Since their last appearance in the Class C state tournament in 2009, the Lamberton Long Sox have been on the cusp of another state berth. But in the end, the team fell short after promising seasons the last two years.
"We lost some close playoff games in the past and maybe missed that opportunity to get to the state tournament," said Lamberton manager Derrick Jenniges.
Then, with a change in the state tournament, the Long Sox got an extra glimmer of hope.
Independent file photo
Lamberton’s Johnny Pistulka sets to fire a pitch during the Long Sox’s game against the Marshall A’s on July 24. The Long Sox open the Class C state amateur baseball playoffs on Sunday against Avon at Faber Field in St. Cloud.
"I think one of the things that really triggered our belief that this could be a return year for us," Jenniges said, "is when the state board announced our region would have four teams (at state).
"If that were the case (in the past), we would have been at the state tournament on a yearly basis."
Having that extra seed in the state tournament certainly helped Lamberton's cause, but in a way, it also helped the team play better in the Region 3C tournament.
And with some of the pressure off, the Long Sox blew through the region's round-robin play, clinching the No. 1 seed from 2C and gaining a first-round bye in the state amateur baseball tournament.
Sixteen days after its last baseball game, Lamberton makes its return to state on Sunday when it faces off against the Avon Lakers at Faber Field in St. Cloud.
"It's an interesting transition for us," Jenniges said. "After playing three times a week and then finishing a region tournament that had us play five games in seven days, then have us take 16 days off from your last truly competitive game."
Avon (22-10) advanced to Sunday's game with a 6-2 win over Young America on Aug. 18.
In the midst of a season where the Long Sox went 29-7 overall and 25-4 in the Tomahawk East League, fifth-year player Johnny Pistulka said Lamberton's chemistry really seemed to pick up compared to the last couple years.
"We've always had good team chemistry, but I think it's gotten better since the middle of the season," Pistulka said. "That's when it seemed to take off."
Confidence isn't the only thing that has taken off this season. When Lamberton heads to the plate, the ball has taken off all over the field. With a team batting average of .294, the Long Sox have five players with over 100 at-bats who have .300-plus batting averages. Pistulka leads the pack with a .402 average, belting eight doubles, six triples and four home runs.
"I put a lot of time and effort in the weight room," Pistulka said, "and then I also built my own batting cage at the farm where I live, so I spent a lot of time in that, also.
"I live and die baseball, so a lot of time in the cage and the weight room."
At the top of the lineup is Donald Strand, who sports a .336 average with 48 hits and a .435 on-base percentage.
Lamberton has outscored opponents by 98 runs this season, and the biggest factor offensively, according to Strand, is how tough an out each Long Sox batter is.
"We usually don't have 1-2-3 innings," Strand said. "We get guys on base with our small ball, and that's big in our league.
"We hit the ball hard. One through nine, every time we make contact, it's hit hard."
Defensively, Derrick Jenniges hopes to dictate play when he takes the mound on Sunday. This summer, Jenniges has been nearly unhittable, holding teams to a .195 average in 85 2/3 innings while sporting a 0.95 ERA and a perfect 12-0 record.
"He works fast," Strand said of Jenniges. "Every time he's on the mound, you sprint out there and it's like 'OK guys, I'm only going to throw three pitches,' so the tempo of the game really helps us, too. Our guys really seem to step up a notch when he's on the mound."
Looking for an extended stay in St. Cloud, Jenniges knows it'll take some sharp play to get past Avon on Sunday.
"Most of all, we just have to have good, quality at-bats," Jenniges said. "Whether you're getting on base or getting hits, if you're having a five- or six-pitch at-bat and you're making that pitcher work, he'll make mistakes down the line. It's going to be a grind-it-out game."