By almost every measure, the Monticello Magic are finally playing their best baseball of the season. Unfortunately for the Magic, even though the push started just in time to still compete for a conference championship, they were done in by just one bad inning.
The Magic won four out of five games this week, including three out of four conference games. But it might be the one that got away that looms the largest.
Monticello, needing a sweep of perennial power St. Michael-Albertville, got 13/14th’s of the way there last Thursday at Monticello High School, before running out of gas.
In the first game, Monticello was simply the sharper team.
STMA got chances against Magic pitcher Andrew Manning, but Manning and his defense consistently shut the door when it mattered.
In the second inning, the Knights loaded the bases with just one out. But after a long battle at the plate, Manning induced a soft line drive right back at him. He dove forward, securing the catch, before quickly popping back up. Once on his feet, he realized the base runner at third had gotten too far away from the base. Manning’s toss to third doubled off the runner and got the Magic out of a jam.
In the fourth, the Knights loaded the bases again. This time, they got one run. But a strikeout, and a nifty play by shortstop Hayden Laimer got the Magic out of trouble.
In the top of the fifth, the Magic bats woke up. After stranding two runners each of the previous three innings, Monticello took advantage of their chances.
The inning started with a Matt Bonk walk. It continued with an interesting series, as three straight Magic hitters (Mike Fisette, Jake Kounkel and Tanner Eckhart) each recorded infield hits. Bonk scored the tying run on Eckhart’s soft ground ball to the second baseman.
A sacrifice fly from Tyler Mros gave Monticello their first lead, and when Tyler Streich lined a base hit up the middle, it was a 3-1 Magic lead.
In the sixth, Bonk added an RBI single and Kounkel ripped a two-out double to the fence, scoring Bonk to make it 5-1.
With two on and no outs in the sixth inning, Manning fell behind the batter 2-0, and the Magic quickly sent a pitcher to warm up.
Manning wasn’t done yet. He came back to get a strikeout on that hitter. He then allowed a single to load the bases. A sac fly cut the lead to 5-2, but STMA wouldn’t get any closer. A pop-up ended the Knight’s threat.
The Magic added one insurance run in the top of the seventh. Manning was pulled after a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh, finishing another impressive conference outing for the pitcher.
“He’s thrown really well all year,” said Coach Corey Stanger. “He battles out there. He’s got some really good stuff. If he can continue to get it across for strikes, he’s tough.”
Manning allowed 13 base runners in six plus innings Thursday, but limited the damage with the aid of six strikeouts.
Luke Hanson came on in relief and earned the save for the Magic.
Streich led the way at the plate, finishing 4 for 4 with an RBI. Bonk added two hits and two runs scored.
In the second game, things started even faster for the Magic. They scored a run in the first and two more in the second. After adding another two in the fifth inning, Monticello entered the final inning of the doubleheader with a 5-0 lead.
Then, a letdown. A combination of walks and base hits scattered against three different pitchers, led to 6 Knights runs.
Monticello would get one back in the bottom to tie it, but it was just a temporary bandage. STMA won the game with a run in the eighth inning.
“We actually came out playing really relaxed,” said Fisette, the Magic’s leading hitter this year. “We were just out there having fun. When it got to the top of the seventh, maybe we did put a little too much pressure on ourselves, realizing, hey, we could sweep these guys.”
Monticello has bounced back in a big way, winning three games since the seventh inning meltdown, including a 5-4 extra inning victory Friday over Little Falls, a team ranked eighth in Class AA.
Tuesday, Monticello swept Cambridge-Isanti, moving to second place in the Mississippi 8 with a record of 5-4. The Magic were scheduled to take on first-place Big Lake Wednesday afternoon in the last game of the regular season.
First place is out of reach for the Magic, as Big Lake has just two losses (one to Monti), but other goals are not.
“Our big goal right away to start the season was to make it to state. That’s still our team goal, that’s what we want to do,” said Fisette. “We just have to play seven, or 14, innings, every day.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]