FAIRMONT - Fairmont and Blue Earth locked up in a pitchers' duel on May 30, with the hometown Pirates capturing a 3-1 regular-season victory over the Martins in Blue Earth.
Ironically, the two amateur baseball powerhouses, which are located only 20 miles apart, could possibly clash again - in the Class 'C' state championship game on Labor Day in Jordan.
While the Minnesota Baseball Association's oddsmakers probably deem the rivals' rematch as a long shot, both area teams' vast state experience and collegiate-filled rosters could make the noon showdown at the Mini Met on Sept. 1 a reality.
DIAMOND KINGS — Members of the Fairmont Martins amateur baseball team opening the Minnesota Class ‘C’ state tournament against Hampton at 1:30 p.m. today at the Mini Met in Jordan include, front row (l-r): Dustin Pronk, Levi Becker, Andy Reiter, Ian Bents, Luke Becker, Logan Peymann and Scott Chirpich. Back row: Tanner Nawrocki, Sawyer Doocy, Taylor Nawrocki, Adam Schmidt, Shaun McGuire and Jay Ruen. Not pictured: Dustin Sobolik, Jon Ellis, Jon Wilson, Max Waletich, Taylor Morris and Jordan Voss. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
DIAMOND KINGS — Members of the Blue Earth Pirates earning a first-round bye in the Class ‘C’ state amateur baseball tournament include, front row (l-r): Carter Hanson, Trent Sonnicksen, John Franta, T.J. Stallman, Dallas Barslou, Jay Frederickson and Seth Anderson. Back row: Kane Malo, Bobby Olson, Cody Sukalski, Brandyn Olsen, Aaron Wendt, Lee Hodges, T.J. Schmidtke, Zac Dahl and coach Randy Olson. Not pictured: David Franta, Brady Anderson, Andrew Bell and Christian Haugh. (Photo courtesy for the Blue Earth Pirates)
"We came close to winning it (the state title) two years ago," Fairmont player/coach Adam Schmidt said in reference to the Martins' 4-3 loss to Maple Lake in the 2012 Class 'C' state finale. "Our lineup is pretty much the same as it was back then, but I think our pitching is stronger.
"When you take a look at how the bracket is set up over the span of three weekends, I believe our pitching depth gives us a good chance to win the whole thing this time."
Right-hander Taylor Nawrocki will start on the mound for the Martins in their state opener against the Hampton Cardinals at 1:30 p.m. today at the Mini Met in Jordan.
Nawrocki, who earned second-team all-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference honors with Minnesota State University- Mankato in the spring, proved nearly unhittable during Region 13 postseason action.
The hard-throwing ace, who compiled a 7-0 pitching mark for the Mavericks in the spring, posted a 4-0 record during the regional amateur playoffs. Nawrocki averaged 15 strikeouts per outing, hurled three shutouts and allowed a miniscule two earned runs in 33 innings of work for an 0.55 ERA.
"Having a healthy Taylor back on our pitching staff definitely helps our chances this year," Schmidt said in reference to Nawrocki's successful recovery from Tommy John surgery. "Sawyer Doocy has been a great addition to our staff, while Shaun McGuire has won five games for us over the last two state tournaments."
Doocy, who pitched for North Iowa Area Community College in the spring, combined to notch 21 strikeouts and allowed only eight hits in 17 scoreless innings of work during the Region 13 playoffs. The right-hander pitched both of Fairmont's series-clinching wins against Wilmont and Hadley.
"For some reason, we really didn't hit the ball during this regular season as well as in the past, but our guys have picked it up during the playoffs," said Schmidt, a former Augustana College player who's connected for three home runs in the regionals.
Shortstop Scott Chirpich, a former Waldorf College player, likely will fill his familiar leadoff role in the Martins' batting order, followed by a pair of hard-hitting NIACC players in second baseman Luke Becker and outfielder Levi Becker. The Becker brothers - a pair of all-state prep players -represented the Fairmont Cardinals in the last two Minnesota High School all-star series.
Max Waletich, a first-team all-NSIC and second-team all-regional selection at MSU-Mankato this spring, will return to the Martins' lineup after hitting .345 in nine games for the Willmar Stingers in the Northwoods League this summer.
"Max adds some power to our lineup after driving in 40 runs with a .355 batting average for MSU this spring," said Schmidt.
McGuire, a former Waldorf College standout, will join Schmidt and Doocy in the middle of the batting order, followed by catcher Dustin Sobolik, and an outfield rotation of Jon Ellis, Tanner Nawrocki, Ian Bents Logan Peymann and Taylor Morris. Jay Ruen, a recent three-sport standout and FHS graduate, will see time at third base, Andy Reiter will serve as the backup catcher, while seasoned veteran and longball threat Jon Wilson will likely serve as a pinch hitter.
Dustin Pronk and Bryce Christopher, a pair of draftees from Lakefield, along with Wilmont draftee Blake Rogers, will add depth to the Martins' pitching staff.
While Fairmont (24-10), the third-place team in Region 13, will have to win five games to reach the state championship game during its fourth consecutive state appearance, Region 4 champion Blue Earth (19-2) will need only four victories to earn a spot in the Labor Day showcase game in Jordan.
Blue Earth, who earned a first-round state bye via its 12th straight state appearance, will face the winner between the Spring Hill Chargers (21-4) and the Fort Ripley Rebels (14-10) in second-round action at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, at Tiger Park in Belle Plaine.
While the Pirates' pitching staff features three aces in their own rights - former MSU-Mankato standout Lee Hodges, former Muscatine Community College ace Aaron Wendt and current Southwest Minnesota State hurler Brandyn Olsen - hitting has been the key to the team's success, according to Hodges.
"We've got guys who've played college baseball throughout our entire lineup, and they can all hit," said Hodges, who also sports a 7-1 record, a 1.66 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings on the hill. "We've got 10 players hitting above .300, and so far, it's been a different guy stepping up for us each game to deliver a clutch hit or drive in a run.
"It's truly a total team effort every game out."
Hodges, who's batting .416 entering state action, provided the hitting heroics - the pivotal go-ahead three-run double in the eighth inning - to engineer the Pirates' 5-3 comeback triumph over Hampton in the Region 4 championship clash.
Shortstop T.J. Schmidtke, a former University of South Dakota standout who's hitting .398, and former Gustavus Adolphus College star Cody Sukalski supplied the key offensive firepower during Blue Earth's 6-1 semifinal victory over Hampton. Schmidtke went 3-for-5 with a triple, while Sukalski went 2-for-4 with a three-run homer and an RBI single.
While the Pirates pounded out 13 hits in their first game against Hampton, left-hander Aaron Wendt hurled a five-hit complete-game gem. Wendt enters the state tourney with a 6-0 record, a 1.70 ERA and a team-best 64 strikeouts in 53 innings pitched.
Olsen, a hard-throwing right-hander, rounds out Blue Earth's top three pitchers with a 4-0 mark and 2.38 ERA in 34 innings of work.
Sukalski is hitting at a .449 clip to top a Pirates' batting order that averages 9.5 runs and 12.9 hits per outing.
Olsen, who has matched Sukalski with 17 RBIs each, hits at a .444 pace, followed by John Franta (.433) and Hodges, who has collected 22 RBIs on the strength of a team-best nine doubles.
Schmidtke and Wendt, who's hitting .393, each top the team with 33 hits, with Schmidtke scoring 23 runs and driving in 18. Wendt has pounded a team-high seven homers to produce the No. 1 team total of 40 RBIs to complement a team-best 27 runs scored.
Former Grand View College standout Kane Malo and former Waldorf College star T.J. Stallman follow with batting averages of .344 and .324, respectively. Catcher Bobby Olson, a former Upper Iowa standout, rounds out the regular starters with a .273 clip.
David Franta, a recent three-sport standout and Blue Earth Area graduate, and former Bethany College star Trent Sonnicksen come off the bench with respective batting averages of .429 and .320 in limited action.
So, with all of the skilled players on both the Blue Earth and Fairmont rosters, will the two teams eventually square off for the state championship?
"We're not looking past anyone and taking it one game at a time," said Hodges. "Every team has a lot of talent at the state tournament, so you don't ever look too far ahead."