BIGGER THAN BASEBALL

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Middleton's Jamie Guerrero (throwing) and Sun Prairie's Garry Bahe were honored at the Strike Out Cancer game Tuesday./Photo submitted

SUN PRAIRIE — Easton Zempel wants to make one thing clear.

“Losing sucks,” Middleton’s ace right hander said.

When Zempel and his teammates examined the big picture, though, perhaps Middleton’s 3-0 loss to host Sun Prairie Tuesday afternoon stung a bit less.

But only a bit.

Middleton and Sun Prairie took part in the eighth annual Strike Out Cancer game held at Summit Field.

The teams raised more than $117,000 for American Family Children’s Hospital pediatric cancer research during their first seven years. And after a banner fundraising year in 2022, that number jumped to more than $150,000.

Afterwards, Middleton manager Brent Jorgensen was bummed by the loss. But he also realized the greater good Middleton and Sun Prairie had just been part of.

“It’s a big picture game,” Jorgensen said. “To be able to do this and to be part of it with our two communities is really cool. It’s really unique. To have the support of everybody involved and all the player and parent involvement, too, is great.”

Before the game, Middleton JV coach Jamie Guerrero and former Sun Prairie coach Garry Bahe were honored for their fights against cancer.

Guerrero, a 1990 Middleton High School graduate and a coach in the MHS baseball program for two decades, was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last summer. Guerrero is winning his fight against cancer, but will undergo liver surgery on May 23.

Bahe, a 1961 Sun Prairie High School graduate, was that school’s baseball coach from 1986-2000. In that time, he led Sun Prairie to two WIAA state championships, four Big Eight Conference titles, eight trips to sectionals, and was named Big Eight Conference coach of the year four times.

Bahe was diagnosed with melanoma cancer in June, 2021. Bahe’s cancer has begun to recede, but his battle isn’t over either.

Tim Cleary, the Vice Chair of the Carbone Cancer Center, introduced both Guerrero and Bahe. And Cleary explained how every dollar raised by the two teams since 2015 for pediatric research and care has grown 15 times.

That means the $150,000 raised by the two Cardinal programs has actually ballooned to roughly $2.25 million.

“I love being a part of this event,” Zempel said. “It’s great. Obviously the loss sucks, but overall, it’s a really cool day.”

About the only thing Middleton didn't find cool was the outcome.

Middleton managed just four hits off Sun Prairie starter Davis Hamilton. Middleton also struck out 10 times and didn’t draw a walk.

Zempel was solid for Middleton, allowing four hits and three runs in five innings. But Sun Prairie was flawless in the field and took advantage of every scoring opportunity it had.

Sun Prairie improved to 13-2 in the Big Eight Conference and stayed atop the league, one game ahead of Janesville Craig (12-3). Sun Prairie, ranked sixth in the latest state poll, also won its 10th straight game and is now 16-3 overall.

Middleton, meanwhile, saw its slim hopes of winning a share of the conference dashed. Middleton fell to 14-6 overall and 10-5 in the Big Eight.

“Just a couple mistakes that wouldn't show up in a box score and things that just can’t happen,” Jorgensen said. “Was it a pretty clean game by us overall? Yeah. It was one of our better games. But when you’re playing against really good teams, you have to elevate more than what we did.”

Sun Prairie took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second.

Right fielder Jackson Hunley led off the inning with a double to the gap in left center field. Hunley moved to third on a groundout, then scored on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by catcher Julian Torres.

“They don't make any mistakes,” Zempel said of Sun Prairie, the defending WIAA Division 1 state champs. “They’re so good.”

Middleton had a chance to pull even in the fourth inning when second baseman and cleanup hitter Preston Roell doubled down the line in left with two outs. That was just Middleton’s second hit of the game.

Pinch runner Biagio Gargano moved to third on a wild pitch, but the threat ended when shortstop Hayden Hellenbrand flew out to center.

Sun Prairie then struck for a pair of runs in the fifth and stretched its lead to 3-0, despite having just one ball leave the infield. Sun Prairie had a bunt single, a walk, a sacrifice bunt, an RBI groundout by third baseman Isaac Windler and an RBI single to left by Iowa football recruit Addison Ostrenga.

“Easton wasn’t at his best, but he pitched well enough to win,” Jorgensen said of Zempel. “He did a nice job for us. And as well as he pitched, he wasn’t his normal self. But he competed and gave us a chance to win. We just weren’t able to scratch a whole lot across for him.”

Middleton’s last chance to make things interesting came in the sixth, when Zempel and Stephen Paulsen both singled to right with one out putting runners on the corners. Unfortunately for Middleton, Paulsen was picked off first base, and when Jackson Rademacher — who was pinch running for Zempel — took off for home, he was gunned down.

Jaron Sarbacker then struck out and Middleton’s threat was halted.

“It’s all body language,” Jorgensen said. “They absolutely dominated us with body language today and that’s been the message all year. At some time, our body language needs to change and we need to be the aggressors with our body language and the way we approach the game.

“When we’ve been ahead, we’ve done a great job with it. But when we’ve been down, we haven’t. And this late in the season, you’re going to be down at some point. And your body language needs to be the aggressor whether you’re winning or losing. You need to stay on the attack.”

These teams could see plenty more of each other before the year ends.

They’ll finish their home-and-home series Thursday at Middleton. For the first time in many years, they’re also in the same sectional, meaning they could very well meet in the postseason.

Middleton left Summit Field proud of the work it had done for American Family Children’s Hospital. Now, Middleton wants to experience that same level of success on the field over the next few weeks.

“We just need to keep playing better,” said Jorgensen, who will take part in a postseason seeding meeting on Sunday. “Today was an unfortunate loss, but we did play better. And if we can build off of it and move forward, it could be a good thing for us.”

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