FAIRMONT - The Fairmont Martins amateur baseball team had its best finish in the last decade during the 2012 Minnesota Class 'C' State Tournament, claiming second-place honors with a 4-3 loss to the Maple Lake Lakers at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
On Saturday, both the Martins and the Blue Earth Pirates will make their seemingly annual treks to the state tourney. Fairmont will play the New Ulm Brewers in a 1 p.m. opener in Delano, while Blue Earth will square off against Winsted at 4 p.m. in Maple Lake in first-round state play.
Both the Martins and Pirates have solid returning squads from last year, with plenty of state tournament experience to give them confidence for the upcoming games.
STATE QUALIFIERS — Members of the Fairmont Martins facing the New Ulm Brewers during Saturday’s 1 p.m. first-round game in the Minnesota Class ‘C’ state amateur baseball tournament in Delano include, front row (l-r): Ian Bents, Levi Becker, Spencer Chirpich, Tanner Nawrocki, Logan Peymann, Luke Becker and Scott Chirpich. Back row: Jay Ruen, Andy Reiter, Adam Schmidt, Max Waletich, Shaun McGuire and Jon Ellis. (Photo by Leanna Becker).
"We have a little different lineup than last year. We lost Aaron Siefken, who was a great hitter and pitcher for us," said Fairmont player-coach Adam Schmidt. "Other than him, a lot of our top players are the same and we have some younger guys who have played well for us."
The Martins (23-6) will have a different perspective on Saturday after last year's success, and oddly, having lost two straight games to end this year's regionals.
"I think last year coming into the tournament not many teams had heard of us until we finished in second place," said Schmidt. "This year, I think teams might expect us to do well, and we might actually have a bit of a target on our backs."
Meanwhile, the Pirates (19-9) will rely on their strong pitching and consistent defense to advance through the opening round of the tournament.
"We have a lot of the same players on our team that we did last year. We lost a couple guys but we have the same nucleus of solid players," said Blue Earth manager Todd Schmidtke.
Left-hander Aaron Wendt will be a top pitcher for the 12-time state-qualifying Pirates.
Wendt pitched 71 1/3 innings, generating an 8-1 record in 13 appearances. He has allowed 17 runs - 16 earned - on 57 hits, striking out 75 and walking 16 to amass a 2.02 ERA.
Right-hander Lee Hodges will provide another lethal arm for the Blue Earth rotation. With a 3-2 record in 10 appearances, Hodges has struck out 47 batters in 53 2/3 innings, walked eight and allowed just 21 runs - 17 earned - with a 2.85 ERA.
"When it gets to the state tournament, all the teams are good. You've got to rely on your pitching and defense to win a lot of close games," said Schmidtke. "I also think you have to get a little lucky in a tournament like this with single elimination. One bad day from a pitcher, or if someone gets hot, that can make the difference."
Hodges also has been a leader at the plate for Blue Earth, pounding out a .392 batting average, while T.J. Schmidtke adds a .299 clip from the No. 2 spot.
For the Martins, Shaun McGuire will try to continue his dominance on the mound, with Brandon Alfson - a draftee from Pipestone - providing a second throwing threat.
"Last year, I think we relied a lot on our pitching," said Schmidt. "This year, I think we still have good pitching, but we are able to score more runs this season. We don't just have to have good pitching to shut down the other team."
A balanced offensive attack should help the Martins reach the championship for the second straight year.
"This year, it has been a good year. Usually we have our top players, those top hitters that we can count on. But this year it has been different with guys stepping up in different situations," said Schmidt. "We are a blanced team and probably the most consistent we've been in a while. So it'll be interesting to see how we match up."
The Martins had lost just three games in the regular season - one to Luverne, before the Redbirds swept Fairmont in the first two games of a best-of-3 series in the Region 13 finals.
The Pirates beat Minnesota Lake and Waterville in the first rounds of the Region 4 bracket, before losing to Lake Crystal, 6-5 in 12 innings, last Saturday.
With the losses to the Redbirds, Fairmont claimed the No. 2 seed from Region 13 and will face the No. 2 seed from Region 2 - the New Ulm Brewers - at 1 p.m. Saturday in Delano.
"We've played New Ulm before in previous years, but they aren't in our league. We didn't play them in amateur ball this year, but in high school ball, kids have played against them a lot," said Schmidt. "We know that they'll be good and it'll be a challenge. But once you get to the state tournament, all the teams you face are good."
Blue Earth claimed the No. 3 seeded from Region 4, and will face the No. 2 seed from Region 7 - Winsted - at 4 p.m. Saturday in Maple Lake.