Card baseball: Backhaus' gem keys Alexandria
Alexandria played to a popular blueprint in baseball on Tuesday night - pitch well, play defense and execute on offense and you'll win a lot of games.
That was exactly the case for a Cardinals team that has struggled at times this season to put all three facets together. Alexandria committed just one error, got 6 2/3 innings from its starting pitcher and used some good base running to secure a 4-2 win over Sartell in a game played under the lights at Knute Nelson Field.
Beau Backhaus was the engine behind a solid all-around performance for the Cardinals. The junior righthander had Sartell batters lunging at his curveball early in the game. He mixed in a fastball and changeup to keep the Sabres off balance all night.
"He's got a curveball that's pretty good," head coach Russ Hinrichs said. "He can spot it wherever he wants to and then his fastball is fast enough where he keeps people off balance. [Assistant coach] Kevin [Engebretson] has worked with him on a changeup, and Beau has worked on his own with that and he's really developed that...to have three pitches at this level makes him really good."
The Sabres couldn't touch him at times on Tuesday night. Backhaus gave up a leadoff single to start the game before retiring the next 14 batters he faced. He had a two-hit shutout going into the seventh inning.
Backhaus ran out of gas in that final frame. Sartell finally got to him for two runs before Hinrichs went to closer Nick Knoblach with two outs and two on in a 4-2 game. Knoblach got Eric O'Leary to hit an easy ground ball to Jordan Smith at short to preserve the win for Backhaus. He finished the night allowing just four hits and striking out 10.
"Felt really good," Backhaus said. "Everything was working for me. I felt loose coming into the game, wasn't tense or anything...I like to keep them guessing - first pitch curveball, first pitch fastball, and then from there if they have the fastball timed, I'll go to the changeup and make them work together."
His offense used a couple errors by Sartell to take a 2-0 lead in the third inning. Aaron Billberg reached on an error to lead off the inning before Knoblach singled to set up a threat. The Sabres were one out away from getting out of it unscathed but another error on a groundball off the bat of Ben Allen allowed both runners to score and give Backhaus some room to work with.
"We've talked as a staff that if we get ahead, we're a totally different team," Hinrichs said. "When we play from ahead, we can bunt, we can steal bases, we can be more aggressive on the base paths...when you get behind 4-0, 5-0, making errors, not making plays, you kind of have to play station to station baseball."
The Cardinals showed off that aggressive approach to add two insurance runs in the fifth. Once again, it was Billberg and Knoblach who did the damage by reaching on an infield single and a bunt base hit, respectively. Jeff Swedberg bunted them into scoring position to set up the inning.
Billberg broke for home on a softly hit ground ball off the bat of Jordan Domine. He just got his foot under the tag to give Alexandria a 3-0 lead. With runners on the corners, Domine took an extra long lead to force a throw to first. Knoblach immediately broke for home and scored easily on the double steal.
"Those are really big," Billberg said. "We haven't been scoring [too] much, so it's been good to use the little runs, just do the little things right and good things will happen."
Perhaps most important for this team was the one error the Cardinals committed on defense. Alexandria has been searching for the best defensive alignment that still allowed it to get its best nine or 10 hitters in the lineup.
Hinrichs said they knew it would be a process with some inexperienced players entering the season. Allen played some shortstop early this spring but was in the outfield on Tuesday night. Jordan Smith was at short and Knoblach moved from the outfield earlier this year to third base.
"At the beginning of the year, we said our lineup in the first game might not look anything like our lineup in the last game," Hinrichs said. "I think you can see out there now that guys are getting comfortable."
Maintaining that improved play on defense will be instrumental heading into the stretch run. It has been the Achilles heel through much of the early portion of the season. If the Cardinals can turn that around, they like their chances against almost anyone.
"I definitely think we can play with a lot of different teams," Billberg said. "We just got to clean up the little things and put together good games, offensively, defensively and pitching, and we'll be good."
SARTELL 000 000 2 - 2 4 3
ALEXANDRIA 002 020 X - 4 6 1
ALEXANDRIA PITCHING - Backhaus - W, 6 2/3IP, 4H, 2R, 2ER, 2BB, 10SO; Knoblach - S, 1/3IP, 0H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 0SO
ALEXANDRIA HITTING - Smith - 1-3, 2B; Allen - 1-3; Billberg - 1-3, 2 runs; AJ Anderson - 0-3; Gideon Burnham - 0-3; Jordan Domine - 0-3, RBI; Knoblach - 2-2, 2 runs; Pat Leary - 0-2; Swedberg - 1-1; Logan Serum - 0-1