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Grand Rapids tops Denfeld in 7-6 classic

PRINCETON -- Grand Rapids survived a mighty scare from Duluth Denfeld in a Section 7AAA baseball elimination game Tuesday afternoon, to earn the bonus of getting the chance to play again. Some bonus.

PRINCETON -- Grand Rapids survived a mighty scare from Duluth Denfeld in a Section 7AAA baseball elimination game Tuesday afternoon, to earn the bonus of getting the chance to play again. Some bonus.
Awaiting the Thunderhawks was unbeaten and powerful Forest Lake, and the Rangers ended Grand Rapids' season with an 8-1 whipping in the night game to earn the 7AAA berth in next week's state baseball tournament.
The Thunderhawks advanced to the night game by the narrowest of margins, blowing a 6-1 lead against Denfeld (10-12) before escaping the Hunters 7-6 in eight innings in the afternoon elimination game between two once-beaten teams. Both teams threw everything into the game, which started in a nasty drizzle and ended with some wild twists.
Denfeld lost 10-0 to Forest Lake in Monday's opener, while Grand Rapids beat North Branch 3-0. Rapids then lost 12-9 to Forest Lake, while Denfeld rose up to eliminate North Branch 12-0 to stay alive Monday night. The plucky Hunters, who rose back to within reach of .500 at 10-11 with the North Branch victory, sent crafty left-hander Ben Jukich back to the mound against Grand Rapids.
Jukich, who threw the first three innings of the five-inning no-hitter Monday night, suffered Tuesday by being unable to grip the wet ball in the persistent rain, spraying several wild pitches in the first inning instead of having his usual pinpoint control. When he did throw it over, the Thunderhawks hammered it, scoring four times in the last of the first.
Kevin Ott, the hottest hitter in the tournament, slashed an opposite-field double off the right-field fence to drive in the first run, then Brent Magnuson lined a shot that deflected off Jukich's glove and couldn't be played, scoring another. Brian Wickstrom was safe on an error, and a third run scored when Matt Erzar grounded out. Tom Mager's double down the right-field line made it 4-0.
Denfeld cut it to 4-1 when Jim Rodberg singled home Carlin Page in the top of the second, but Rapids expanded the lead to 6-1 in the last of the second when Ott singled home a run and later scored on another wild pitch. At that point it looked like a blowout, but the rain diminished and Jukich found control with his off-speed breaking pitches, stifling the Thunderhawk bats, while the Hunters started scratching their way back into the game.
Grand Rapids coach Bill Kinnunen started Ben Moore pitching, and brought in an array of relievers to try to stop the Hunters, who pecked away by following the run in the second with two in the third, and one each in the fourth, fifth and sixth to gain the 6-6 deadlock. In the second inning, Jason Stangel was the first reliever, and in the third, Adam Sutherland came in with the bases full in the third and walked in two runs, giving way to Brian Wickstrom, the junior Kinnunen had been hoping to save for the second game.
The game had numerous twists. It was 6-3 when Carlin Page squeezed Tom Kowalik home in the fourth to make it 6-4. Paul Conito singled home the run in the fifth to make it 6-5, and things got really wild in the sixth. Bryan Reese led with a double to left-center for Denfeld, moving to third on Eric Gerchman's hard single. Jukich fouled off a suicide squeeze attempt, but Reese scored the tying run on a wild pitch, with Gerchman going all the way to third.
Wickstrom picked Gerchman off third, and he was caught in a rundown, crashing heavily into catcher Andy Paul, who somehow held the ball as he was sent sprawling. Gerchman was ejected for throwing an elbow in the collision.
The Thunderhawks sent their slick double play combination to work for a 4-6-3, Nikkel-to-Dereck Salisbury-to-Ott double play in the top of the seventh, but Jukich still subdued Grand Rapids, and it got dicier in the top of the eighth. After Wickstrom struck out two hitters, Joel Hatland, who had replaced Gerchman at first, drew a walk. Page then blasted a double to the wall in left-center. Hatland raced around third and went for the lead run, but Rapids center-fielder Brent Magnuson got to the ball and fired to shortstop Salisbury, who rifled a perfect throw to Paul to nail Hatland at the plate.
In the last of the eighth, Matt Erzar walked, and Kinnunen sent in Matt Hurst to run, and he took second on a wild pitch. Jukich came back to throw strike three past Andy Paul, but the ball was in the dirt, and Kowalik blocked it to keep it in front of him. Kowalik jumped out in front of the plate to retrieve the ball. His throw tailed to the right, and Hatland, new to first base, had the ball go off the tip of his glove. Hurst came around third and scored the winning run, bringing a weird ending to a highly entertaining game.
"I've got to hand it to Denfeld, they came all the way back from 6-1, and we haven't scored since the second inning," said Kinnunen. "We had to make some plays. On their hit in the eighth, Brent picked it up cleanly, and got it to Dereck, who's got a great arm."
It seemed to be as much a relief as a celebration to the Thunderhawks, but maybe because they knew what was waiting ahead for them. Rapids (17-9) would have had to beat Forest Lake (16-6) twice to claim the title, but the Rangers jumped on Rapids sophomore Bryan Nikkel for five runs in the first two innings, and put the game on cruise control in the hands of ace pitcher Jason Foster.
Nikkel kept his composure and pitched well after the rocky start, when he walked the bases full in the last of the first, gave up a run on an infield hit, then was victimized when Derek Jackso smacked one off the third base bag that went for a double and made it 3-0. Chris Young tripled home a run in the second, and scored on a wild pitch to make it 5-0, and the Rangers brought home another on an error in the third.
Foster had a two-hit shutout until the sixth, when Kevin Ott singled and Brent Magnuson singled him to third. Ott scored on a double steal, but by then the Rangers already had their eight runs on the board, and outhit the Thunderhawks 9-4 for the game.
"We knew we'd have to face the big guy (Foster), but that second guy (Alex Johnson) threw BBs, too," said Kinnunen.
But Ott, a senior first baseman, was the hitting star of the tournament. Not only did he get two hits against Forest Lake, he wound up 9-for-14 for the four games. He was 2-4 against North Branch with a home run, 3-4 against Forest Lake in Monday's second game, 2-4 against Denfeld Tuesday, and 2-3 in the finale.

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