Golden Eagles stave off elimination by shutting down St. Cloud State, 6-1
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Conner Richardson sat down on the mound and started stretching.
Butterfly, pike, one leg over the other. Anything to stay loose during the second replay review in as many batters.
Richardson had been locked in to that point, needing just 25 pitches through three innings to churn through the potent St. Cloud State lineup. Unexpected breakups of game flow can spell disaster for a pitcher, and the Minnesota Crookston right-hander couldn't afford to be thrown out of his rhythm.
But more than anything physically, Richardson knew he needed to keep the same frame of mind when play resumed.
"I was just trying to keep in my own head and not let the time off bother me," Richardson said. "Just trying to stay consistent with what I was doing."
Not even the mid-inning delays, totaling around 10 minutes, could get to Richardson. He got Matt Quade on a flyout to end the inning and strand runners at the corners. Three innings later, he turned the ball over to Brody Sorenson, having thrown 6.1 scoreless innings when the Golden Eagles needed them most.
UMC (26-11) used Richardson's gem and three home runs to beat St. Cloud State, 6-1, in an NSIC Tournament elimination game Thursday at Ronken Field at Karras Park, prolonging its season for at least one more game.
"He's come a long ways," UMC coach Steve Gust said of his starter. "His compete level is really high and he held his composure. Just a gutty performance, that's all I can say."
Richardson threw hard, touching 90 mph with his fastball on occasion, but he credited much of his success to hammering the strike zone. While he struck out just three, he made things easy for the Golden Eagles' defense by inducing weaker contact, allowing nine groundouts to five flyouts.
"I was spotting up a little bit," he said. "But just being able to let my defense help me out the way they did was really big."
While the Huskies (22-14) never figured out Richardson, Minnesota Crookston seemingly had Trevor Koenig's number before the 6-foot-11 lefty even took the mound. Koenig suffocated the Golden Eagles back on April 24, striking out 10 in 8.1 innings while doing most of his damage with off-speed pitches.
Gust estimated that half of Koenig's pitches in that game were sliders or curveballs. Sooner or later, UMC was going to have to hit them.
"Our guys were ready for it this time," Gust said. "We were disciplined at the plate, letting pitches go that we should let go, and jumping on pitches we should jump on."
Koenig allowed just two hits in the April game. The Golden Eagles needed three at-bats to surpass that total on Thursday. Ben Bryant, Will Zimmerman, Mason Ruhlman and Brock Reller all stroked line-drive singles, resulting in an early 2-0 lead.
Minnesota Crookston doubled its lead in the third inning when Reller, the NSIC's leading home run hitter, blasted a Koenig offering that landed at least 100 feet over the right-field fence and also scored Zimmerman.
Reller homered in his next at-bat too, hitting an 0-1 pitch over a massive St. Cloud State defensive shift which featured four outfielders and just one fielder on the left side of the field. The solo homer led off the sixth inning and ended Koenig's day after 88 pitches.
The capper came when designated hitter Ben Thoma had his first hit of the season with an opposite-field homer to lead off the seventh inning. Thoma had Tommy John surgery last fall and wasn't expected to play at all this season, but made a surprise return to the lineup during UMC's first-round series last week at Minot State.
"Morning, afternoon, nights, meetings, he was always there," Gust said. "He did everything the doctors and trainers asked him too. It shows you what desire can do and unselfishness and all of that. There's no better kid. He won that award (the NSIC Elite 18 award) for a reason."
Richardson left the game with the bases loaded, but Sorenson came up clutch. He struck out pinch-hitter Tyler Schiller and the Huskies' dangerous leadoff man, John Nett, to end the inning and delivered a 1-2-3 eighth as well. Garrett Hohn and Tyler Hegg combined to close the door in the ninth inning.
In addition to Reller's 3-for-4, four-RBI game, Zimmerman went 3-for-4 at the plate with three stolen bases and Bryant went 2-for-4.
St. Cloud State swept UMC back in April, but the Golden Eagles that took the field Thursday appeared worlds removed from that team. The Huskies' sweep came against a UMC team missing multiple key contributors and coming almost directly off a 10-day COVID-19 break.
Maybe the Huskies underestimated Minnesota Crookston just a bit, Gust and Richardson thought. But both said was more to it than that.
"I think it was just our guys wanting it a little bit more than them," Gust said.
Added Richardson: "We showed up to play today. That didn't happen earlier in the season, but we definitely got it done when it mattered most."
UP NEXT: The Golden Eagles will await the loser of Thursday afternoon's game between No. 1 seed Minnesota State (35-7) and No. 2 seed Augustana (33-9). That game will take place Thursday night, with the loser being eliminated and the winner advancing to Friday's championship.
Gust said he doesn't plan on paying too much attention to the Mavericks and Vikings — rather, the focus is on his team.
"We need to get in the shower and regroup," he said. "It's really about us this time of year and about what we can do to be successful. These two teams are two of the best in the country. We're just happy to be giving ourselves a shot."
UMC would need to win two games on Friday to win the NSIC title.
MINNESOTA CROOKSTON 6, ST. CLOUD STATE 1
Minnesota Crookston 2-0-2-0-0-1-1-0-0—6-10-1
St. Cloud State 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1—1-7-1
- WP: Conner Richardson (6.1 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 3 K)
- LP: Trevor Koenig (5.0 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 2 K)
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