ST. CLOUD - Comeback victories have not been part of Bemidji's arsenal this spring but that is only because the offense has been able to strike early and strike often. During the 20-1 campaign the Lumberjacks have rarely trailed and needing runs in the final few innings to pull out a victory has not been a regular requirement.
Saturday during the Section 8-3A final four at the baseball complex in St. Cloud, however, top-seeded Bemidji found itself in a battle with No. 4 St. Michael-Albertville and again with third-ranked Rocori.
The Lumberjacks, however, found ways to win both games, edging STMA 3-2 with a run in the 10th inning and tripping Rocori 4-2 with two runs in the fifth. Those victories vaulted BHS into Tuesday's section's championship series and the Jacks need only one more triumph to make a return trip to the state meet.
Originally scheduled for 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. starts, Tuesday's games were moved up because Rocori has graduation that evening.
"Right now we are seven good innings away from the state tournament and we are feeling good about being in this position,"said BHS coach Mike Fogelson.
Bemidji's first crack at claiming that final section victory will come 2 p.m. Tuesday. If it loses that game the Lumberjacks will return to St. Cloud 7 p.m. Wednesday for the decisive showdown.
Bemidji's opponent in the final series will be determined Tuesday morning when St. Cloud Apollo faces Rocori in the loser's bracket final at 11 a.m.
St. Cloud Apollo, the section's second seed, lost Saturday's opener 4-1 to Rocori but survived by rallying for a 6-3 victory over St. Michael-Albertville. St. Cloud Apollo trailed 3-0 in that game before catching fire in the final few innings.
The Jacks also needed some late-inning heroics to shade STMA. A pitching duel developed between Bemidji's Ryan Hirt and the Knight's Jerrett Peterson. Neither hurler allowed a run until the fifth when STMA used a misplayed pop-up, a walk and a throwing error to break the tie.
"We weren't super sharp defensively in this game but we managed to come back whenever we needed to," Fogelson said.
The bottom of the fifth was one of those times as Connor McNallan's single, a fielder's choice and Cody Rutledge's double into the left field corner knotted the score at 1-1.
Neither team could scratch out another run through regulation but in the top of the ninth the Knights took a 2-1 lead on a bunt single, a single to center, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly.
Once again, however, the Lumberjacks answered. Sam Dwyer singled to begin the bottom of the ninth and, after gaining second courtesy of McNallan's bunt and racing to third when no one was covering the bag, Dwyer scored on Nick Hovila's single.
The Knights wasted a golden opportunity to score in the 10th as they had a runner nailed at third trying to advance on a ground ball to McNallan at short. They also stranded advanced a second runner to third with one out but could not bring him in.
Those missed opportunities came back to haunt STMA as Bemidji quickly ended matters in its half of the 10th. Rutledge opened the inning by drawing a walk and when Collin Leif followed with a booming double to deep center, Rutledge scored without a throw.
Hovila had three singles to lead the offense. Rutledge contributed a double and a single and coaxed two walks. Leif also had a double and a single while Nick Conner and Dwyer each delivered a pair of singles.
Hirt pitched nine innings and Hendricks worked the 10th to earn the pitching victory.
"Ryan did a great job," Fogelson said. "He gave us nine great innings and was in complete control."
Runs in the first and second innings provided a quick 2-0 Bemidji lead but Rocori rallied with two runs in the fifth to tie the game.
"We got out early but Rocori is as good a team as we have faced this year," Fogelson said. "Both St. Michael and Rocori gave us their best shots, just as we expected."
Cody Jenkins' double scored Rutledge who had singled to left with two outs in the opening stanza. In the second inning Mason Bellew reached on an outfield error and eventually scored on another outfield boot.
After the Spartans tied the game in the upper fifth Bemidji answered with two runs in its half of the inning.
McNallan started the rally with a single and the Jacks loaded the bases on walks to Hovila and Hendricks. McNallan scored when Rutledge bounced into a double play and Leif added the insurance tally when he singled home Hovila.
Hendricks relieved Jenkins on the BHS mound to begin the sixth and he retired all six Spartans he faced.
"Saturday was a good day for us," Fogelson, whose team will take a 22-1 record into Tuesday's finals, said. "These were two very good teams and it was good for us to be involved in a couple of close games because this is what we're going to face the rest of the way."
St. Michael 000 010 001 0 - 2 7 1
Bemidji 000 010 001 1 - 3 10 5
Dzury (L) and Hackenmueller. K-3, BB-3
Hirt, Hendricks (10, W) and Leif. K-8, BB-4
Rocori 4, St. Cloud Apollo 3
Rocori 000 020 0 - 2 5 2
Bemidji 110 020 x - 4 6 0
Jokela (L), Ruggenmer (5) and Athmann. K-3, BB-3
Jenkins (W), Hendricks (6, S) and Leif. K-3, BB-2
St. Cloud Apollo 6, St. Michael-Albertville 3 (STMA eliminated)
Game 1: St. Cloud Apollo vs. Rocori, 11 a.m. (loser eliminated)
Game 2: Bemidji vs. Game 1 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 3: repeat of Game 2, 7 p.m. (if necessary)