by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The Elk River Pioneers were just one good inning away from advancing to the next level Sunday but had a bad inning instead.
The Champlin LoGators scored four runs in the top of the ninth, three of them on a homer, off Tucker Morrell, to break 3-3 tie and beat the Pioneers 7-3, in Section 2 playoffs at St. Michael.
“You always hate to get beat, and it’s a letdown, but the guys played hard, gave it their best shot ,and come up short,” said manager Ken Ott. “One inning put us out of it.”
The Pioneers had rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game 3-3 and had good chances to take the lead but couldn’t finish the job and saw a good season end.
The top two teams among eight in the section advance to one of four super-sections. The Pioneers started playoffs with two wins last weekend and needed one more but lost to St. Michael 16-5 Friday and then Champlin on Sunday.
The Pioneers thus placed third in the sectional and finished 16-11, their first winning season after six straight under .500.
Ott figured the odds of wining one more would be good with Ben Hendrickson on the mound, but the 32-year-old former pro, coming off a 2-1 win over Anoka, sprained an ankle during practice on Wednesday when he slipped on a tarp behind home plate.
“That’s bound to hurt,” said Ott. “Not taking anything away from our other guys, but that is a big blow, to lose a guy like that. Even if he couldn’t have pitched Friday night , we could have waited and had him throw for all the marbles today.”
The Pioneers were no-hit for 5 1/3 innings by Champlin right-hander Andy Evans before Porter Morrell and Brien Geerdes singled back-to-back in the sixth.
Evans got out of that jam with two strikeouts to protect a 3-1 lead, but Sam Krick led off the seventh with a double down the right field line, and the LoGators changed pitchers.
Alex Nienaber was greeted by Harley Thompson’s line-drive single to center that scored Krick. Aaron Pipenhagen beat out a perfect bunt. After one out, Lance Johnson dumped a single into center to score Thompson and knot the score 3-3.
The Pioneers kept the heat on in the eighth. Geerdes singled again, was bunted to second by Tucker Morrell, and Corey Kaminsky beat out an infield grounder with a head-first slide, putting runners at first and third with their best hitter, Krick, at the plate.
Krick lofted a fly to medium-deep left field, right on the line. Ott, coaching third, sent Geerdes home, hoping for an off-the-mark throw, but the left-fielder’s throw cut down Geerdes at the plate, with Matt Marek hanging onto the ball after a collision with fellow catcher Geerdes.
Tucker Morrell, who had thrown three shutout innings in relief of Jim Brown, started the ninth with a wild pitch to the screen, and, looking a bit fatigued, put two runners aboard with a hit-by-pitch and walk.
Up stepped Zach Heckert. Morrell got him down 0-2 but the count went to 3-2 before Heckert jumped on a neck-high pitch and drove it over the left-field fence for a 6-3 lead. A double by Ryan Bruns and single by Jeff Heuer added another run.
Brown pitched five innings, allowing three earned runs and seven hits, striking out six. He also knocked in the first Pioneer run with a sacrifice fly. Morrell’s line was four innings, four runs and five hits. Geerdes had two of the team’s seven hits (2-for-3 and a walk).
Evans’ log was six innings, two runs (one unearned), two hits, six walks and six strikeouts. Nienaber got the win, going three innings, giving up five hits but just one run. Heuer was 3-for-5 with an RBI and Bruns 2-for-5 with two runs.