Ten men left on base, critical errors that led to pivotal Cedarburg rallies, and a listless early attitude left the Homestead baseball team down 10-0 to Cedarburg in the fifth inning of the WIAA sectional baseball semifinal at Whitefish Bay Friday afternoon.
But in the end, all Highlander coach Ernie Millard could do after a heroic rally that came up just a run short in a 10-9 defeat to the Bulldogs was hug one kid after another, especially slugger and team RBI leader Max Beckers, who struck out swinging trying to tie the game with one mighty blow in the top of the seventh.
"I've been talking about the character of these eight seniors all season," said Millard. "They're just fantastic guys and I will miss them terribly when they're gone, not just because of their baseball ability but because of the people they are. I'll just miss being around them."
With the loss, the Highlanders finished the season at 19-13 while Cedarburg (20-10) advanced to a sectional final date with Whitefish Bay (19-13) at noon Saturday back at the Blue Dukes' Cahill Park. Bay advanced to the final with an 8-1 win over Port Washington in Friday's early semifinal.
The Blue Dukes have edged the Bulldogs twice this season by 5-4 and 7-5 counts, respectively.
The sectional was slated to have been completed on Friday, but early morning rains forced a delay to its start and a decision by organizers to play just the semifinals on Friday and while moving the final back to Saturday.
Bay AD John Gustavson said that the infield area around the shortstop's zone took the longest to dry and that's what pushed the start of the Port-Bay game to 1:10 p.m. after an initially scheduled start of 10 a.m.
Many bags of diamond dry, and a team armed with rakes and even a tractor took to preparing the field as best they could after the rains let up about 10 a.m.
And there was no let-up in the Homestead-Cedarburg game as critical errors in both the first and second innings allowed the Bulldogs to pull ahead, 3-0, but the third inning was a killer for the Highlanders.
A miscommunication on a bunt put two people on and after a hit by pitch, a bad hop single on what looked to be a sure doubleplay ball pushed two runs across to make it 5-0.
After Highlander starter Kevin Koch walked the next batter to load the bases again, Millard went to reliever Tommy Martin, who had a series of sound outings this summer.
But Bulldog lead-off hitter Nick Boehnlein took Martin's first pitch over the leftfield fence for a grand-slam home run and a 9-0 lead.
"We just didn't make the plays when we needed to," said Millard. "You just can't go on giving good teams like Cedarburg opportunity after opportunity. Bad-hop singles happen. That play was going to be a doubleplay for sure. And Kevin has had better outings to be sure but we realized that Kevin was not the issue today."
"We just didn't make the plays behind him and they were just better than us defensively."
And when the Bulldogs tacked on another run in the bottom of the fourth to make it 10-0, it looked like the Highlanders would become the victims of the 10-run "slaughter" rule in just five innings.
But as Millard said: "I always knew we had a rally in us" and he was right as the Highlanders did come back to make a game of it.
They avoided the "slaughter" rule in the top of the fifth when Beckers laced a two-run double and Jake Erfourth cracked an RBI single chasing Cedarburg starter and winner Taylor Piel. The breakthrough ended a frustrating early game run in which the Highlanders stranded runners in every inning but the seventh.
"We didn't move people around as well as we should have," said Millard, "and in certain situations when we had to get people across, we couldn't."
Homestead got another run in the sixth on a Mitch Hauser RBI single off of reliever Brandon Thelen and Highlander reliever Colton Pollinger gave the team a chance by shutting out the Bulldogs in both the fifth and sixth innings (three strikeouts and two walks).
The Highlanders began the seventh with some vigor, as pinch-hitters Joe Stadler and Tim Wiencek and starter Mike Bradford opened the frame with consecutive singles to load the bases.
After Thelen induced a pop-up for the first out, Koch ripped a two-run single to close the gap to 10-6. Another pop-up dimmed Homestead hopes, but all-conference catcher Mitch Hauser immediately brightened them by hammering a Thelen offering over the leftfield fence for a three-run homer.
The impossible had suddenly become possible as top slugger Beckers, who finished the season with well over 40 RBIs, came to the plate representing the tieing run. But Thelen got him to strike out with a fierce cut at a high 2-2 pitch to end the game.
Hauser finished his stellar four-year varsity career with a four-hit, four-RBI game while Koch had three hits, scored twice and knocked in two runs while Erfourth also had two hits.
Hauser, Koch, Beckers, Martin, Matt Schroeder, Doug Mueller, Zac Krause and Zach Enea were the eight seniors that Millard said he would miss much.
Millard also had special praise for Stadler and Wiencek, two juniors who split time on varsity and JV this summer without complaint.
"We just had so many seniors this year that it was hard for us to find playing time for them," said Millard. "So, literally one would be up on varsity one game and the other the next. But all these guys wanted to do was play baseball and when called upon today all they did was come up with two humungous hits to help us hang in there."
BAY 8, PORT WASHINGTON 1: For the second tournament game in a row, the Blue Dukes got an impressive effort from a starting pitcher, as junior Justin Alt battled heat, humidity and a bases-loaded jam in the first to record a complete game victory.
"It all starts with the pitching," said Alt, who had four strikeouts and three walks. "I thought I threw pretty well today. I just went out there and tried to hit my spots. I talked to Jack (Fagan, who was a 4-0 winner over Brown Deer in Tuesday's regional game) and he told me just to go out there and bring it."
The Pirates combined two singles and a walk to load the bases in the first with two out, but Alt got outfielder Zach Hauser looking to end the inning.
"That was huge," said Blue Duke coach Jay Wojcinski. "In our bad stretch in the middle of the season, that would be our problem. We'd get off to a bad start. We'd give up some walks, commit some errors and then we couldn't get out of the first couple of innings."
"So for us to get out of there today without any problems gave us the idea that everything might be OK."
And they were, especially when following a single by Pat Rose and a walk to James Stecker, Grant Menard cracked a three-run homer over the leftfield field to start the Bay second. Later in the frame, Pat Harrington followed up with an RBI single and the Blue Dukes were comfortably ahead for good.
Alt praised his defense, which commited only one error on the day.
"It got hot out there and I got a little bit tired," he said, "but I just tried to keep throwing strikes. I just thought that if they (the Pirates) put it in play, my defense would get the job done, and they did."
Menard finished with four RBI on the day while Garrett Demuth, Johnny Markwiese and Rose all had two hits apiece.
Wojcinski was heartened by the pitching effort, a feeling he didn't always have all season.
"Absolutely," he said. "This is very encouraging. This was probably Justin's best game of the year and that was after Jack's best game of the year on Tuesday. You get a shutout (like Fagan did) you can't lose and you give up only one run, you have to like your chances."
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