Saturday, August 31, 2013

Greyhounds let win slip through their grasp

Victory was in their grasp.

The Greyhounds had a 6-3 lead and a boatload of momentum heading into the bottom of the eighth. Pitcher Joe Huffman had just retired his 11th straight batter. Then new life began for the Bandits as Eagan’s next hitter, first baseman Mark Tatera, drilled a home run to right.
Austin 2B Joe Kroc

“In hindsight that solo home run wasn’t that big [at the time],” second baseman Joe Kroc said. ” But it ended up being really big, because all of the momentum went in their favor after that.”

Eagan fed off that home run and Austin crumbled. The Bandits took advantage of two Greyhounds errors, scored four runs in the eighth and held on for a 7-6 victory Friday night at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake.

The loss eliminated Austin (25-11) from the Class B tournament, effectively ending its season as well.

“It sucks,” shortstop John Frien said about the loss. “We had momentum most of [the game], I felt. But [Eagan] took it from us. They’re a good hitting team, they got their bats going, they put the ball in play and they took advantage of it.”

Despite a slow start for the Greyhounds, Austin compiled 14 hits on the night. But it was the late
errors that proved costly in the end; including a play in the Frein wishes he could have back.

Down by one with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth, Eagan’s Derek Dietrich hit a grounder to second. Kroc fielded the ball cleanly and retired the runner at second, but Frien’s throw to first sailed to the right and two runs came in for Eagan. Suddenly Austin’s 6-3 advantage had evaporated, as Eagan took the lead.

“It was a big situation, we needed the double play,” Frein said. “I just maybe hurried [the throw]. I thought I had to hurry, the guy was flying down the line. It felt good out of my hand, but it just kept fading, fading, fading.”
Infield practice: C Matt Raso (27), RP Zach Schara (19)
Irish Stadium - Maple Lake, MN

Until then, Frein was having a great night. The 35-year-old veteran showed some strong legwork. He beat out a bunt single in the first, had another infield hit later and stole a base in the game. Frien also beat out a double play ball in the fifth to begin an Austin attack.

The Greyhounds had nothing going offensively, nothing. But with Frien on second and one out, Kroc stepped up to the plate and lit a spark in under his team’s feet. Kroc roped a single to right, scoring Frein and giving the Austin faithful some hope.

Following Kroc’s hit, third baseman/manager Matt Cano drilled a ball off the fence in right-center, scoring Kroc and tying the game at three.

Austin’s momentum really took off from there. In the top of the eighth, Kroc made a play the really energized the team. He stole home to give Austin a three-run lead.

“There’s two outs late in the game and we had a lead, we had them on their heels and I wanted to be aggressive,” Kroc said. “I saw earlier that [the catcher] was just lobbing it back [to the pitcher] without looking at third. So I got a bigger primary lead, a walking lead and then took a chance and it worked out in our favor.”

Kroc finished the game 2-for-4 with two runs scored and the rare feat of a steal of home.

“When he stole home, that was a big deal,” Frien said of Kroc’s play. “I thought we had [the game] won there.”

Unfortunately the bottom of the eighth came and the Austin victory was just not meant to be.

Eagan 7, Greyhounds 6
Greyhounds  1 0 0 0 2 0 1 2 0
Eagan …...... 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 4 x
Greyhounds: Joe Kroc 2-for-4, 2 R, 1 RBI, SB; Matt Cano 2-for-5, 1 2B, 1 R, 1 RBI; Craig Braaten 3-for-4, 2 RBI, 1 BB; Matt Raso 2-for-4, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB; John Frein 2-for-3, 2 R, 1 SB, 2 BB; Starter: Joe Huffman 7.1 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 5 K.
Eagan Bandits: Tatera 2-for-4, 1 HR, 2 R, 1 RBI; Larson 3-for-4, 1 2B, 2 R, 2 RBI; Dietrich 1-for-2, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 SB, 1 BB, 1 HBP; Starter: Neil Kunik 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 1 K; Save: Larson 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K

**I wrote this story for the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Austin Post-Bulletin. It's coverage of the 2013 Class B state tournament on Friday, Aug. 30 2013 at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake, Minn.

Veteran Greyhounds build for future, play for today

The Austin Greyhounds have a rich history in amateur baseball state tournaments – the team’s made appearances in 13 of its past 16 seasons.

It’s been 10 years since its won a state title, however. A streak the team hopes to break this weekend.

“We’re a hot team right now, we really have what it takes to win it all,” manager Matt Cano said. “We just need to go on a five-game winning streak,”

To win it all, Austin has no margin for error. Losing a 4-2 decision to Shakopee in this year’s Class B state tournament opener on Saturday, Austin immediately found itself in the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination event.
Matt Cano (23) at bat, with Craig Braaten (2) on deck

But the team had won eight straight before Shakopee and a 10-2 shellacking of St. Michael on Sunday has kept the team confident.

“Our team really believes we can win the state championship,” Cano said. “But we’re also smart enough to know it takes one game at a time.”

The first of its five roadblocks to the title is this Friday night, when the Greyounds take on the Eagan Bandits at Maple Lake’s Irish Stadium.
Between Cano, 40, the team’s manager since 2003, general manager John Frien, 35, and new acquisition Dave Adams, 44, Austin has a plethora of experience and knowledge to draw from.

All three are baseball junkies – you have to be to play amateur baseball for as long as they have. Frien, an Austin lifer, has been with the Greyhounds the longest – joining the team in 1997. Cano grew up in Austin, before playing several years of professional ball and joining the Greyhounds in 2002. Adams was a 19-year-veteran of the Rochester Royals before joining the Hounds in June.

Last year was a struggle for Austin. Despite its 22-24 record, the team managed to make it to state. Its appearance was over in a blink, however, as the team went two and out without scoring a run.

This year, Austin has enjoyed success all summer long and brings a 25-10 record into Friday’s game. Cano and Frien believe some new players, an improved pitching staff and stronger will to win has made the difference.

“[It’s] definitely about being more dedicated,” Frein said.

Frien believes year’s team has been putting in the extra work it takes to be a better ballclub. He said the pitching staff, in particular, has made strides this year. Led by Joe Huffman and Nels Nelson, Frien said his pitchers have routinely worked out together throughout the season.

“[Nelson] and Huffman are our aces, Weston Hanson’s pitched a lot more innings, Brian Toov has come along,” Frien said. “Then there’s Zack Schara, he’s kind of a bulldog. He’s basically been our closer, another weapon we have.”

Cano and Frien believe first baseman Adams, along with Jeremy Williams and the return of Craig Braaten to the Hounds lineup have been key additions to this year’s team.

1B Dave Adams, 2B Joe Kroc, CF Jeremy Williams
Adams has hit near .400 this season, including a tournament-best .571 average through two games. Braaten, who took last season off to experience fatherhood for the first time, has returned to bring a strong bat to Austin’s lineup (Braaten bashed a three-run homer in the St. Michael win). Then there’s the energizer – Williams.

“Williams is a dynamite player,” Frien said of his 23-year-old centerfielder. “[He’s] built like Adrian Peterson. Still a young buck; a big, strong guy.”

A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Williams came to Austin after attending college at Tuskegee University, where he played quarterback for the school’s football team and played infield and pitcher for Tuskegee’s baseball team.

Williams said he found out about the Greyhounds from a couple of teammates who work at Hormel with him. Frein said he’s glad to have him, that he brings a lot of energy to the team.

“He’s always a hustle player, beats out ground balls and always runs hard,” Frien said. “ He wasn’t a strong hitter earlier in the year, but he’s really come on of late.”

Williams made a wall-smashing catch on a line drive over his head to center Sunday against St. Michael. He also hit one of four home runs for Austin that day.

Cano feels strongly about the team’s defense as well. He has the experience. He knows what it takes and he believes the Greyhounds have the ingredients to win it all.

Cano and Frien are passionate about the future of Austin baseball. They talk about grooming players like Williams, Nick Huntley (a legion standout) and players as young as Jordan Hart, a 16-year-old from Lyles, to take the Greyhounds in the future.

But for Austin natives and longtime Greyhounds veterans Cano and Frien, along with Adams, their time is now.

The trio has the spirit, knowledge and wisdom to coach the game for years to come. As players, the team’s elder statesmen have a chance to lead their team to a title this weekend.

Showdown with the Bandits
The Greyhounds are familiar with Eagan. Austin defeated the Bandits 4-3 at Austin’s Marcussen Park in the super sectionals Aug. 16.

“Eagan’s a good ballclub,” Cano said. “They’re young, they run really well and they can hit the ball pretty good too. Just because we beat them last time, doesn’t mean we’ll beat them this time.”

Eagan enters the contest 20-14 on the season. The Bandits defeated last season’s Class B champion, Victoria, 7-2 on Saturday. Eagan then lost to Cold Spring 10-1 on Sunday.

**I wrote this story for the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Austin Post-Bulletin. It's coverage of the Austin Greyhounds during the team's 2013 Class B state tournament run from Sunday, Aug. 25 2013 to Friday, Aug. 30 at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake, Minn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Austin sizzles in onesided win

MAPLE LAKE — It was a low-90s scorcher and Austin's offense was on fire.

The Greyhounds began their Class B state tournament game Sunday against St. Michael red hot, erupting for seven first-inning runs.

"We stuck it to them early," manager/shortstop John Frein said. "It was really important to get up on top early."

Pitcher Joe Huffman took over from there. The righthander fed off his team's lead and went into cruise control, retiring St. Michael's first 16 batters en route to Austin's 10-2 victory over the Saints at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake.

"I just tried to go in there with my game plan," Huffman said. "I had all four pitches — fastball, curveball, slider, changeup — I just tried to attack the strike zone and make them get themselves out. They were pretty aggressive hitters."

Through the first two innings, Huffman induced six softly hit outs throwing only 15 pitches. In fact, he did not throw more than three pitches to a batter until the fourth.

In contrast, St. Michael starter Alan Frank threw 31 pitches before being excused by his manager with two outs in the first. The Greyhounds bludgeoned Frank for seven hits and seven runs (five earned), sending up 11 batters in Austin's home half of the first.

"We felt like yesterday we were pretty flat the whole day, so we came out storming (Sunday)," Frein said.

The early onslaught was a welcomed site for Frein's team after a stagnant offensive showing Saturday against Shakopee.

Austin lost its first game of the double-elimination tournament to the Indians 4-2. The team scored two runs on six hits — all singles — against Shakopee. Sunday, not only did the Greyhounds hammer out 13 hits, the team also exhibited a rare display of power. Five of the team's hits went for extra bases, including four home runs.

"We probably doubled our home runs on the year," Frien said. "We've had a few, not that many though."

The first clout came in the first inning, when Craig Braaten clubbed a three-run shot. Matt Cano, Tyler Leopold and Jeremy Williams each added solo shots later in the game.

Williams had a spectacular game. The center fielder was 2-for-5 at the plate, but it was a catch in center that really sparked his team.

With one out in the top of the fifth, Huffman struck out St. Michael's Alex Naasz, keeping his no-hitter intact for the moment. Then Saints designated hitter Brady Jacobs stepped into the batter's box. Jacobs promptly blasted Huffman's first pitch deep to dead center, where Williams hauled in a spectacular catch against the fence.

"From contact, I knew it was going to be a good shot. So I just turned around and just starting running as fast as I can," Williams said. "When I finally tracked it, my leftfielder told me I had [enough] room and I knew I could get it."

Williams caught the ball and immediately planted face-first into the wall. After flattened like a pancake, he fell straight to the ground. It took a couple seconds, but Williams got up and his team roared from its dugout, shouting cheers of adulation for its brave centerfielder.

No one could have been happier about the play than Huffman.

"Go get it, baby! Go get it! That's what was going through my head," Huffman said. "He's (going) full speed going into that wall. I was worried because he came back off that wall a little dazed and confused there. I was just hoping he was okay after that."

Williams was just fine. He had no reservations laying out for his teammate. Usually when a team's up 9-0 in the fifth, Williams agreed he might take a different approach to a play that dangerous. But this was a special circumstance and he was determined not to let that hit fall.

"I just knew I had to catch it, because I wanted to keep (Huffman's) no-hitter going," Williams said. "So by all means I did my best to try to catch it."

Following the catch, Huffman retired the next hitter on a pop-up to second. Fifteen up, fifteen down. Huffman was perfect through five innings.

Huffman lost the perfect game as St. Michael's Mike Freske drew a walk with one out in the sixth. He responded, though, retiring the next two Saints batters to remain hitless through six.

In top of the seventh, however, things would unravel for the Austin hurler.

Saints pinch-hitter Jared Dehmer led off the inning and slashed the first pitch he saw into the right-field gap to break up the no-hitter. Huffman retired the next batter. But St. Michael struck again, as Naasz and Blaine Barthel blistered back-to-back doubles to post a pair of Saints runs.

The no-hitter and shutout were lost, but Huffman's performance was not. The heat may have caught up with him, but the third-year veteran finished with seven solid innings — allowing three hits, with five strikeouts and one walk.

"Huffman was outstanding," Frein said.

Weston Hanson came on in relief. St. Michael gave him a brief scare after a pair of Austin errors and an infield single loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth. However, Hanson responded with a strikeout and a double play to finish the inning unscathed. He then followed that up with a 1-2-3 ninth to end the game.

Austin survived St. Michael and a muggy, excessively hot day. Now it advances to next week for a new opponent and a possibly even hotter day.

"It's hot out there and everyone's drained," Frein said. "Our team needs a break. We need this week off, so we're going to hit the ice baths."

Austin (25-10) continues its quest for its first state title in 10 years when it faces the Eagan Bandits on Friday in Maple Lake. The Greyhounds defeated Eagan 4-3 on Aug. 16 in super section play at Austin's Marcusen Park.

Greyhounds 10, St. Michael 2
Saint Michael#000#000#200#—#2#4#2
St. Michael: Alex Naasz 1-for-4, 2B, R, RBI; Jared Dehmer 1-for-2, 2B, R; Blaine Barthel 1-for-3, 2B, R, RBI; LP: Alan Frank 0.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Greyhounds: Andy Swank 2-for-3, R, RBI; Jeremy Williams 2-for-5, HR, 2 R, RBI; Matt Cano 2-for-2, HR, BB, 2 R, 2 RBI; Craig Braaten 1-for-3, HR, R, 3 RBI; Tyler Leopold 1-for-4, HR, 2 R, RBI; WP: Joe Huffman 7 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

**I wrote this story for the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Austin Post-Bulletin. It's coverage of the 2013 Class B state tournament on Sunday, Aug. 25 2013 at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake, Minn.
**I shot and submitted the photos for the Post-Bulletin as well. Descriptions (cutlines) for the photos (from top-to-bottom) are as follows: 
- Joe Huffman delivers a pitch in the sixth inning, while third-baseman Matt Cano (23) looks on. Huffman took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning.
- The Austin dugout greets teammate Tyler Leopold after his fifth-inning home run. Leopold hit one of four home runs on the day for the Greyhounds.