UMC baseball notebook: Postseason outlook, Bryant's big day, Fonger steps up
The Minnesota Crookston baseball team knew it wasn't at its best last weekend.
The Golden Eagles suffered their first sweep of the season, losing three games at St. Cloud State by wide margins. The Huskies, by every measure, are one of the stronger teams in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, and UMC had only just come out of quarantine after a number of COVID-19 cases.
It was a series that could have certainly been excused to a degree. But with less than two weeks until the end of the regular season and the start of the NSIC Tournament, coach Steve Gust knows there's little time to make excuses.
So the Golden Eagles didn't make them. On Monday and Tuesday, they had practices as good as they had all season, in Gust's opinion. On Wednesday, they came in with a "sense of urgency" and used it for a convincing sweep of Northern State.
"We wanted to really rebound and play our brand of baseball," Gust said. "Pound the strike zone, be on time as hitters, move our feet defensively and play good defense."
Despite the lengthy interruption, UMC (19-6) still is in solid position in the NSIC standings. The two wins over the Wolves kept them in third place with a 14-6 conference record.
The NSIC Tournament is slightly different this year: instead of the top eight teams going to Sioux Falls, S.D. for the main bracket, the top four teams will host first-round best-of-three series the week of May 13, with the winners of those series qualifying for the finals in Sioux Falls the next week.
"Unless something really goes down, we have a great chance of making the playoffs," Gust said. "We want to make sure we got a home playoff berth."
Looking even farther ahead, there's the NCAA Tournament, which Minnesota Crookston can qualify for by winning the NSIC Tournament or receiving an at-large bid.
The Golden Eagles are part of the Division II Central Region, which also consists of the Great American Conference and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. Six teams from the Central Region — the three conference champions and three at-large teams — will receive bids to the tournament.
The region's advisory committee met this week for the first time, and Gust said UMC is among the top teams. Still, from Gust's perspective, the NSIC and NCAA tournaments are both a bit far away right now.
That's not to say Gust wants his team ignoring the postseason. He just wants the Golden Eagles to get better a day at a time; to be playing their best baseball when rolls around.
Time will tell if Wednesday was the start.
"The guys understand we're in perfect position," Gust said. "We're not necessarily in position to win the league, but we're right there. The guys understand that. More importantly, the guys understand that we have to play better baseball. We have to do the things necessary to be successful. ... When we play our baseball, we have a chance to do some really good things."
Bryant rewarding coach's faith
In all but one game this season, Ben Bryant has batted atop the Minnesota Crookston order.
If you looked at the Golden Eagles' stats and had to guess who their leadoff hitter was, you wouldn't peg Bryant. The senior shortstop was hitting .167 coming into Wednesday, with just 15 hits, most of them singles, in 90 at-bats.
But a deeper dive into Bryant's history indicates why Gust has stuck with him. He set the all-time hits record for his American Legion team in Fargo, N.D. — one of the best programs in the area, in Gust's opinion. Last year, Bryant was hitting .353 with a .489 on-base percentage before the season was cancelled.
This season, in Gust's view, Bryant's been doing most of the same things he's done his whole life: working deep counts, drawing walks, putting the barrel on the ball. The bounces just haven't gone his way.
On Wednesday, that changed. Bryant drilled five hits in his seven at-bats and reached base an additional two times on a walk and a hit-by-pitch. Three of those hits went to the opposite field, illustrating the strong bat control Bryant's always been known for.
"He just went back to the basics of what he does," Gust said. "... He's kind of the cog that makes us go when he's right."
In other words: don't expect Bryant to budge in the lineup anytime soon.
Finberg emerging from slump
Bryant wasn't the only Golden Eagle to shake off a recent cold spell on Wednesday.
Scott Finberg was UMC's leading hitter in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, batting .383 with a .766 slugging percentage through 13 games. This season, he'd been rock-solid through the first 14 games, hitting .333 with four home runs.
But in the third inning of UMC's home opener against Concordia-St. Paul, Finberg took a hard one-hopper to the chin, forcing him from the game and requiring a decent number of stitches. Correlation doesn't equal causation, but Finberg wasn't exactly himself in the immediate aftermath, going his next 19 at-bats without a hit.
In the second inning of Wednesday's first game, though, the 6-foot-4 third baseman got his bat on a 2-2 pitch and drove it out of the park, tying the game at 1-1 and setting the Golden Eagles' offense in motion. Finberg later drove in two more runs on a single up the middle.
"He's recovered from that a little bit, but he's going to be just fine," Gust said. "He's a positive guy and he's going to stay positive through it all."
An in-form Finberg, batting behind Mason Ruhlman (1.172 OPS) and Brock Reller (1.216) and right ahead of Jake Hjelle (1.059) in the UMC order, allows the NSIC's second-highest scoring offense to operate at its highest potential. It's not much of a coincidence that Wednesday featured the Golden Eagles' two highest-scoring games in nearly a month.
Ruhlman rising up leaderboards
Putting good wood on a small leather ball traveling 85 miles per hour is a mercurial art. Sometimes balls fall in play and sometimes they don't, no matter how well-struck they are.
Plate discipline, though, isn't as susceptible to that volatility. That's why Ruhlman, the Golden Eagles' second baseman and usual three-hole hitter, has been one of the most consistently productive players not just in the NSIC, but the entire country.
Ruhlman's got natural hitting ability. He went 4-for-6 in the Northern State doubleheader and his strong, stocky frame generates plenty of power, as evidenced by his grand slam that capped off the second game. His batting average of .338 leads the team, and his slugging percentage (.649) is second behind Reller.
What sets Ruhlman apart, though, is his discipline. He's drawn more walks (27) than he has base hits (26) this season, and in fact, is seventh in the entire nation in walks drawn per game. Furthermore, no NSIC player gets on base at a higher rate than Ruhlman's .523 percentage.
Ruhlman's gaudy numbers illustrate what makes the UMC offense so potent. The Golden Eagles don't always hit for contact — they're sixth in the NSIC in team batting average, and 13th out of 15 teams in conference play only. But they hit with patience (.410 OBP) and power (45 home runs in 25 games), and as a result, they're currently averaging 8.6 runs per game.
Fonger giving Golden Eagles crucial depth
UMC's sweep of Northern State wasn't always easy. The Wolves mounted a serious charge in the seventh inning, coming back from seven runs down to bring the tying run to the plate with one out.
Reece Ragatz hit a hard liner to left field which looked primed to do even more damage. But Conner Fonger sprinted into the gap, laid out and came up with the catch inches before the ball hit the grass. Ramon Vega barely managed to turn back and see Fonger had made the catch before Fonger threw him out at second to seal the win.
The redshirt freshman might have saved UMC's 9-6 win, but he made several other, more subtle, contributions throughout the doubleheader. Fonger reached base four times in eight plate appearances with a single, two walks and a hit-by-pitch. On defense, his diving catch wasn't the only time he displayed excellent range in left.
"He's done nothing but impress us," Gust said. "He's got good plate appearances and making some big catches in left field. Speaks volumes of our roster."
Wednesday's starts were just the third and fourth of the season for Fonger. He's played in nine games and had just 10 at-bats all season. But with COVID-19 issues up and down the roster, he's been called into action more as of late and looked right at home.
Gust expects UMC to be at full strength, more or less, for this weekend's series against Bemidji State. That might mean Fonger goes back to the bench, but it doesn't make his development any less important.
"It's not just our core group," Gust said. "We need other guys to step up, and he's the one that's stepped up. He's really done a great job."
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