ST. CLOUD - For the second consecutive year, Fairmont mentor Todd Sukalski and his Cardinal baseball lineup bettered the program's single-season mark for victories (25) and reached the third-place game of the Class AA state tournament.
Unfortunately for Sukalski, Proctor - who ironically lost to Fairmont in the 2011 state quarterfinals - denied the red-and-white from repeating as a state bronze medalist Friday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
Southpaw starter Matt Dolsen and ace hurler-turned-closer Jake Lewis combined on a three-hit shutout to propel the Rails to a 6-0 victory over the Cardinals in the third-place showdown.
RETURN TOSS — Fairmont first baseman Michael Forster (left) flips the baseball back to pitcher Ben Kain (not shown) after recording an out on Holy Family Catholic hitter Kasey Ralston during Class AA state semifinal action Friday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. Photo by Chip Pearson
"We just didn't have anything left after losing to Holy Family (Catholic) in the semifinals earlier today," said Sukalski.
Dolsen, who entered Friday's final state game with a 7.00 ERA, surrendered a first-inning single to Levi Becker, a bunt hit to Ben Gratz in the fifth and a single to Andy Reiter in the sixth in keeping Fairmont's usual high-octane off the scoreboard.
Dolsen struck out only two and walked five in hurling six scoreless innings of three-hit baseball before handing over the final inning to Proctor ace starting pitcher Jake Lewis. Lewis recorded two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 seventh to seal the Rails' third-place victory.
Designated hitter Ben Nelson and first baseman Ryan McCarthy delivered the critical offensive blows in the third and fifth innings, respectively, to make a winner out of Dolsen. Nelson pounded a bases-loaded double for an early 3-0 lead, with two of his three RBIs a direct result of Cardinal errors. McCarthy later walloped a two-run home run over the scoreboard in deep left during the fifth before Evan Scherber added an RBI single.
Jimmy Merling, who scored on McCarthy's clout, joined McCarthy and Nelson with two hits each on the game.
Fairmont sophomore starting pitcher Luke Becker allowed six runs - only two earned - on seven hits, walked two and struck out two in 4 1/3 innings to take the loss.
Junior right-hander Bryce Holm produced stellar numbers in relief, striking out five and allowing only one hit in 2 2/3 shutout innings for the Cardinals.
"Everyone's (ultimate) goal is play for the state championship at Target Field," said Sukalski.
Unfortunately for Sukalski's record-setting Cardinals (25-5), Holy Family Catholic slugger Kasey Ralston and catcher Keller Knoll prevented Fairmont from reaching Monday's 3 p.m. state title game against defending Class AA state champion St. Cloud Cathedral at the Minnesota Twins' ballpark in Minneapolis.
Cathedral managed to outlast Proctor in a back-and-forth 9-8, nine-inning semifinal marathon Friday to earn a shot at back-to-back championships.
Meanwhile, Ralston, who will play baseball for the Indiana Hoosiers next season, hammered a two-run home run - his seventh of the spring - while Knoll's pickoff prowess behind the plate helped starting pitcher Rollie Lacy and reliever Connor Herd maintain their combined shutout.
Lacy hurled five innings of two-hit baseball, while Herd allowed three hits in closing the final two frames to engineer the Fire's 3-0 semifinal victory over the Cardinals on Friday in St. Cloud.
"We just could not get that hit," said Sukalski, whose offense stranded nine runners on the semifinal and got two more erased via Knoll's accurate arm.
Trailing 2-0 on the heels of leadoff batter Tommy Hanson's infield hit and Ralston's two-run blast in the top of the first, Fairmont assembled a good scoring opportunity during the bottom of the fourth. Ross Wilken drew a one-out walk from Lacy before Jay Ruen lined a single to right. Ryan Noll's fielder's choice left Cardinal runners at the corners with two outs, but Knoll delivered a strike to shortstop Joe Salz to nail the pinch runner trying to swipe second base to thwart the threat.
"I put a lot of work in during the winter to improve my arm strength," said Knoll, who also homered during HFC's state quarterfinal win over Cannon Falls on Thursday. " That work has really helped the quickness of my transfer (from glove to throwing hand) and it paid off today."
Knoll then proved the thorn in the Cardinals' side again in the last of the sixth. Mitch Pfingsten drew a one-out walk from Herd before Michael Forster legged out an infield hit. Unfortunately for Fairmont, Knoll caught the courtesy runner straying too far from second base and picked him off. Herd then notched his only strikeout in his two-inning relief stint to strand yet another Cardinal runner at third after skidding back-to-back wild pitches.
The Fire added a key insurance run during the top of the seventh as Jack Schliesman, who eventually replaced Jordan Hollen via back-to-back fielder's choice, crossed the plate on Joe Traxler's bloop single to right. Hollen had reached on a single.
The Cardinals, however, loaded the bases against Herd during the last of the seventh via Ruen's second hit of the game, a walk to Bryce Holm and Spencer Chirpich's single with two out. Herd managed to escape unscathed as he got a game-ending pop out.
Holm and Forster added hits for Fairmont, while Salz went 2-for-3 to top HFC's eight-hit performance.
Fairmont senior right-hander Ben Kain allowed three runs on eight hits, struck out three and walked two in seven innings of work to take the loss in closing out his brilliant prep athletic career.
Lacy struck out three and walked three in five shutout innings of two-hit ball to net the victory, while Herd fanned one and walked two in two scoreless relief innings of three-hit ball.
Proctor 003 030 0 - 6 8 0
FHS 000 000 0 - 0 3 3
Matt Dolsen (WP), Jake Lewis (7) and Cody Dolsen. Luke Becker (LP), Bryce Holm (5) and Andy Reiter.
LOB-Fairmont 8; Proctor 7. 2B-Ben Nelson (P). HR-Ryan McCarthy (P). SAC-Jesse Scanlon (P).
HFC 200 000 1 - 3 8 2
FHS 000 000 0 - 0 5 0
Rollie Lacy (WP), Connor Herd (6, Sv) and Keller Knoll. Ben Kain (LP) and Mitch Pfingsten.
LOB-Fairmont 9; HFC 6. 2B-Connor Riddle (HFC). HR-Kasey Ralston (HFC). SAC-Joe Traxler (HFC), Jordan Hollen (HFC).