BEMIDJI - A few games ago, Bemidji High School baseball coach Mike Fogelson challenged the middle batters in the lineup to become more productive. With the first three hitters seemingly always on base, Fogelson believed that someone other than Cody Rutledge should be counted on to drive them in.
Thursday at the Bemidji State diamond, the middle of the lineup came through, and their contributions helped the Lumberjacks blank Thief River Falls 5-0.
Ryan Hirt also had a hand in the win as the lefty tossed a nifty four-hitter on way to the shutout.
"Our first three batters have been on base all year and we challenged the middle of the lineup to be more productive," Fogelson said. "They are all good hitters and they need to drive in the runs. And since we challenged them, they have come through."
Accepting the gauntlet were Collin Leif, Cody Jenkins and Mason Bellew. During Thursday's game, Leif had a pair of RBI singles, Jenkins blasted a 2-run round-tripper well over the monster in left field and Bellew reached on a double and a walk.
"The first thing we needed to do when we were challenged was pick a nickname and we came up with the 'Bash Brothers,'" Jenkins said. "And then we came up with a competition among us to see who can have the most quality at-bats and who can drive in the most runs.
"I might have won it today with the home run."
His drive just inside the left field line in the fifth inning capped the scoring and provided two key insurance runs.
The Lumberjacks took a 1-0 lead in the first frame when Nick Hovila was hit by a pitch, gained second courtesy of Mitchell Hendricks' ground ball and scored when Leif blooped a single to shallow right.
Hovila singled with one out in the third and, after gaining second when Hendricks grounded out, scored on an errant pickoff and a wild throw into the infield.
The 2-0 score stood until Bemidji iced the win with three runs in the fifth.
Hendricks started the rally with a single and a steal of second. He scored an out later when Leif bounced a chopper up the middle that eluded the infield. Jenkins added the exclamation point when he golfed an inside pitch over the monster.
"I like inside fast balls," Jenkins said. "I was able to put a good swing on the pitch."
Few Prowlers could say the same. Hirt allowed only four singles and the visitors managed only one legitimate scoring threat.
That opportunity in the second inning fizzled when the Jacks sniffed out a delayed steal with runners at first and third and eventually nailed Wyatt Wheeler at the plate.
Hirt, who threw nothing but fastballs during Thief River Falls' first rotation to the plate, was in complete control the rest of the way.
"My off-speed stuff wasn't working very well in warm-ups and I knew the defense would make all of the plays so I started the game throwing fast balls," Hirt said. "I felt good on the mound and I think I'm getting better each time.
"Earlier in the season I was walking too many batters but now I'm throwing strikes," he added.
The lefty walked only one and seldom was behind in the count. He also fanned six Prowlers.
Thief River Falls, which entered the game ranked 12th in the Minnesota Class 2A poll, dropped to 8-2 while the Jacks improved to 13-1.
"We actually were expecting to be undefeated at this time but 13-1 is pretty good," Jenkins said. "This team been playing together since we were nine and 10 years old and we have chemistry.
"When we were 12 we won the state Cal Ripken championship and we won the state VFW championship in 2010," the senior continued. "Getting to the state tournament this year is one of our goals but ultimately we want to finish the year playing at Target Field for the state championship."
The Bash Brothers and their teammates will have a few days to rest but starting next Thursday they will play four home games in three days. The stretch begins against West Fargo on Thursday and includes a Friday game against Grand Forks Red River and Saturday contests against Duluth East and Roseau.
The Friday and Saturday games are part of the annual Des Sagedahl Wooden Bat Tournament.
Thief River Falls 000 000 0 - 0 4 3
Bemidji 101 030 x - 5 8 1
Brooks (L) and Hansen. K-2, BB-2
Hirt (W) and Leif. K-6, BB-1