Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Wins haven't come easy for the Havre Northstars in the last three weeks. And it doesn't appear that anything will come easy for them this week at the Northern District Tournament.
The top-seeded Northstars hung on to pick up a 9-7 win over an upset-minded Fort MacLeod Royal squad on Thursday evening at Legion Field.
"I was definitely afraid of something like this happening," said Northstars head coach Mickey Williams. "We are very fortunate to come out with a win because we didn't play particularly well."
Scoring nine runs doesn't usually mean you are playing badly, but for six innings the Northstars were staring a first-round upset in the eye. Fortunately for them, the Royals blinked in the sixth inning. With the two teams tied at 1-1, Havre scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth and appeared to finally take control of the game.
After scuffling against Royal starter Josh Kutcher early on and leaving the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Havre finally broke through in the sixth with two outs. Sean Peterson battled Kutcher to pick up a big two-strike single to left. He moved to third on a perfectly executed hit-and-run single by John Christian. Peterson later scored on a passed ball to give Havre a 2-1 lead.
Kutcher then walked Patch Wirtzberger and Josh Lowe to load the bases, setting up Ben Erickson's two-run double to right that Royal outfielder Joey Gibboney lost in the sun."
"We finally made some things happen a little," Williams said. "John did a great job on the hit-and-run and we got a little help from the sun."
Havre tacked on two more runs when Josh Morse looped a two-run single to right to cap off the big inning.
The five-run lead seemed to be more than enough for Northstar starter Jeff Tibbals, who had allowed just one run on a squeeze play in six innings of work. He got through the seventh on just four pitches, but started to wear down in the eighth, allowing a lead-off single and walking a batter. Kutcher and Travis Gibboney then came up with back-to-back RBI singles to cut the lead to 6-3. Tibbals got out of the inning, getting Steve Wilson to fly-out to left and Greg Gibos to ground out.
The Northstars added some insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth. Christian was hit by a pitch to start the inning and Wirtzberger pushed a tough bunt past Royal first baseman Lorne Burles to get things going. They moved into scoring position on a Lowe sacrifice bunt. With runners on second and third, Erickson wouldn't need any help from the sun this time as he laced a two-run single down the third-base line to score Wirtzberger and Christian.
"Ben had been struggling at the plate, especially with runners in scoring position," Williams said. "But he came up big in that situation and hit the ball hard."
Havre picked up its final run as Austin Small scored Lowe with a long sacrifice fly to left field to push the lead to 9-3.
The three runs would prove to be pivotal for Havre, because the pesky Royals simply would not go away.
Tibbals started off the inning on a sour note, hitting the first batter and Havre committing an error to give Fort MacLeod some life. Tibbals struck out Patrick Burles and got Joey Gibboney to pop up to get two much-needed outs, but another walk loaded the bases and forced Williams to bring in Christian for relief.
Christian was greeted harshly. Kutcher and Travis Gibboney smacked back-to-back two-run doubles to left to cut the lead to 9-7. Christian then hit Wilson with a pitch and walked Greg Gibos to load the bases again. Williams had seen enough and brought in Small, who got Jesse Handford to ground out to end the game.
"It wasn't exactly how I wanted to end the game," Williams said. "We have a bad habit of not putting teams away after getting up a few runs and it happened again tonight. We can't assume that a team is just going to lay down after we get up a few runs."
Tibbals got the win, going just over seven innings and allowing three runs on seven hits. He struck out six batters, walked two and hit two. Not bad statistics, but it was a minor struggle for him at times.
"Jeff wasn't quite as sharp as he usually is," Williams said. "He didn't have his normal velocity and was struggling to spot his curveball. But he gave us seven pretty good innings."
Offensively, Havre had nine hits and was led by Josh Lowe who was 3-for-4 with two runs scored. Erickson had two hits and drove in four runs, while Christian and Wirtzberger each had hits and scored two runs.
Fort MacLeod got a solid performance from Kutcher and Travis Gibboney, who were both 3-for-4 and drove in three runs.
The Northstars will face the Lethbridge Miners in quarterfinal action today at 4 p.m. Williams is looking for an even better performance from his team.
"I know we didn't peak the first week in July," Williams said. "We need to play a little better than we have the past few weeks. This is tournament time and we didn't raise our level of play, because every team is going to do that against us."
Northstars 9, Royals 7
Fort MacLeod Royals 000 001 024 - 7 9 3
Havre Northstars 010 005 03X - 9 9 1
Josh Kutcher (5), Greg Gibos and Jesse Handford; Jeff Tibbals (7), John Christian (1), Austin Small and Josh Morse.
WP - Tibbals; LP - Kutcher; Save - Small.
ROYALS HITTING - Josh Kutcher 3-4 (3 RBI); Travis Gibboney 3-4 (3 RBI); Steve Wilson 0-3 (RBI); Greg Gibos 0-4; Jesse Handford 1-5; Lorne Burles 0-4; Patrick Burles 1-4; Joey Gibboney 1-4; Sean Appelhof 0-2.
NORTHSTARS HITTING - John Christian 1-4, Patch Wirtzberger 1-4, Josh Lowe 3-4, Ben Erickson 2-4 (4 RBI), Josh Morse 1-3 (2 RBI), Austin Small 0-4, Chase Castloo 0-4, Eric Fanning 0-2, Sean Peterson 1-3 (RBI).
2B - Kutcher, Erickson, Gibboney.
3B - none
HR - none
Lethbridge 14, Tri-County 7
The Lethbridge Miners exploded for nine runs in the top of the ninth inning to overcome a 7-5 deficit and knock off the Tri-County Cardinals 14-7 in the Northern District tournament opener Thursday morning at Legion Field.
Tri-County, which was seeded fourth, jumped out to a 7-0 lead after three innings as Colby Johnson ripped a pair of two-run singles. Craig Smith also plated a pair of runs with a single and Adam Oien added an RBI single.
However, Lethbridge cut into the lead in the top of the fourth, scoring five runs off Cardinal starter Robin Christiansen. The Miners finally chased Christiansen in the ninth, but the Cardinal relievers wouldn't fare much better, allowing three hits and seven runs.
Lethbridge, the fifth seed in the tournament, was paced offensively by shortstop Brock Fulkerth with three hits, two RBIs and two runs scored. Catcher Jordan Purchinger had two hits and drove in two runs, while Matt Weninger, Corey Gerstenbuhler and Kyle Rokosh added two hits each.
Braedan Horon picked up the win in relief for Lethbridge, pitching seven innings and allowing just three runs on three hits, while striking out four batters.
Lethbridge will take on the Havre Northstars this afternoon at 4, while Tri-County played Fort MacLeod this morning at 9..
Miners 14, Cardinals 7
Lethbridge Miners 000 500 009 - 14 14 1
Tri-County Cardinals 043 000 000 - 7 8 3
Matt Weninger (2); Braeden Horon and Jordan Purchinger; Robin Christiansen (8); Burns Brown; Colby Johnson; Brett Bandow and Josh Pyette.
WP - Horon; LP - Brown.
MINERS HITTING - Jeff Wilson 1-5 (RBI); Matt Wending 2-6 (RBI); Kyle Rokosh 2-5; Kurstis Kaskiw 1-6; Braden Horon 1-6; Aaron Groves 0-3; Corey Gerstenbuhler 2-3 (RBI); Brock Fulkerth 3-3 (2 RBI); Jordan Purchinger 2-5 (2 RBI).
CARDINALS HITTING - Colby Johnson 2-5 (4 RBI); Adam Oien 1-2 (RBI); Craig Smith 1-4 (2 RBI); Burns Brown 0-5; Josh Pyette 1-5; Dusty Ahrens 0-3; Julian Paulson 2-4; Judd Engelar 0-3; Zach Styren 1-3; Robin Christiaensen 0-1.
2B - Weninger; Rokosh; Paulson
3B - Pyette
HR - none