Norman County’s bats have been struggling to produce as of late, but its defense and pitching have been nothing short of perfection.
Friday’s win proved that point.
The No. 1 seeded Wildcats (17-3) managed to sneak by No. 5 Sacred Heart with a 1-0 win in the Minnesota class A, section 8 West baseball semifinal at the University of North Dakota’s Kraft Field in Grand Forks.
The winning and solo run didn’t come across until the bottom half of the fifth inning when Norman County, which was silent the entire game, strung together the right mix of offensive plays to plate a run.
The Wildcats’ Dylan Wilkens’ reached base after his grounder skipped under the Eagles’ third baseman’s glove – Sacred Heart’s first error. Joel Merkens then laid a sacrifice bunt onto the field turf to move Wilkens into scoring position. Wilkens would come around to score on an Austin Merkens’ liner to right field, which just nicked off of the first baseman’s glove.
“The error was just what we needed to get going,” Norman County manager Mike Gullingsrud said. “(Austin) Merkens has had some good batting practices of late, and he put a good swing on the ball to bring Dylan home… one is enough I guess.”
The error to open the inning deranged the Eagles’ once superlative defense, and it tirelessly attempted to cover up the defensive mar by trying to derail the Wildcats’ own defensive supremacy, but to no avail.
Even in facing a pitch-to-contact pitcher in Norman County’s Joel Merkens, Sacred Heart (9-6) struggled to find any holes in the Wildcats’ defense.
Merkens simply was the perfect fit to pitch in the defensive duel type of game, especially with the athletic ability which was behind him.
“Joel really did a fabulous job, even if he didn’t strike out or throw pitches by many batters… defensively we knew we had to play well behind him,” Gullingsrud said. “Guys made plays in the field today; whether by turning a double play or making smart decisions which kept (Sacred Heart) off the board.”
Executing the run-saving play was Wildcat junior Blake Fetting, as his baseball smarts came through in a pivotal spot.
Sacred Heart threatened in the fourth inning with no outs and runners on first and third base. A ball was sharply hit to Fetting’s position, and the runner at third took off, vying for the score, but Fetting had other thoughts, as his decisive throw to the plate depressed the Eagles’ scoring hopes, and kept Norman County in shape to pounce when it pleased.
Norman County will play the winner of Red Lake County and Win-E-Mac at 3 p.m. Friday (today) at Kraft Field.