Bill Kinnunen doesn't come across as much of a sugar-coater, and the Grand Rapids baseball coach stayed true to form Thursday at Wade Stadium.
It was there that his Thunderhawks and Chisago Lakes combined to walk or bean 36 batters, commit seven errors and cycle through an astounding 15 pitchers - though the Wildcats' Henry Trost appeared three times alone - over two Section 7AAA title games.
What felt, at times, like a battle of attrition ended with the Thunderhawks surviving an opening 5-4 loss to win the decisive second game 11-5 and secure a spot in next week's Class AAA state tournament.
"I've never seen anything like it," a perplexed but happy Kinnunen said. "I don't know if we can call that baseball. It was a walk-fest, lots of errors. But we came out on top, and that's all I care about."
In reality, nothing has come easy this spring for Grand Rapids (10-15). In their first season since dropping down from Class AAAA, the Thunderhawks started 0-6, went to 1-9 and were 3-13 before steadying the ship. They were seeded sixth out of eight section squads and had one of their best players - a .475 hitter - quit the team last week to begin his summer job.
Making matters worse, talented senior Mike Heitkamp was away trying out for the USHL's Omaha Lancers and their ace, Ryan Barrett, was ejected from Monday's 6-4 win over Chisago Lakes and thus had to watch Thursday's opener.
Barrett, a senior, was ready to go for the finale.
"It was really disappointing to not be able to do anything besides cheer my teammates on," said Barrett, who was tossed Monday for arguing balls and strikes while batting. "I felt like I definitely owed it to my teammates."
Barrett wasn't untouchable, but he got the job done, which was made easier thanks to Grand Rapids' merry-go-round second inning. The Thunderhawks scored seven runs in the second, on five hits, four walks and a hit batsman. The next frame, they tacked on three more, with Evan Mischke's two-run single to right field making it 10-1.
Barrett grinded through 4 1/3 innings, allowing five runs and five hits. By the time he departed, the top-seeded Wildcats (15-9), who defeated Cloquet in Wednesday's loser's-bracket final, were on their sixth pitcher. For a club that played four games in four days, arms had run thin.
In the first game, when 11 of the first 19 batters reached via walk or hit by pitch, the Wildcats scored five runs on four hits - three of them coming in a three-run third - while the Thunderhawks had eight. Grand Rapids nearly forced extras by scoring once in the seventh, and had the equalizer 90 feet away with two outs, but Chisago Lakes third baseman Mitchell Barrett made a nice play on a slow grounder and clipped Gideon Beck on a bang-bang play at first for the third out.
Kinnunen didn't harp on his players during the 30-minute break. Grand Rapids stayed loose and refueled.
"By the start of the second game, we had flushed it down," senior second baseman Mischke said.
Kinnunen believes a strong schedule, still rife with Class AAAA opponents, readied the Thunderhawks for the playoffs, unseemly as their record might be. While the results weren't there in the regular season, they stuck with it and overcame some adversity to advance to state for the first time since 2012.
Chisago Lakes 5, Grand Rapids 4
At Wade Stadium. WP: Ryan Sandvik 4.2IP, 1R, 6H, 2K, 0BB. LP: Alex McBride 2IP, 4R, 4H, 2K, 5BB, 1HBP. CL: Mitchell Barrett 1x2, 2RBIs. GR: Grant Anderson 2x3, R; Brooks Bachmann 1x2, RBI; Wyatt Zuehlke 1x2, RBI, R; McBride 2x3 (2B), RBI; Luke Kinnunen 2x4.
Grand Rapids 11, Chisago Lakes 5
At Wade Stadium. WP: Ryan Barrett 4.1IP, 5R, 5H, 1K, 4BB, 2HBP. GR: Kodi Miller 2x4, RBI, 2R; Alex McBride 1x2, 2RBIs, 2R; Evan Mischke 2x2 (2B), 3RBIs, R; Gideon Beck 2x4, R. CL: Joey Ferris 2x2 (2B), R; David Kimlinger 1x4, 2RBIs.