Baseball Cards just one win from state

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Alden Cleary and Middleton's baseball team are one win from state after defeating Sun Prairie West in a sectional semifinal Tuesday./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

LA CROSSE — From the time Brent Jorgensen passed out uniforms this spring, Middleton’s manager knew there was a formula that would allow his Cardinals have a big year.

Middleton wasn’t blessed with big boppers or dominant arms. So the Cardinals’ path to success involved small ball, great defense and never flinching in tight games.

Now, that recipe has Middleton one game from state.

The Cardinals defeated Sun Prairie West, 4-3, in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal Tuesday at Copeland Park in La Crosse. Middleton improved to 21-8 overall and moved within one game of its first state tournament since 2016.

“The guys work so hard. They put in a lot,” Jorgensen said. “They do all those small things that make a difference in the game, things that people watching the game don't always see or understand. They do all those small things and it makes a difference.”

Sacrifice flies. Bunting. Moving runners over. And high-level fielding.

They aren't always sexy components of baseball. But nothing is more attractive than winning, and those elements of the game are a huge reason the Cardinals improved to 8-2 this season in games decided by two runs, or less. Middleton’s three playoff wins are also by a total of four runs.

“That’s our whole mentality,” said senior Hayden Hellenbrand, who threw the final 3 1/3 innings in relief and earned the win. “Coach Jorgensen instilled that in us. You guys are a team that’s going to make plays on defense, you’re going to pitch well. We don’t have to score a ton of runs because we know we can make plays and we embrace that.”

Middleton executed that blueprint to perfection in beating the Wolves for a third straight time.

Starter Jacob Guerrero (3.2 innings, one earned run) and Hellenbrand didn't strike out a West batter. But they combined to throw strikes on 62.4% of their pitches and let their defense do the rest.

Catcher Wyatt Baird threw out two would-be base stealers. Second baseman Jackson Guerrero was a vacuum and started a critical fifth inning double play. And the outfielders combined to make eight putouts.

“Playing great defense, that’s huge,” said Baird, who had two hits and an RBI. “A lot of teams might play tight and cramp up and not make those plays. But I feel like we’ve been making those plays and it’s been huge. It was a one-run game and I feel like if we didn't make those clutch plays, it could have been a different turnout.”

It sure could have.

The Wolves struck for two first inning runs as Guerrero struggled with his control and threw 25 pitches.

After recording an out to open the game, Guerrero walked shortstop Casey Wambach and designated hitter Jaiden Jung. Guerrero recorded a fly ball out, but then gave up consecutive RBI singles to left fielder Benjamin Olsen and catcher Julian Torres-Otero as West jumped to a 2-0 lead.

Middleton answered right back with three runs of its own in the bottom of the first.

Center fielder Jackson Rademacher and Baird had back-to-back infield singles to open the frame. Hellenbrand then roped a double to left that scored Rademacher and pulled the Cardinals within 2-1.

First baseman Alden Cleary followed with a drive to the warning track that plated pinch runner Porter Blaha from third and tied the game, 2-2. Hellenbrand also tagged on the play and moved to third, which proved critical when West starter Jackson Hunley uncorked a wild pitch that plated Hellenbrand and gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.

“I feel like this team right now, we’re playing our best and we can battle back after an inning like that,” Baird said of giving up two runs in the first. “And I think that carried throughout the game. That first inning really carried us through.”

Jorgensen agreed.

“We just do a lot of small things and it’s a pretty big testament to our program,” he said. “It’s not any one coach or any one level. It’s just everybody across the board has done a good job teaching these kids how to play baseball, and that’s pretty cool.”

The Cardinals added another run in the second when Baird had a clutch, two-out single to left that scored Jackson Guerrero and made it 4-2. Middleton came within inches of breaking the game open when Hellenbrand followed with a blast to left that would have scored a pair of runs. But Hellenbrand’s bomb landed foul by just inches, and Hunley battled back to record a strikeout and escape further damage.

The Cardinals managed just one hit the rest of the way, but their ability to make big plays in the field at opportune times allowed them to prevail.

Guerrero got into trouble in the fourth and loaded the bases with two outs. Despite the fact Guerrero — a first-team all-Big Eight Conference pitcher — had throws just 54 pitches, Jorgensen went to Hellenbrand, his usual shortstop.

“Jacob certainly wasn’t pitching bad,” Jorgensen said. “We just had a feeling about Hayden.”

That feeling was a good one, as Hellenbrand got Hunley — West’s leadoff batter — to fly out to right fielder Charlie Tompach.

The Wolves had two hits and a walk in the fifth. But Baird gunned down Wambach trying to steal, and Jacob Guerrero looked like Joe Morgan starting a double play that included a laser to first by shortstop Dylan Klock.

“It’s huge to have trust in your defense,” Hellenbrand said. “And I have so much trust in my middle infielders, everybody making plays. Wyatt blocking everything and throwing kids out. I have so much faith in all my guys on defense.”

The Wolves put two on with two out in the sixth and had the top of the order coming up. But Jacob Guerrero gobbled up Hunley’s hot smash to second and threw out West’s pitcher.

In the seventh, the Wolves scratched across their first run since the first inning. Jung doubled with one out, and with West down to its final strike, Olsen ripped an RBI single to center to make it 4-3.

Jorgensen could have summoned first-team all-conference pitcher Noah Schmitt to record the final out. Instead, he stayed with Hellenbrand, the Cardinals’ captain and only three-year letterwinner on the roster.

“We just felt like Hayden, team captain, he got us through a tight jam against Janesville Craig when we beat them 2-1 (on May 23), we just felt like with Hayden being who he is, we felt confident he was going to get us out of that last jam in the end,” Jorgensen said.

And that’s just what he did.

Torres-Otero, an honorable-mention all-conference catcher, was 2-for-3 on the day. But Hellenbrand got the Wolves’ standout to fly out to right lifting Middleton within one game of state.

“We’re just a scrappy bunch. We have been all year,” Jorgensen said. “We find ways to beat people. And sometimes when it’s a close game, it makes you a little nervous, but it’s really fun. It’s really fun to watch these guys play the game a certain way and go out there and compete.

“They know each other extremely well. They get more and more comfortable and it bleeds into a confidence and a trust and a belief that they’ll figure out ways to be successful regardless of who they’re playing.”


June 6

WIAA Division 1 Sectional semifinal

Middleton 4, Sun Prairie West 3

Sun Prairie West ...... 200 000 1 — 3 7 2

Middleton ……..… 310 000 x — 4 5 2

Pitchers (ip-h-r-er-so-bb) — SPW: Jackson Hunley (L: 6-5-4-2-5-0). M: Jacob Guerrero (3.2-3-2-1-0-3), Hayden Hellenbrand (3.1-4-1-1-0-2).

Leading hitters —  SPW: Ben Olsen 3x4, Jaiden Jung (2B). Mid: Wyatt Baird 2x3, Hayden Hellenbrand (2B).

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