by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
A former big leaguer and a high school junior were key players as the Elk River Pioneers edged the Anoka Bucs 2-1 in Section 2 playoffs on Sunday.
Ben Hendrickson, the 32-year-old right-hander who had two brief stints with the Milwaukee Brewers, and joined the Pioneers this year after three years away from baseball, hurled his best game for the Pioneers, a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts, in Albertville.
“I haven’t had one like that for a while,” said Hendrickson, adding his last complete game was in 2007 with Triple-A Omaha, a shutout against Las Vegas. “Before the game today I told Kenny (Ott) and Dale (Kaminski) I would go nine today.”
Brandon Meyer, who’ll be a senior this fall at Elk River High School, drove home the go-ahead run in the fifth inning and made a great catch in left field.
“Yup, a former big leaguer and a high school kid, they were the stars,” chuckled manager Ken Ott. “But the other eight men on the field all did a good job. Ben kept us in the game. Brien Geerdes did a great job catching. We made some good plays in the field, and we got a couple big hits.”
The Pioneers needed Hendrickson’s best effort because they managed only three hits themselves off Anoka right-hander Jacob Nelson, who struck out six.
There were only seven hits in the game, all singles. The only two RBI hits were delivered by Elk River’s Lance Johnson and Meyer. Noah Gandrud of Anoka was the only player with two hits.
“We beat a very good ball club, and their pitcher threw a great game, too,” said Ott.
The Pioneers (16-9), who beat Hamel 11-3 while Anoka (17-13) beat Albertville 6-2 in the first round, are one win away from advancing to the super-regional. On Friday evening they face St. Michael at 8 p.m.
Hendrickson, who’s 2-2 this year (he also had three strong no-decisions), labored in the first two innings, giving up two singles, two walks, a hit-by-pitch, and two stolen bases. But he limited the damage to one run that scored when the Pioneers couldn’t quite turn an inning-ending double play in the first. He got a bases-loaded strikeout to end the second inning.
After that, Hendrickson cruised. After throwing 50 pitches the first two frames, he needed only 49 for the next five and finished at about 115.
“The main thing he did well was, he took his time,” said Geerdes. “He took it pitch by pitch. Every inning, something different was working. His curve ball early, when he wasn’t getting the fast ball over. Then he started throwing the two-seamer really well, and later on his change-up got some strikeouts.”
It helped that right fielder Porter Morrell snagged a blooper sliced down the line in the first that looked like it would fall in, Meyer nabbed a foul ball at the fence after a long sprint in the third inning, and shortstop Tucker Morrell threw out a runner by an eyelash on a difficult high-bouncer with two runners aboard to end the eighth inning. The Pioneers had zero errors.
“If they don’t make those plays, I’m in trouble,” said Hendrickson.
Tucker Morrell had a perfect 0-for-0 day at the plate. The leadoff man worked Nelson for all three of his walks and dropped a sac bunt, while making a key stolen base.
Morrell walked and swiped second in the fifth, and scored with one out when Meyer ripped a single up the middle for a 2-1 lead.
Meyer, incidentally, pulled a hamstring running to second when Josh Juntunen followed with another single, and had to leave the game, replaced by Joey Santiago.
An error helped the Pioneers tie the score in the second. The Buc shortstop booted a grounder by Harley Thompson, who was bunted to second by Aaron Pipenhagen and scored when Johnson dumped a single into right-center.
The two teams had split in the regular season with the Pioneers winning 6-4 and the Bucs winning 8-0.