The Alexandria baseball team has been playing as well as any program in Section 8-3A the last few weeks, and that confidence gained while winning nine of their last 10 games was much needed against Rocori on Thursday.
The Spartans (13-9) jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning in Cold Spring. They knocked Alexandria starting pitcher Will Suchy from the mound after one frame, but the Cardinals were there to pick him up. Alexandria scored four unearned runs in the third inning that shifted the momentum and carried this team to a 6-3 win.
The Cardinals (14-8) will play top-seeded Sartell-St. Stephen (19-3) at Faber Field in St. Cloud at 11 a.m. on June 8 with a trip to the 8-3A championship on the line.
“Giving up is not really something Alexandria does,” Cardinals’ junior Devin Cimbura said. “We know we can battle back. Once we put the ball on the barrel, great things happened after that.”
Cimbura got his bat on the ball the loudest during that four-run third inning. Two Rocori errors aided Alexandria’s effort in that frame, but Brock Lerfald, who reached base three times in the game, had a run-scoring ground out and JD Hennen added an RBI single.
The Spartans had a chance to limit the damage to two runs, but an error at third extended the inning. Cimbura came up with runners on second and third and hammered a ball to right-center field that went for a triple and gave Alexandria the lead for good at 4-3.
Cimbura added another run-scoring hit in the fifth inning. All three of his RBIs came with two outs. He slid into third base head first ahead of the throw on that two-run triple. He let out a scream upon getting to his feet and flexed toward his teammates going crazy in the dugout.
“It’s playoffs. We all want to make it to the (state) tournament, so it was just getting the boys hyped up right away,” Cimbura said of the emotion. “We got down 3-0, and I just had to pick us up a little bit. It’s just a great game and when you get your team in that position, it’s great.”
The Cardinals could not have been in that position if not for the performance of Elijah Holthaus on the mound. Suchy, who has been steady all season with a 2.84 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings coming into Thursday, struggled with his control.
Rocori scored its three first-inning runs on one hit, three walks, a hit batter and a Suchy error on a play where the ball got under his glove.
Holthaus came into a situation where he couldn’t allow the Spartans to create any more distance. The senior delivered by throwing six shutout innings. He struck out four, and his defense ended the game on a Lerfald, to Shay Endres, to Nate Hammerback 4-6-3 double play.
“I wasn’t expecting to come in that early,” Holthaus said. “I was expecting Suchy to go deep. He’s a heck of a pitcher, but in my mind I was just thinking dominate. We had some clutch hits. I was just thinking dominate because I knew I had to step up as a leader on the team.”
Holthaus worked out of a situation with a runner on third and one out in the next half inning after the Cardinals took their first lead. His own throwing error on a pickoff attempt led up to that, but Holthaus settled in to get a strikeout and a ground out to second base to preserve the 4-3 lead.
“I just focus right on Lake’s glove,” Holthaus said of junior catcher Lake Hagen. “He’s a heck of a catcher, and I know (pitching coach Chris) Koep is calling good pitches. I just trusted Lake to make the right calls and trusted my stuff. I knew we could get out of it.”
The Cardinals manufactured an insurance run in the sixth inning. Tyler Kludt came off the bench to pinch run after a Rocori error led off the frame. Kludt stole second and third base before Hagen executed a squeeze bunt perfectly to drive him in for the 6-3 lead.
“Base running is something we take extremely seriously,” Alexandria coach Jake Munsch said. “We practice it all the time. We know it impacts the game day in and day out, and you saw that. That sixth run was massive for us.”
Munsch was proud of the way his guys never panicked despite the early deficit.
“It’s very difficult to win in this park. Rocori has an outstanding program, but we had composure,” he said. “(Suchy) obviously did not have his best night, but the nice thing about baseball is he’s going to get another opportunity. He’s done such a good job for us all year. Elijah comes in and picks a guy up. That’s what the team’s about. Devin with those big hits. We played very well after giving up those early runs.”
Alexandria had a stretch of five straight losses from April 29 to May 6 that dipped its record below .500. Since then, the Cardinals’ only loss is to state-ranked Willmar (20-2) in a 4-1 game. They have outscored opponents 58-12 in their nine wins since May 11.
“We did have a little slump in the middle of the season, but we’ve been playing out of our minds recently,” Holthaus said. “It’s so fun to watch and be a part of. As my last year in the high school program, it’s just a heck of a season and a great way to finish it off so far. We’re not done yet. We still got a lot to go.”
The biggest challenge likely awaits with No. 1-seeded Sartell coming up on June 8. The Sabres survived a scare from Little Falls by one run in the playoff opener before beating Detroit Lakes 5-1 in round two.
Sartell beat Alexandria twice during the regular season in 12-2 and 4-0 games. But the Cardinals are playing like a different team than when those games were played in April.
“We are as ready as we can be. Now it’s just a matter of executing,” Munsch said. “We have the players. We’re a young team. There’s a lot of juniors out there playing, but they’re playing at a high level. We just have to execute and check the score at the end of the game.”
ALEXANDRIA (14-8) 004 011 0 - 6 6 4
ROCORI (13-9) 300 000 0 - 3 4 4