Beetles baseball: Time away brings Alexandria back together
The idea of playing games with playoff implications in August seemed like a long shot for the Alexandria Beetles through much of this summer.
A team ERA that sat around 6.50 and a 13-22 first-half record didn't leave a lot of reason for optimism. Thirty-eight runs allowed through a four-game losing streak only added to the frustration heading into the all-star break last week.
That's why a three-day reprieve couldn't have come at a better time for this team. The Beetles used the all-star break to take a deep breath and get away from the game. They came back looking like a different group on their way to four straight wins that left them just one game back of division-leading Willmar after a 9-6 win over Waterloo on Sunday.
"It was a divided house," head coach Drew Saberhagen said. "It was. The pitchers were really behind the hitters, but the hitters were getting frustrated with the pitchers. Having an ERA of 6.80 or whatever it was at one point, it's a little demoralizing. I think the pitchers did a good job of staying away from baseball for those three days, forgetting about it and understanding that we're only 3.5 games out and anything can change, especially with our offense."
Steve Weber set the tone in a 6-3 win over Mankato in the first game back by allowing just one earned run through seven strong innings. Ali Simpson followed that up the next night with 10 strikeouts in six innings before Scott Sanderson gave Alexandria its third solid start out of four games since the all-star break on Sunday.
"At times, it's been real frustrating," Sanderson said. "But we're just staying together. We know no one here's going anywhere. We got to deal with the guys we have...I think it's all starting to come together, and I think we are on the verge of something special."
Sanderson said the pitching staff knows it just needs to give the Beetles' offense a chance by keeping them in games. Alexandria was hitting .302 as a team this summer after Sunday's win. They scored 19 runs in the two-game sweep of Waterloo, highlighted by a walk-off home run off the bat of Robert Case in Saturday's 10-9 win.
"It's amazing to watch," Sanderson said. "We feel like one through nine, anybody can get something going. The inning starts off with seven, eight nine, we feel like they can start it off just as well as the top of the order...it's just amazing what they're doing and I guess the pitching staff is going to ride them as long as we can."
Sanderson threw 5 2/3 innings against Waterloo. He scattered eight hits and three walks but allowed just three runs before being relieved by Nick Maiers in the sixth. Anthony Bazzani came on in a three-run game in the ninth and retired the side in order to pick up the save.
Bazzani has picked up right where he left off last summer in his second season in a Beetles' uniform. The scoreless inning on Sunday lowered his ERA to 1.96. He has 36 strikeouts in just 23 innings pitched after fanning 75 in 53 2/3 innings in 2011.
"I feel like my velocity on my fastball has, if not stayed the same, increased a little bit," Bazzani said. "I've worked on my slider and fine-tuned a few things on my split finger here and there. I like where things have gone so far this season. I'm pleased with how we've been doing, and I'm excited to see what the next couple weeks has in store for us."
How these next two weeks end is really all that matters to Bazzani. He admitted he was motivated to come back here and try to finish the job after putting together such a memorable second half last season only to watch it fall short in the playoffs.
"Anything other than walking out of here with a championship is just kind of not what I'm looking for," he said. "It's definitely in the back of my mind that I don't want [that disappointment] to happen again."
That attitude is why Saberhagen chose to bring so many returning players back this summer. It's also something he feels might help his team in important games coming down the stretch.
The North Division was separated by just four games from top to bottom heading into Monday. Duluth, Alexandria, St. Cloud, Mankato and Thunder Bay were all within 2.5 games of first place.
Alexandria will have the opportunity to play out most of the final two weeks at home. The Beetles will be on the road just four more times through the last 11 games of the regular season.
Alexandria hopes that can be a difference maker as it tries to reach the playoffs for the second straight season. A week ago, that seemed like a long shot. Four wins later, those prospects and the feeling around this team have changed dramatically.
"I didn't think we were necessarily out of it, but I didn't like our chances to go on," Saberhagen said. "Just because of the way that we were playing - not as a team and kind of two separate groups. The way they've come back and really turned it on, it's been fun to watch, and we'll see what happens down the stretch."
WATERLOO 020 100 030 - 6 11 1
ALEXANDRIA 100 053 00X - 9 15 3
ALEXANDRIA PITCHING - Sanderson - W, 5 2/3IP, 8H, 3R, 3ER, 3BB, 2SO; Maiers - 2 1/3IP, 3H, 3R, 2ER, 1BB, 3SO; Bazzani - S, 1IP, 0H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 0SO
ALEXANDRIA OFFENSE - Matt Lowenstein - 3-5, 2 runs, RBI; Tanner Vavra - 1-3, BB, 2 runs; Ben Moore - 2-5, 2B, 1 run, 2 RBI; Jimmy Pickens - 2-4, BB, 1 run, 2 RBI; Case - 2-4, 2 RBI; Ryan Padilla - 3-4, RBI; Dylan Raper - 1-4; Josh Carpenter - 0-2, BB, 2 runs; Josh Guerra - 1-4, 1 run
WATERLOO 011 060 100 - 9 15 0
ALEXANDRIA 201 311 011 - 10 17 3
ALEXANDRIA PITCHING - Jon Reed - 4 1/3IP, 12H, 8R, 7ER, 2BB, 5SO; Mitchel Babb - 3 2/3IP, 2H, 1R, 0ER, 2BB, 6SO; Bazzani - W, 1IP, 1H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 1SO
ALEXANDRIA OFFENSE - Lowenstein - 0-1, 4 BB, 2 runs; Vavra - 3-3, 2B, 1 run; Moore - 3-5, HR, 2B, 1 run, 4 RBI; Pickens - 2-5, 1 run, RBI; Stephen McGee - 1-1; Raper - 1-4, 2B, RBI; Padilla - 1-4, BB, 1 run; Case - 3-5, 2 HR, 2 runs, 3 RBI; Guerra - 1-4, 2B, 1 run; Carpenter - 2-4, 1 run, RBI
ALEXANDRIA 002 022 003 - 9 13 0
MANKATO 000 001 000 - 1 8 0
ALEXANDRIA PITCHING - Simpson - W, 6IP, 6H, 1R, 1ER, 0BB, 10SO; Corey Fitzgerald - 2IP, 2H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 3SO; Maiers - 1IP, 0H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 1SO
ALEXANDRIA OFFENSE - Lowenstein - 2-4, BB, 1 run, 2 RBI; Will Fulmer - 1-4, BB; Moore - 1-5, 2B, 2 runs, RBI; Pickens - 1-5, 1 run, RBI; Matt Beaty - 2-4, 2B, RBI; Vavra - RBI; McGee - 0-2, 3 BB, 1 run; Case - 3-5, HR, 2B, 2 runs, 2 RBI; Carpenter - 2-5, 1 run; Raper - 1-4, 1 run; Michael Reed - 0-1
ALEXANDRIA 020 000 301 6-10-4
MANKATO 000 000 210 3-3-1
ALEXANDRIA PITCHING (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Steve Weber (W) 7-3-2-1-3-6; Alex Guilford 1-0-1-0-0-0; Anthony Bazzani (S) 1-0-0-0-0-3.
ALEXANDRIA HITTING - Tanner Vavra 2-4, 1 run; Will Fulmer 2 bb; Ben Moore 2-5, 1 run, 2 rbi; Matt Beaty 1-3, 1 run, 2 bb; Stephen McGee 2-2, 1 run, 1 rbi, 3 bb; Ryan Padilla 1-5, 1 rbi; Robert Case 1-4, 1 bb; Dylan Raper 1-4, 1 run, 1 rbi, 1 bb.
Eric Morken Eric Morken started as a sports reporter for the Echo Press on July 9, 2007. He is a graduate of Augustana College in Sioux Falls where he majored in journalism and minored in history and communications. In his spare time, Morken enjoys hunting and fishing or just being in the outdoors. He is also an avid Minnesota sports fan. Follow Sports Reporter Eric Morken on Twitter at @echo_sports. Read Eric's sports blog, More with Morken at Areavoices.