner fanned.
Needing only three more outs to earn a trip to the state tournament, Hirt and the Jacks defense rose to the occasion. Hirt retired Cooper Lynch on a pop to first but Ethan Carlson kept Apollo's hopes alive with a single to center.
But those hopes were quickly squashed as the infield turned T.J. Frerick's ground ball into a second-to-short-to first double play for the game-ender.
"Mason made a great scoop at first base to end that bang-bang double play and to turn a DP like that is a cool way to end a section championship game," Fogelson said. "This was a battle of two state championship-caliber teams with everything on the line. And it feels good to come out on top."
The Lumberjacks offense had only five hits off Gregory. Jenkins finished with a double and a single while Leif had two singles. Connor McNallan also poked a single.
Apollo 100 000 0 - 1 3 0
Bemidji 101 000 x - 2 5 0
Gregory (L) and Jarosch. K-9, BB-3
Hirt (W, 9-0) and Leif. K-6, BB-3