For the third time in five days, the Bemidji Lumberjacks made the 2½-hour drive to St. Cloud’s Municipal Athletic Complex for a little baseball, putting their utmost into getting back to the state tournament.
It was the same deal for the St. Cloud Apollo, except for the long bus rides.
On a splendid Wednesday evening befitting a section championship game before a large crowd at Dick Putz Field, Bemidji prevailed 2-1.
MAC official Brian Deyak said there were 967 tickets sold.
“It means a lot,” Bemidji sophomore left-hander Ryan Hirt said after tossing a complete-game three-hitter. “We made it last year, but didn’t do too well.
“Hopefully, we’ll do better this year and represent the section well.”
Bemidji (21-2), ranked third in the state in Class 3A, plays Hill-Murray (21-4) at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.
“Whatever you put in the paper, make sure you say that Reese Gregory is the real deal,” Bemidji head coach Mike Fogelson said of Apollo’s starter.
Gregory, throwing his third complete game in five days, nearly matched Hirt pitch-for-pitch for seven innings, winding up with nine strikeouts, three walks and allowing five hits and two earned runs.
“I told Coach (Nik Peterson) I wanted the ball,” Gregory said. “I knew I could pitch. I came out and did what I could.
“They’re a good team. I made a couple mistakes and they took advantage of it.”
Tall and lanky, Hirt is reminiscent of former Bemidji left-hander Bryan Hickerson, a former Minnesota Gopher and a Minnesota Twins draft pick who played primarily for the San Francisco Giants from 1991-95.
“He’s a lefty with really good velocity,” said Bemidji senior second baseman Cody Jenkins, who drove in both Lumberjack runs with an RBI single in the first and a run-scoring double in the third. “His ball moves a lot.
“He has confidence in himself and that helps a lot.”
Apollo (22-3) got to Hirt in the first. Tyler Mueller walked and Brandon Bloch beat out a bunt. After the Lumberjacks turned the first of two double plays, Dylan Jaeger singled home Mueller.
Mueller had a single in the fifth and Ethan Carlson had one in the seventh. But that was that.
“They (the Lumberjacks) will represent the section really well,” said Peterson, who called Bemidji a “well-coached” and a “good-hitting” team.
Peterson said he was proud of his club, which won the Central Lakes Conference title and was trying to get back to the state tournament for the first time since 1985.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said. “They proved that they are one of the better teams in the state. They had a great regular season and a great playoff season. To play the third-ranked team in the state and win 4-1 and have a 2-1 loss, well … not too many teams have been able to do that the last couple years. I’m proud of the boys. They played their hearts out.”
Apollo came close. In the sixth, Gregory led off and missed a home run to left by very little. His ball was caught at the fence as the Bemidji left fielder fought off the ivy.
With one out in the seventh, Carlson had a solid single up the middle. But Hirt got pinch hitter T.J. Frericks to ground out into a 4-6-3 double play in which Frericks was nearly safe.
Meanwhile, on the mound, Gregory was dominant against a team that came into the section series with a .330 batting average and scoring nine runs per game.
“He (Gregory) wanted the ball,” Peterson said. “It’s hard to take away a kid like that’s desire. And, look what he did.”