By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The fans said it, the players acknowledged it and the coach could only grin and agree.
The Beast was back in the East.
The Glendive Blue Devils, led by one of the unlikeliest of heroes, captured the Class A State American Legion Baseball title in Havre Wednesday with a 1-0 win over the Libby Loggers at Legion Field.
To put it simply: It was Jason Erickson's day.
The diminutive 16-year-old pitched perhaps the greatest game of his brief American Legion career on the biggest stage.
Erickson threw seven innings of shutout baseball, allowing just five hits and striking out eight, in a surprise start for the Blue Devils, who won the state title in 2002.
But that wasn't all. Erickson drove in the game's only run with a sharp single up the middle, scoring Collin Radakovich in the top of the fifth inning.
"How about Jason Erickson?" asked Glendive head coach Chad Jones. "What more can you ask from a 16-year-old? He starts the biggest game of the year and the biggest game of his career and just put on a gutty performance. And then he gets the game winning hit? It really was Jason Erickson's day."
Indeed, Erickson will never be confused for Kerry Wood, or even teammate Greg Ford, in terms of velocity. But he pitched a solid game, using a snappy curveball and a deft changeup to keep Libby's big hitters off balance.
"I wasn't really able to spot my fastball," Erickson said. "But my curveball has been consistent all year. I just tried to get ahead and change speeds to keep them off balance."
"Jason really pitched a really smart ball game," Jones said. "He didn't try to do too much and stayed within himself."
Erickson had a little help from the Glendive defense as well. The Blue Devils turned double plays in the second and third inning to get Erickson out of jams, while third baseman Chase Downs seemed to field a groundball every inning.
"I thought the double plays helped Jason relax a little," Jones said. "They got some singles off him, but we made the plays and helped him keep his composure. Chase has made plays all year long for us and he was great today."
Erickson ran into trouble early in the game. Libby had runners on first and second in the first inning, but Erickson was able to get the Loggers' leading hitters in the tournament, Herbig and Brandon Laffoon, to pop out and ground out respectively.
Libby missed out on a golden opportunity in the second inning as Brady Turk led off with a single and was advanced to second by Cole Spencer's sacrifice bunt. Zach Schad slapped a base hit to short left field that wasn't quite deep enough to score Turk.
Loggers head coach Scott Foss held Turk up at third, however, Glendive leftfielder Matt Iba bobbled the ball, dropping it at his feet. Foss motioned and yelled for Turk to go home, but Turk had his back turned on the play and missed out on an opportunity to score.
After the scare, Erickson retired 15 of the next 16 batters he faced.
Still, Erickson's heroics almost never occurred. Following Glendive's 7-4 win over Libby in the semifinals on Tuesday, Jones had penciled Ford in as his likely starter.
When Libby defeated Bitterroot Tuesday evening without using ace Nate Herbig to advance to the championship, Jones was almost positive that the championship would be a duel between the two teams' aces.
However, the Loggers went with Mitch Mohr on the mound and Jones turned to Erickson.
"I was definitely surprised," Erickson admitted. "Coach told me to be ready because I might pitch, but I still thought it was going to be Greg getting the start."
Said Jones: "I really thought they would start Herbig. But when they went with someone different we adjusted our lineup. I thought it was a better match-up with Erickson on the mound."
But the the hard-throwing Ford still got to take the hill for the Blue Devils.
After giving up a lead-off single in the bottom of the eighth to Schad, Erickson motioned to Jones in the dugout to come out to the mound. After a brief meeting, Jones signaled Ford in from centerfield to shut the door.
"My arm was pretty tired," Erickson said. "I'm used to throwing five innings, seven at the most. It was a little too much. And I had confidence that Greg could come in and shut them down."
Erickson had every reason to be confident. Ford had been just about untouchable on the weekend. He came in and immediately blew three fastballs past Justin Barnes for the first out of the inning. Ford fielded a bunt for the second out and then got Jake Swartzendruber to ground out, ending the Libby threat.
Ford ran into his first real trouble of the tournament in the bottom of the ninth. He surrendered a lead-off hit to Mohr. A Herbig sac bunt moved Mohr into scoring position. Ford then walked Brandon Laffoon putting the go-ahead run on base. But he battled back to strike out Turk and got Cole Spencer to pop out to right field to seal the game.
"That wasn't what I was looking for in that last inning," Ford admitted. "The guy stung me up the middle, and I made it worse by walking a guy. But we found a way to get outs."
It was Ford's second save in as many days to along with his complete-game win to open the tournament. In 11 and two-thirds innings Ford allowed just one run and struck out 19 batters. He also batted .387 at the plate and took home the tournament's most valuable player honors. Yet, he was quick to point to his teammates.
"Make sure you say something about Jason Erickson," he said. "For a 16-year-old to come in and pitch that well is amazing. Our whole team really came together at the end of the season. We started playing better defensively and our young kids in the bottom of the lineup really stepped up. Those kids are all going to be around for a while."
Glendive's 6-9 hitters accounted for six of the Blue Devils eight hits. Radakovich and Logan Meiers had two hits each while Andy Odenbach and Erickson also tallied hits.
Although Jones might not be around much longer if his team has many more one-run games. After dominating the Eastern District all season, one-run games are something new to Glendive.
"Those games are tough on the old coach's heart," Jones laughed. "We were winning games by scores of like 18-2, 20-1 and here we are in a 1-0 game. For us to stay calm and make all the plays says a lot about the makeup of this team."
Glendive advances to the Class A Northwest Regional in Bozeman starting on August 12.
Glendive 1, Libby 0
Glendive Blue Devils 000 010 000 - 1 8 1
Libby Loggers 000 000 000 - 0 6 1
Jason Erickson (7), Greg Ford (2) and Collin Radakovich; Mitch Mohr and Brady Turk.
WP - Erickson; LP - Mohr; S - Ford.
BLUE DEVILS HITTING - Evan Miller 1-4, Matt Iba 0-4, Chase Downs 1-4, Joe Bakken 0-4, Greg Ford 0-4, Collin Radakovich 2-4, Logan Meiers 2-3, Andy Odenbach 1-4, Jason Erickson 1-3 (RBI).
LOGGERS HITTING - Tim Spencer 0-3, Jake Swartzendruber 0-3, Mitch Mohr 3-4, Nate Herbig 0-3, Brandon Laffoon 0-3, Brady Turk 1-4, Cole Spencer 0-3, Zach Schad 2-3, Justin Barnes 0-3.
2B - Radakovich
3B - none
HR - none