by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River was holding all the cards heading into the Section 7AAA baseball finals Thursday.
Duluth East almost knocked that card table over but the Elks finally emerged state tournament-bound.
The Elks, with two chances to win once, and their top two pitchers fresh, got pounded by the Greyhounds 10-3 in the first game at Anoka High School.
And the Elks managed only one solid knock against Duluth East pitcher Chris Olson in the whole second game.
Fortunately, that one good rip, an RBI double by Andrew McMillan in the top of the seventh, was enough to fend off the Greyhounds 3-2 with Elk ace Erik Nyquist going the distance for his eighth win.
“I’m really proud of our guys for being able to flush that game,” said coach Ryan Holmgren, who’ll take the Elks to the school’s first baseball state tournament since 2003. “We’ve talked about that all year, when something like that happens we’ve got to ‘flush’ it.”
Playing the hand they were dealt, the Elks scratched for two runs helped by Greyhound mistakes to enter the seventh inning tied. Meanwhile, the Elks made some crucial fielding plays, especially in the outfield, and no errors.
“The defense made the plays and got me out of trouble,” said Nyquist. “We capitalized on their mistakes and we got out of some jams.”
That’s how the Elks (17-8) earned their school’s fourth trip to the state tournament. The tournament will start Thursday.
“We don’t have whole lot of state participants in baseball at Elk River,” acknowledged Holmgren. “We’re only the fourth one, and we might be the only one that’s won both conference and section. I know the last two (1999 and 2003) didn’t win conference.”
The Elks were 4-1 in the sectional including an earlier 8-3 win over the Greyhounds (17-8).
About the Greyhounds impressive first game, their coach John Rudolph said, “We had nothing to lose. It’s tough to win two games, but you just come in and lay it all on the line. And we brought up a JV kid, a junior, a junk pitcher, and he did a good job.”
The Elks and Greyhounds proved an almost dead-even match overall. They split four games in the last three weeks (the Elks lost 3-2 in Duluth just before playoffs) and the Greyhounds outscored them 18-16.
This was the second Duluth East vs. Elk River section championship duel of the school year. In boys hockey the Greyhounds won, ironically by the same score, 3-2.
The baseball team is ERHS’s fourth and final state team of the 2013-14 school year, joining boys and girls soccer and boys tennis.
Duluth East 10, Elk River 3
Duluth East scored 10 runs in four-plus innings off Jordan Hollom, who entered the game with a 3-0 record and 1.65 ERA in six starts, and had held them to one run in five innings on May 22 while striking out 12.
“They came out pretty fired up, and they played all three phases of game well,” said Holmgren, “and we didn’t pitch as well as we have in the past.”
Joe Gonrowski relieved with bases loaded and no outs in the fifth. Two of Hollom’s runners would score but Gonrowski got the last nine outs with no runs allowed.
The Greyhounds had 10 hits, including a homer, triple and two doubles. Wes Anderson belted a two-run homer in the first inning. Chris Olson laced a double and and RBI triple, scoring two runs. Nick Anderson and Tobias Hanson each had an RBI double.
Their emergency starter Lucas Hedin, a husky, side-arming junior, pitched 6 1/3 innings, giving up seven hits, four walks and a hit batter, but left nine runners on base. He struck out three and was helped by three double plays. Gunnar Howg got the last two outs.
For the Elks, Mylo Hommes hit a solo homer and went 2-for-3, Brandon Meyer smacked an RBI double, Austin Heuer was 2-for-3 plus a hit-by-pitch, and Nyquist 1-for-2 plus two walks. A double by McMillan set up a run that scored on an error.
Elk River 3, Duluth East 2
The tense section final was decided by Andrew McMillan’s line-drive double to right center that sent home the decisive run in the top of the seventh.
“First off, God gave me that hit. He did. I guess I’m lucky that I had that opportunity,” said McMillan, a senior outfielder. “I’m just so jacked right now, you have no idea.”
That was the only well-hit ball of the game against Chris Olson, a curve-balling lefty who’ll play at St. Thomas after turning down Mississippi State.
McMillan said Olson threw a “freaky” slow curve with the same motion as his fast ball, making it doubly hard to hit, but the pitch he jumped on for the double was “a straight fast ball right over the plate on the outer half.”
Olson threw a four-hitter with nine strikeouts. However, the Greyhounds, including Olson, made mistakes that sunk them.
“We gave it away,” declared Rudolph. “I give Elk River credit for staying with us, but we gave it away, everybody in the world knows we gave it away.”
In the fourth, Brandon Meyer walked, took second on a dropped third strike when Hollom struck out, went to third in a grounder and scored when Olson uncorked a wild pitch. In the fifth, their third baseman’s throwing error on a routine grounder put McMillan on second base. He took third on another wild pitch and scored on Mylo Hommes sac fly for a 2-1 lead — the Elks’ first lead of the long evening.
And in the seventh, Olson had Beese, leading off the inning, down 1-2 when he hit the Elks catcher on the foot. After a nice bunt by Riley Givens moved courtesy runner Ben Boutain to second, McMillan delivered his double into the gap to send Boutain home.
Nyquist, now 8-1 with seven complete games, pitched in and out of trouble. He gave up seven hits, most of which were really smoked, including two doubles and a triple, but walked just one (intentional). He struck out four, and got eight batters on pop-ups, two of them in the seventh as he protected the 3-2 lead.
“We popped the ball up a lot,” said Rudolph. “Their pitcher was throwing that change-up for strikes and we had to swing at it.”
Holmgren lauded the performance.
“Erik was unbelievable down the stretch. That kid is so stoic on the mound. If things don’t go his way, he just grabs the ball and gets set to throw it again.”
Willem Aldrich drove home East’s first run with a triple.
Duluth East scored one to tie the score in the sixth 2-2 but would have had at least a couple more but for excellent plays by center fielder Hommes.
After Benson led off with a long double, Hommes, playing shallow, sprinted in to snag a sinking liner by Wes Anderson that looked like a sure hit. Nyquist gave an intentional walk to Olson, who was 4-for-7 with two doubles and a triple for the day. With two outs and runners at second and third, Frankie Hanson tapped a single to center that would normally score two runs, but Hommes scooped it up quickly and held the swift Olson at third. Nyquist left two runners on base by getting the next batter on a ground out.
“I was a little shallow,” said Hommes. “The wind was really blowing in, so everything was kinda dying. He hit it right in front of me.”
Holmgren said the Elks had the Greyhounds well-scouted and knew which batters to play shallow against, strategy that paid off.
Said Rudolph: “They made adjustments and ‘shallowed up’ and took some hits we should have had. The center fielder did great job coming in close, while their corners stayed back. If he’d been five steps deeper we’d have gone (home) on that hit.”
Another big outfield play was made by left fielder Ben Johnson. On a pop-up hat was about drop between the shortstop and center fielder, Johnson dived through them feet-first and snagged the ball a foot off grass to end the fifth inning, firing up the team and the Elk fans.
“He comes in like a flash of lightning,” said Holmgren. “Nobody was even looking at the left fielder on that play.”
In a big game with little margin for error, Holmgren said, the Elks broke it down by concentrating on winning innings.
“They won the sixth,” he said, “but we won the seventh and we got a huge hit from Andrew.”