SMSU locks up postseason berth with split against USF

Photo by Jake McNeill: Southwest Minnesota State second baseman Keenan Wenzel receives a throw at second base and prepares to throw to first for a double play during a baseball game against Sioux Falls at Legion Field in Marshall on Wednesday night. The Mustangs split the doubleheader, winning the first game 3-2 before dropping the second 4-3.

MARSHALL — The Southwest Minnesota State baseball team officially clinched its spot in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament on Wednesday afternoon. The Mustangs’ 3-2 win in the first game of their doubleheader locked up their place in the postseason but fell 4-3 in the nightcap to end the day with a split.

“It’s certainly exciting. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of the work that the older guys have done and how talented they are, it’s a cool thing to be in that spot,” SMSU head coach Jeremy Ische said. “Not everybody gets that opportunity, and it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to go up there and show what we can do.”

Kolby Kiser pitched the full seven innings to secure the victory in the first game of the day, holding Sioux Falls scoreless through the first six and hitless through the first four. He improves to 6-3 on the year with the win.

Four of the six hits he allowed came in the final inning, resulting in a pair of Sioux Falls runs, but he got out of the inning with the Mustangs’ lead still intact. After combining for four strikeouts in his last three appearances, Kiser struck out eight batters while walking four on Wednesday.

“[Kolby] texted me Monday right out the gate asking me, ‘Hey, what’s the pitching plan? I want to pitch.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got it big man, you go senior up and go do it,'” Ische said. “The kid wants the baseball. He wants to pitch in high-leverage spots. I’m really proud of him taking the ball on a shorter week and going out and winning and getting the job done. He’s a special kid and it’s been a lot of fun coaching him.”

After a scoreless first three innings, the Mustangs opened the game’s scoring with a pair of runs in the fourth. Jaxon Haase doubled and Jake Tauer beat out a bunt single to put runners on the corners with no outs. Wenzel hit a sacrifice bunt but reached base on a throwing error, also allowing Haase to advance to third. A double play put two down but Brady Petron came up with an RBI single to make the lead 2-0.

The Mustangs accrued five hits in the game from five different batters. Haase, Tauer and Petron each reached twice on a hit and an error.

The Cougars got their first hit of the game when Noah Christenson hit a leadoff single to start the fifth. A Ryan Gouldin walk and an Isaac Bonner bunt single loaded the bases with no outs. Yet, Kiser fielded a ground ball up the middle and gunned it to the plate to initiate a 1-2-3 double play and a fly out ended the inning with Sioux Falls still scoreless.

“That was a really wild thing. I haven’t seen a 1-2-3 double play in quite a while,” Ische said, saying that the team shifted the infield forward and Kiser got the breaking ball to turn into a grounder right back to him. “It’s crazy when you think about it. What are the odds you score a run with the bases loaded and nobody out? They didn’t get one there. It doesn’t happen too often. It’s like a unicorn. But that was a big play and I’m glad it went our way.”

SMSU added an insurance run in the bottom of the fifth when Chase McDaniel singled and advanced to second on a throwing error. Isaac Nett was hit by a pitch and Haase walked to load the bases with one out and a Tauer walk forced in McDaniel for a run. The Cougars limited the damage by subbing out Jake Ammann for Grayson Skinner, who got a fly out and a ground out to end the inning with SMSU leading just 3-0.

Ammann pitched the first 4 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on five htis, five walks and a strikeout while falling to 2-3 on the year. Skinner pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief, holding SMSU to just one walk and no hits.

Christensen initiated another rally with a single to start the top of the seventh and Gouldin followed up with a double to put two runners in scoring position and the tying run at the plate. Kiser came up with a pair of big strikeouts but a Brady Klehr double to right-center field made the score 2-3 with the go-ahead run coming to bat. Tyler Cate singled to put runners on the corners but Kiser got out of the inning with a fly out to seal the victory.

Game 2

A sixth-inning rally proved the difference in the day’s second game as the Sioux Falls Cougars held on for a 4-3 victory over the Mustangs, ending a nine-game losing streak for Sioux Falls and keeping their postseason hopes alive.

“Look at the scoreboard, they had [12] hits and we had five, that’s kind of the difference,” Ische said of the second game. “And their hits were doubles and ours were singles. They slugged it a lot more than we did… We pitched out of some jams as well but they just hit the ball over our outfielder’s heads more than we did.”

Trailing 3-2, the Cougars rallied in the sixth inning to push across the go-ahead runs. David Swanson singled and Noah Christenson doubled to start the frame. After a fly out, the Mustangs substituted out starting pitcher Shay Endres for Kobe Lovell.

Lovell allowed a two-run single to Mitch Ilif to start his outing, giving the Cougars a 4-3 lead. He allowed one more single but caught Bonner in a run down after a pickoff attempt to put one away and got a groundout to limit the deficit to one run.

The outing was Lovell’s 59th career appearance, making him the all-time leader in program history. He surpasses B.J. Richter, who pitched for SMSU from 1997 through 2000.

Just a half inning before the Cougars went ahead, SMSU claimed its first lead of the game in the bottom of the fifth. McDaniel singled and Max Kalenberg walked to put two runners on when Tauer stepped up to the plate with two outs. He singled to center to give SMSU its first run of the game, prompting Sioux Falls to pull starting pitcher Logan Anderson for Derek Lundgren.

The change didn’t slow the Mustangs’ momentum. Tauer advanced to second on a wild pitch and then scored, along with Kalenberg, on a Keenan Wenzel double to right-center field for a 3-2 SMSU lead at the end of the inning.

Endres pitched the first 5 1/3 for the Mustangs and fell to 3-3 with the loss. He allowed four earned runs on eight hits and three walks with five strikeouts.

Once Endres came out, Lovell closed out an inning and Cameron Jensen pitched the remainder of the game. Jensen held the Cougars scoreless over three innings, limiting Sioux Falls to two hits and a walk while striking out five of the 12 batters he faced. Yet, a lack of run support prevented him from getting the come-from-behind win.

The only runs in the first four frames came courtesy of the Cougars in the top of the third. Cate doubled to right center with one out and scored on a Dane Small double in the next at-bat. After a pop out, Swanson drove in another run with a single to left field. SMSU left fielder Nett caught Swanson trying to stretch it to second to end the inning but Sioux Falls still held a 2-0 advantage.

Anderson didn’t earn a decision for the Cougars after pitching the first 4 2/3 frames, allowing three runs on four hits, four walks and a pair of strikeouts. Lundgren and Zachary Shastay each pitched 2/3 innings, with Shastay holding the Mustangs without a baserunner and both holding SMSU scoreless. Lundgren also earned his first win of the season to improve to 1-0.

Dylan Immel closed out the game with three hitless innings, striking out three of the nine batters he faced, to pick up his first save of the season. The only base runner he allowed came when Isaac Nett reached on a catchers interference to start the seventh inning but he was caught in a line-out double play to end the inning shortly thereafter.

The Cougars nearly pushed an additional run across the plate in the top of the ninth. Tate hit a leadoff single and advanced to second on a groundout. Swanson nearly drove him in on the next at-bat, but a great diving stop by Haase at first base limited the play to a single.

Tate tried to extend it home but a great scoop by Brady Petron behind the plate on a throw from McDaniel allowed him to make the inning-ending tag with SMSU still trailing by just a run. Still, the Mustangs went down in order in the bottom of the frame.

“We call it get the ball to McDaniel in the middle and he made a really great throw to the plate, Petron had a great pick at the plate for an out,” Ische said. “That’s a big out, gives us a chance in the ninth inning. We didn’t get anything going in the ninth inning but we’re playing pretty good defense overall. We’re top five in the league in defense and it’s certainly something we stress in practice quite often and the best teams play catch the best and we’re certainly getting closer to that.”

With the split, SMSU now holds sixth place in the NSIC with a 25-20 overall record and a 19-17 conference record. Sioux Falls, meanwhile, is now 15-21 in the conference in 10th place. They’ll need to sweep Concordia-St. Paul this weekend to maintain a shot at the postseason.

The Mustangs will wrap up their regular-season with another tough battle, hosting second-place Minnesota State (32-15, 27-9 NSIC) for one game on Friday and a doubleheader on Saturday. The Mavericks have won each of the teams’ last 17 head-to-head matchups and 35 of the last 36.

“They’re a talented program. They’ve been good for many, many years and I know our guys are up for the challenge of playing Mankato at home,” Ische said, noting that Saturday is both the team’s senior day and graduation day. “A lot of families and friends and that type of stuff will be in at the ballpark, so that’ll be good. We’ll give them our best shot. We’re not going to pitch off or whatever, we’re going to play to win and go into the tournament with some momentum. We’re excited to host these guys.”


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