WINDOM - Luverne ended Class AA, No. 4-ranked Fairmont's incredible string of Section 3AA baseball championships at three in a row on Thursday.
Southpaw starter Reed Skattum and right-handed reliever Gunnar Olson combined to hurl a two-hitter to guide Luverne to a hard-fought 3-2 victory over perennial state qualifier Fairmont at Island Park in Windom.
"We played a very good Luverne team and just came up on the short end of a couple of one-run games in the playoffs," Fairmont mentor Todd Sukalski said in reference to his Cardinals' only other postseason loss - a 4-3 decision to Luverne last Saturday in Marshall.
FANCY FOOTWORK — Fairmont pitcher Bryce Holm (right) avoids the mound while catching an infield popup during the Section 3AA baseball championship game against Luverne on Thursday at Island Park in Windom. Fairmont third baseman Jay Ruen (10), shortstop Spencer Chirpich (glasses) and second baseman Luke Becker watch the action. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
Fairmont ended its season with a third consecutive 20-plus win record at 22-3.
Ironically, Luverne captured its first sectional crown since 2009 - the year before Fairmont's three-year reign.
Luverne (19-4) will await the results of the seeding meeting for the Class AA state tournament, opening the quarterfinals at either 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. next Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
"We were fortunate to beat a quality ball club like Fairmont today. That's the way a sectional championship game should be played - right down to the wire," said Luverne head coach Mike Wenninger. "With players like the Becker brothers (Levi and Luke), you don't breathe easy until the final out."
Trailing 3-0, Levi Becker proved Wenninger's postgame analogy by breathing new life into the visiting Cardinals' offensive attack by delivering a pivotal two-run double into the left-field corner with two outs in the top of the fifth inning.
Bryce Holm and Luke Becker, who had each drawn a walk, circled the bases when Fairmont's No. 3 slugger nearly smacked the offering over the fence.
Ironically, Luverne utilized an efficient combination of long ball and small ball to plate two runs in the home half of the first before manufacturing the eventual game-winning run on solid fundamentals during the third.
"We worked for 45 minutes on our bunts during Monday's practice," said Wenninger. "Coach (Jim) Senske told me when I played for him in high school in New Ulm that if you didn't get your bunt down, a lot of things can go wrong."
Ahead 2-0, Josh Slieter and Gunnar Olson worked out back-to-back walks with one out in the last of the third before No. 6 batter Jonny Solma laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. The maneuver paid instant dividends as Slieter scampered home with the eventual decisive run on a wild pitch.
Kendall Meyer also displayed his bunting skills during Luverne's initial at-bat. After Brett Heronimus and Skylar Wenninger lined consecutive singles, Meyer moved his teammates 90 feet each before Slieter lofted a sacrifice fly for an early 1-0 lead. Olson then drilled an RBI double into the right-field corner for a 2-0 edge.
Skattum held Fairmont's batting order in check for 4 2/3 innings, including an incredible string of six consecutive strikeouts spanning the first through third innings, to earn the victory. Skattum allowed two earned runs on two hits, fanned seven, walked four and hit two batters.
Olson notched the save by walking one, striking out one and hitting one batter over 2 1/3 scoreless and hitless innings.
Holm started on the mound for Fairmont, allowing three runs - two earned - on only five hits in six innings of work to absorb the loss. The senior right-hander struck out three and walked three.
Ryan Noll produced Fairmont's only other hit in the playoff clash - a two-out single - during the top of the fourth.
FMT 000 020 0 - 2 2 1
LUV 201 000 x - 3 5 1
Bryce Holm (LP) and Ryan Noll. Reed Skattum (WP), Gunnar Olson (5, Sv) and Logan Norman.
LOB-Fairmont 8, Luverne 6. 2B-Levi Becker (F), Olson (L). SF-Josh Slieter (L). SAC-Kendall Meyer (L), Jonny Solma (L), Matt Overgaard (L).