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Spaeth, speed let UMD swipe victories, head for playoffs

Scott Hanna is something of a baseball purist. As UMD's baseball coach, he would just as soon overpower opponents with strong pitching, and have a big, strong batting order that can put games away with flurries of long balls.

Scott Hanna is something of a baseball purist. As UMD's baseball coach, he would just as soon overpower opponents with strong pitching, and have a big, strong batting order that can put games away with flurries of long balls.
The Bulldogs did that last year, when they cruised to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title. But Scott Hanna also is a realist.
He knew that almost all of his big, heavy-hitting stars had graduated. "We lost eight starters," Hanna said. "I knew that Brett Spaeth, David Tafelski and Marty Spanish would have to be big contributors for us to do anything."
Hanna also knew that he would have to rebuild the pitching staff to replace Chris Swiatkiewicz. And he realized that the giants he would have to replace were giants in stature, as well as in production, and a lot of 5-foot-8, 160-pounders would be replacing some 6-foot-plus, 200-pounders.
"A lot of our bigger uniforms are still in the bin," Hanna said.
But the veteran coach adjusted well for this, his 22nd year at the helm.
"We've got a lot of little guys who are skinny but quick," he said. "So we reconfigured our style of play this year to take advantage of our speed. We've stolen home twice this year -- Spanish and Spaeth did it -- and we have never done anything like that before. But we're doing it out of necessity this year."
Necessity has carried the Bulldogs into fourth place in the Northern Sun. "We've got our destiny in our own hands now," said Hanna. "All we've got to do is at least split our last two games with Minnesota-Crookston on Saturday, and we're in the playoffs."
As for executing that necessity, consider Spaeth, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound sophomore from DePere, Wis. He has broken the UMD record for stolen bases with 18 (out of 22 tries), and he leads the Bulldogs with 48 hits and a .457 batting average. Last year, Spaeth made all-conference as a freshman. Right now, teams can't get him out, and when he gets on, he zips around the bases more often than not, scoring 23 runs.
"Spaeth is a catcher," said Hanna, in amazement himself. "But I put him in the outfield because he's got so much speed. We did it last year, and we had some problems with him adjusting to the outfield. But he's our right fielder, he's our fastest guy, and he's a definite prospect for all-conference, all-region or some post-season awards."
This season's biggest games still exist; they're just on a different scale. Last year, the biggest games clinched the championship. This year, the Bulldogs needed two big victories last Friday against Bemidji State, just to have a shot at being among the top four teams for the NSIC playoffs.
Bemidji State was 6-6 and in fourth place coming in, and UMD was 5-7 in Northern Sun play. A sweep would put the Bulldogs in good shape, but it was also mandatory, because a split would have made it virtually impossible for UMD to catch up, with only two games remaining.
In the first game, UMD blew the lead, trailed 3-2, but came back in the last of the sixth when Spaeth's second hit tied the game, and he stole second, then scored the winner on a single by Cloquet's Steve Battaglia. "That was big," allowed Hanna. "But we only had to come back from one run down. The second game was really something."
With the first game tying UMD with Bemidji at 7-8 records for the pivotal fourth position, everything was riding on the second game. Sophomore Jamie Swenson pitched brilliantly, blanking the Beavers on one hit through six innings. Spaeth stole home for the only run of the first six innings, and Swenson appeared poised to make it stand up.
But it was Nick Olmstead, a strong right-hander, who walked to the mound to pitch the top of the seventh for UMD. Hanna laughed about being open to be second-guessed, and even second-guessing himself. "I like to dance with the one who brought me to the prom, but I got overruled," he joked. "Actually, my other coaches talked to Swenson, and he said he was tired."
Tired? It might have been the early stages of hypothermia, judging by the see-your-breath chill that was blowing up the hill from Lake Superior and sweeping across Bulldog Park. Whatever, Bemidji State smacked a couple of hits, coaxed an error, and wound up scoring five runs in the top of the seventh against what appeared to be a UMD collapse. The scoreboard read 5-1.
"Realistically, did I think we were going to win the game?" said Hanna. "No. All I stressed was that we couldn't win the game on any big play, we had to just peck away and see what we could come up with. Just don't make any mistakes on the bases."
Typical optimist. Until that point, there hadn't been any reason to assume there would even be baserunners.
But singles by Luke Hanegraff and Mike Scholl, two of the few 6-footers in the lineup, and a walk to the 5-7, 155-pound Corey Koidahl, loaded the bases with one out. Spanish, a 5-9 sophomore from Savage, who is the son of former UMD football star Frank Spanish from Hibbing, slammed a hard blast down the third base line. The ball took a wicked hop, ricocheting up to glance off the shoulder of Bemidji's third baseman and landing in foul territory, as two UMD runs scored to cut it to 5-3.
The Beavers got the second out. But with runners on second and third, Speath hit a ground ball to shortstop, and simply beat the throw to first. One run scored, and neither Hanna nor Spanish ever hesitated. Hanna, pretty sure he wouldn't get overruled out there, waved his arm, and Spanish, proving sometimes a gamble is no gamble at all, beat the throw home for a 5-5 tie.
Spaeth stole second, and catcher Rob Rothe, who had driven in two runs in the first game, was walked. That brought up Battaglia, who singled. Spaeth sped around third and scored. His Bulldog teammates poured off the third-base dugout bench to congratulate him, but Spaeth kept on running, past the plate, and curled to his left, toward the Bemidji dugout, before his teammates caught up.
"Maybe he was going too fast to stop," said Hanna. "It was a great win, and our speed caused it. Spanish scored the tying run from second on a grounder to short, and Spaeth's speed made the shortstop hurry his play, and Spanish's speed coming around third made the first baseman hurry, too."
On Saturday, UMD won a pair of nonconference games from Carleton, 9-3 and 10-1. Spaeth homered and stole three bases to set the school record in the first game, as Olmstead was the winning pitcher. Catcher Corey Wenzel hit two homers and Battaglia one in the second. That gave the Bulldogs six straight victories and 10 triumphs in 11 games, and they finally crested the climb to .500 (18-17), going into Monday night's nonconference game against Wisconsin-Superior.
Not bad momentum for a team speeding -- literally -- through the home-stretch of a surprisingly successful season.

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