Minnewaska’s aces in Alexander, Ver Steeg give the Lakers confidence coming down the stretch

Minnewaska baseball is 7-5 after sweeping two games at the MaxBat Classic this past weekend, and the Lakers have the pitching that should make them a tough out in the Section 3AA playoffs.

Minnewaska'a Aaron Ver Steeg pitches during the first inning against Spectrum on May 8, 2021. Ver Steeg got the win on the mound in the 13-0 victory for the Lakers and improved to 3-0 on the season with an ERA under 1.00. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The Minnewaska baseball team has had its ups and downs during the first half of this season, but the Lakers look like a program that could be dangerous in the Section 3AA playoffs.

The Lakers just got done sweeping two games on May 7 and 8 at the MaxBat Classic on their home field. Minnewaska beat Moose Lake-Willow River (3-9) 12-1 and Spectrum (2-7) 13-0 in five innings, two teams that the Lakers outmatched from the beginning.

“We just have to keep hitting the ball and keep our game clean, no errors and stuff,” senior Aaron Ver Steeg said after beating Spectrum. “Pitchers need to keep throwing strikes and we’ll get it done. We were ready to go right away.”

Aaron Ver Steeg follows through on a pitch against Spectrum on May 8, 2021. Ver Steeg had seven strikeouts in three innings of work against Spectrum to raise his season total to 41 strikeouts in 25 innings on the mound. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)


Ver Steeg is a big reason why the Lakers (7-5) could be a tough out come the postseason. The right-hander forms a nice 1-2 punch at the top of the pitching rotation with fellow senior righty Darion Alexander. Both guys threw on Saturday and overpowered Spectrum, combining for 13 strikeouts out of the 15 outs needed. The Sting got three singles in the game.

“They’re top-end pitchers in any league, any conference,” Minnewaska head coach Brian Gruber said. “Those two guys on the hill give us a chance to win any time.”

Alexander set Minnewaska’s single-season record for the lowest earned run average when he posted a 0.24 ERA through 29 innings as a sophomore in 2019.

Darion Alexander pitches for Minnewaska in the fourth inning on May 8, 2021 against Spectrum. Alexander has thrown 26 2/3 innings this year and racked up 29 strikeouts with an ERA of 2.36. He set the single-season ERA record (0.24) for Minnewaska as a sophomore in 2019 in 29 innings pitched. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“My whole career I’ve always liked to overpower people with the fastball,” Alexander said. “Just throw a heavy fastball, try to get in on them and jam them a little bit. Keep pounding inside.”

Alexander is also confident in his curveball and can mix in a changeup every so often. He leads the Lakers in innings pitched this spring at 26 2/3 and has a 2.36 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 14 walks allowed. Alexander struck out six Spectrum batters in two innings of work on May 8.

“It seems like Darion’s arm is getting stronger as the season is going on,” Gruber said. “That’s what you want to see. His velocity seems to be picking up, and that’s the sign of a quality pitcher too. You work your way into the season and want to be strong at the end.”


Minnewaska's Torii Johnson talks with head coach Brian Gruber at third base after Johnson's hit to right field in the bottom of the fourth inning on May 8, 2021 went for a two-run triple in the 13-0 win over Spectrum. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Ver Steeg lost his junior season during the pandemic in what would have been the year he got a bunch of varsity experience on the mound for the first time. It hasn’t seemed to impact him too much this year as the senior has posted some impressive numbers.

Ver Steeg has a 0.84 ERA in 25 innings and now a 3-0 record after beating Spectrum. In three frames, he struck out seven to put his season total at 41 strikeouts and just six walks allowed.

“I’m feeling pretty great right now, but I just need to keep throwing strikes,” Ver Steeg said. “Sometimes I get a little wild, so I need to focus and keep throwing strikes.”

Like Alexander, Ver Steeg likes to set things up with a hard fastball, but he also has a curveball he believes in and an occasional changeup.

Minnewaska's Riley Johnson crosses home plate in the early innings of a 13-0 win over Spectrum on May 8, 2021. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)


“They’re very similar kinds of pitchers,” Gruber said. “They both command the fastball very well. They don’t have to throw curveballs in just curveball counts. They can both pitch backwards if they need to. As you start facing some quality hitters in fastball counts, you can’t always give them fastballs. You have to be able to throw some offspeed. They’re both very capable of doing that, and that’s what makes you a top-end pitcher.”

Alexander said the Lakers are confident in the pitching they have from top to bottom, and rightfully so. Minnewaska had a team ERA of 2.19 heading into its weekend invite through 10 games. Mitchell Gruber had a 2.47 ERA with 13 strikeouts up to that point in 11 1/3 innings.

Minnewaska is allowing just 3.3 runs per game. That’s the fourth fewest of any team in Section 3AA. The Lakers’ losses have come against other winning programs in Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City (9-1), BOLD (9-3), Benson (8-2) and Pierz (7-4), along with slipping up against a 2-9 Sauk Centre team as part of a doubleheader split on April 29.

“We’ve played most of the tougher teams in the conference,” Alexander said. “We’ve progressed a lot, are getting a lot better, and it should be fun in the second half of the season.”

Minnewaska's Dalton Friedrichs looks in at a pitch on the bases after hitting a run-scoring double to make it a 4-0 game in the third inning against Spectrum on May 8, 2021. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“We just want to keep getting better every day and make sure we keep our game clean,” Ver Steeg added. “We can play with anybody if we keep our errors down, pitch strikes and just play clean. We feel pretty good about that.”

Gruber has challenged his guys to take better at-bats on a more consistent basis. There are times, he said, when the Lakers’ hitters are going to the plate and swinging just to swing. In the five losses, Minnewaska has combined to score just 11 runs. That’s compared to averaging 10 runs per game during its seven wins.


“The key is going to be our hitting,” Gruber said. “We have to have better approaches at the plate because when you get to the end game and section finals, you have to beat quality pitching. To beat quality pitching, you have to have solid at-bats.”

If that offense clicks consistently, players and coaches like how they stack up against other good teams in the section.

“Obviously, every team wants to get to the state tournament,” Gruber said. “I think we’ve got a team capable, and having two guys like (Aaron and Darion) on the top of your pitching rotation gives us a pretty solid chance.”

Minnewaska's Darion Alexander looks in for the sign from his catcher during the fourth inning against Spectrum on May 8, 2021. Alexander worked two innings in the game, striking out six batters and allowing just one single. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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