Golden Eagles trying to rediscover rhythm coming out of quarantine
Baseball, according to Minnesota Crookston coach Steve Gust, was meant to be played every day.
More than just about any other sport, it's a game predicated on coordination, timing and fine motor skills. The perfect pitch, the perfect swing: both come down to the thinnest of margins. It's hard to maintain that after a few days off.
Recently, the Golden Eagles had more than a few days off — 10, to be exact. Seven of those days, they weren't even able to practice.
UMC was scheduled to take on then-No. 15 Minnesota State in Mankato last Thursday before receiving word of positive COVID-19 test results. The Golden Eagles promptly went into quarantine, only emerging Thursday morning after negative tests all around.
By the time they got back on the field, it was time for a doubleheader at home against Southwest Minnesota State. It was UMC's first time on the field in over a week, and first game action since April 11 against Concordia-St. Paul.
The Golden Eagles' red-hot start has hit plenty of roadblocks this month. Wayne State was scheduled to come to town the first weekend of April but experienced positive tests of their own, cancelling that series. All told, UMC (17-3, 12-3 NSIC) has had to cancel more games (eight) than it's played (six) in April.
"We were a top-25 team, a legit top-25 team in the country," Gust said Thursday after splitting with the Mustangs. "After this week, where we didn't do anything, we're not there anymore. It's simple as that."
It's not like the Golden Eagles did absolutely nothing during their week in quarantine. They were fortunate in that many of their players live together — for example, junior slugger Brock Reller shares a house with eight teammates.
Reller's house has a large basement which he and his teammates converted into a makeshift practice room. They put in weights and set up a hitting area, and when they needed to throw the ball around, they went outside to play catch. While they made the most out of their situation, it just wasn't the same as full outdoor practice, let alone live game action.
"Baseball's a game of inches," Gust said. "When you don't play, it's tough to get those inches. You could be off by inches and the results can go from positive to negative in a hurry."
Reller said it stung to not come up with a sweep Thursday, which says plenty about the Golden Eagles' internal expectations and plenty about their talent regardless of whether or not they're in rhythm.
On the plus side: Jake Dykhoff delivered another performance worthy of his slot as UMC's No. 1 starter, firing a seven-inning complete game and striking out 11 in the Golden Eagles 5-3 win to start the day.
And when UMC hit, it hit for power: the majority of its hits went for extra bases, and the Golden Eagles slugged four home runs in all. They hit up and down the lineup, with No. 6 hitter Eli Jung and No. 9 hitter Landyn Swenson each homering and having multi-hit games on the day.
But the Golden Eagles didn't hit quite often enough. Timing was an issue throughout the day as UMC struck out 26 times, including 15 in the Mustangs' 8-7 extra-inning win to close the afternoon. In addition, the Golden Eagles missed pitches of their own, surrendering four SMSU homers in the loss.
"They hit some home runs, we left the ball up and over their plate," Gust said. "To their credit, they didn't miss them. We missed a ball in the outfield there in that last inning, we were swinging at things we haven't swung at before because we just haven't seen live pitching."
The only solution: more games. Gust said it might take weeks for the Golden Eagles to get back to the level they were playing at before, much less to where they believe they can get this season.
Their schedule doesn't offer them an easy path to get there, either. UMC will be on the road this weekend for a three-game series against St. Cloud State (12-10, 10-7), and while the Golden Eagles have already beaten the Huskies twice this season, Gust noted they have multiple pitchers with a chance to be selected in this summer's MLB Draft.
"We got our work cut out for us," he said. "But as long as we're better tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, that's all I'm looking for right now."
Throughout the day Thursday, the Golden Eagles did, in some ways, seem to get better. Reller, who crushed a game-tying two-run home run in the ninth inning of the second game, likened it to riding a bike. While inch-perfect timing is critical, there's still something to be said for muscle memory.
"You gotta get back into the groove," Reller said. "It happened there at the end of each game, I guess, but it just needs to be more and a little earlier."
The NSIC Tournament is just three weeks away. Minnesota Crookston just has to hope that's enough time to rediscover that groove.
But with 13 games in a 15-day span to finish the regular season, the Golden Eagles will at least get the opportunity.
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