Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hansen halts Elko bats, keeps Eagan alive

After last week, the initial seven Section 5B playoff teams were parsed down to four. Today, three teams remain, and after Jon Hansen’s performance last night the fifth-seeded Eagan Bandits (9-8 league record, 16-15 overall) are one of them.

“He pitched his heart out tonight,” said Eagan manager Brandon Paetznick, “that’s the best outing he’s had all year and he couldn’t have picked a better time.”

Staring elimination in the eye and facing the vaunted Elko Express in its home ballyard last night, Hansen led his visiting Bandits to a 3-1 win to give upset-minded Eagan a shot at the State Tournament when they battle the Burnsville Bobcats tonight.

“He did a nice job against us,” said Elko manager Terry Frederickson regarding Hansen, “[he] kept the ball down and had us off-balance all night.”

The Eagan win brings a subtle end to Frederickson’s Express team’s season. After a Class C State Championship in 2008 and a 7th-place finish in Class B last season, Elko - who finished its season with a 31-9 overall record - will not be making the trip to State this season.

Conversely, Paetznick and co-manager Billy Denet’s Bandits have an opportunity to make a miraculous post-season run.

“Coming in as the five seed, we’re definitely the underdogs,” said Denet about his Eagan squad, “but we’ve been playing really good baseball in the second-half [of the season] and I wouldn’t want to face us right now.”

The win was especially sweet coming against Elko's ace lefty, Brian Muell.

Denet said that since Elko became member of Section 5B (last season) the two teams had played each other five or six times and his team faced Muell for two or three of those game, however, his Bandits had yet to defeat either Muell or the Express altogether.

“Going against [Elko’s] tough lefty was a daunting task," said Denet of his team's batters facing Muell, "but I was happy to see us get to him for a few runs and get the win tonight.”

Muell and Hansen each held their opponents scoreless through the first three innings, but the Bandits bats would get to Elko’s starter in the fourth.

Centerfielder Tony Johnson led off Eagan’s big inning with a single to right. Johnson stole second - his second steal of the game - before Trent Anderson followed with a sharp single to center.

Runners on first and third with nobody out, Bandits clean-up hitter Roy Larson bashed a double off Muell to deep right-center. Johnson scored easily for Eagan’s first run and Anderson advanced to third.

From there, Muell was able to get the next two Bandits batters - Ryan Sward and Mark Tatera - to hit seemingly harmless ground balls. However, each would drive in runs as Sward grounded out to second scoring Anderson and Tatera’s dribbler to the left-side hole got through to score Larson.

That would be all Hansen needed as the Eagan starter ironed out some pregame jitters and was dialed in on the mound.

“I was a little nervous tonight for some reason, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to throw in a playoff game like this,” said Hansen of how he felt before the game, but once the game started he was able to get comfortable quick. “I’ve thrown well against Elko two times in the last two years so I knew I had a good shot, [but] I didn’t know I’d be quite so good.”

Scoreless early, Hansen allowed hits to three Express batters in the second inning. But catcher Anderson threw out Elko’s Jason Grimm to erase one base runner and help Hansen evade the possible threat.

After the second, the Eagan righthander did not allow a hit for the next six innings.

Elko hit the ball hard off Hansen a couple times, but some nice defensive plays kept the Express off the scoreboard. The best play being a leaping grab by Tony Johnson in center to snag a hard drive by Grimm.

“He was pretty much roping the ball all game,” said Johnson of Grimm, “but on that [play], I misread it [at first], I ran in a little bit, then brought myself back and had to jump. Luckily I caught it and was able to prevent [Elko] from having a big inning possibly.”

True, Johnson did misread the hit on contact, but Grimm’s shot was hit on a line and appeared to still be rising as Johnson was able to leap up and snag it out of the air. It was a jaw-dropping catch of a ball that was crushed in typical form by Elko’s powerful first baseman (Grimm) who would put a dent the scoreboard with a home run later on that night.

“He’s an amazing centerfielder,” said Paetznick regarding Johnson’s defensive capabilities, “he’s got great range and gets great reads, single-handedly he helps our team ERA go down by a lot.”

Johnson also had a nice night with the bat. The speedy Eagan two-hitter had the single that ignited the Bandits’ three-run fourth and also had a double, walk and two stolen bases, finishing his night 2-for-3.

“Hitting, [Johnson] started off slow this season,” said Paetznick, “but he’s picked it up [of late] and he’s picking the right time to get hot. He’s the spark plug in our offense and when he’s going we’re going.”

Another hero of the game for Eagan was its 6-foot-5-inch shortstop, Larson. The Bandits slugger drove in Eagan’s first run with that double in the fourth and Larson was later shown respect (and/or fear) by being intentionally walked in the fifth. Then, in the ninth, the lanky righthander was summonsed to the mound as a pitcher and he retired the only three Elko batters he faced to end the game.

For Elko, pitcher Josh Roiger kept his team in the game, hurling four scoreless innings in relief of Muell. But the Express bats could not come through.

Elko had brief hope in the ninth when Grimm chased Hansen from the game with his mighty clout that struck the scoreboard in right. However, Eagan’s Larson came in to close things out retiring Express batters Ash Larsen, Kyle Kraska and Dan Ellefson to earn the save.

“[We] played well, Jon pitched well,” said Larson of his team and starter Jon Hansen’s effort, “so when I came in I just wanted to do everything I could to make sure he’d get the win.”

The Bandits extend their season for an important game tonight against Burnsville. Manager Paetznick will take the mound as its starting pitcher against the Bobcats.

Burnsville will try to rebound from a controversial loss to arch-rival Savage on Monday night - when a questionable call was made at first base for the third out in the ninth as the possible tying run was crossing the plate. The Bobcats lost the game 3-2.

Tonight's winner earns a berth in the upcoming Class B State Tournament (which begins August 20) and also advances to the Section 5B championship game Thursday night. The losing team will be eliminated and thus end its 2010 season and postseason hopes.

First pitch is slated for 7:30 at Elko's Frederickson Field.

Notable individual efforts:
Eagan Bandits
~ Jon Hansen: 8 IP, 4 Hs, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 2 BBs
~ Tony Johnson: 2-for-3, 2B, BB, R, 2 SBs
~ Roy Larson: 1-for-3, 2B, IBB, R, RBI / 1 IP, SV, 0 Hs, 1 K
~ Mark Tatera: 2-for-4, RBI

Elko Express:

~ Josh Roiger: 4 IP, 2 Hs, 7 Ks, 0 BBs

~ Jason Grimm: 2-for-4, HR, R, RBI

**Note: I was the PA for this game, thus the game photos are obstructed by the backstop. However, I was able to conduct post-game interviews and take photos of three of the games best players (Eagan's Jon Hansen, Tony Johnson and Roy Larson). The pictures featured in this article are - from top to bottom - Eagan's Jon Hansen, Elko's Brian Muell delivers to Eagan's Jon Bauer, Hansen delivering a called third strike to Elko's Jeremy Chlan, Eagan's Tony Johnson, Eagan's Roy Larson.

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