After losing game one of the best-of-three championship series to the St. Louis Spikes on Saturday, the Waterloo Millers came into game two Sunday knowing they had to win to have a shot at the championship.
And they came ready to play.
The Millers (17-7) put on a clinic of pitching and defense Sunday en route to head coach Vern Moehrs’ 25th Mon-Clair League title. Moehrs is in his 53rd year as Waterloo’s skipper.
“This game is 80 percent psychological and these players showed up ready to play two games today,” Moehrs said after his team won the championship. “We are a pitching and defensive team. I believe this is the greatest defensive team I have ever had.”
Waterloo’s quest for the title began Thursday night against a familiar foe in the Valmeyer Lakers (10-14) — a team the Millers faced and defeated five times during the regular season. But this is playoff baseball, and what happened in the regular season matters no more.
Valmeyer showed up ready to play, jumping ahead early on a sacrifice fly from Ben Thoma to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Two Lakers errors in the bottom of the first would allow the Millers to load the bases, and they did not waste the chance to put some runs on the board. Justin Dunning hit a two-RBI single, followed by a two-RBI single off the bat of Nick Dunning, staking the Millers to a 4-1 lead.
The Lakers tallied a run in their half of the second on an RBI from Marshall Vallandingham. Waterloo answered with a run in the bottom half of the second on an error by the Lakers third baseman that scored Alex Wittenauer, making it a 5-2 game.
Waterloo opened up the lead to 7-2 in the fourth on an RBI double from Justin Dunning
and an RBI single from Gabe Hopkins.
Valmeyer tried to rally in their half of the seventh, scoring two runs on an RBI double by Chris Rohlfing. But the Millers held on to win, 7-4, and advanced to round two of the playoffs on Saturday, where they would face division winner Millstadt VFW (19-5).
The Millers wasted little time getting on the board early against Millstadt, putting up runs in the first and second innings before blowing the game open in the third by scoring six more runs. Veteran pitcher Corey Blackwell, who earlier this year hurled a no-hitter against the St. Louis Spikes, held things down on the mound as the Millers gave him more than enough run support.
They added five more runs in the sixth inning to win, 14-5. Waterloo’s offense was led by Jake Dunning, who continued his hot streak at the plate going 3-for-3 with two doubles, and Jeremiah Bergheger, who was 2-for-3 with a home run. The win advanced the Millers to the series championship, where they would face the Spikes (19-5).
Game one of the series championship was a tough one for the Millers on Saturday afternoon. They could not figure out Spikes starter Trea Lee. Waterloo was held hitless until the fourth inning, when L.J. Watson beat the throw to first on a bunt down the third base line, notching the team’s first hit of the game.
Andy Galle started on the mound for Waterloo, and was able to hold the Spikes scoreless until surrendering a two-run homer to Alex Tate in the sixth inning, giving the Spikes a 2-0 lead. The Millers’ defense had kept them in the game to that point, as they turned two double plays and threw a runner out at the plate on a throw from rightfielder L.J. Watson.
Even though Waterloo only managed two hits in the game, they had a chance to win it in the seventh, when they loaded the bases on a walk, hit batter and an error. Jake Friederich flied out, securing the 2-0 win for the Spikes, who took a 1-0 lead in the championship series.
“You can’t win when you only have two hits in the game,” Moehrs said after the game. “A guy goes out and pitches a great game. What can you do but go home and get ready for tomorrow?”
And the Millers did just that, knowing they had to win the next two games to take the title.
Series MVP Brandon Musso took the mound for the Millers in a must-win game two, and was nothing short of spectacular. The Spikes scattered five hits over seven innings, and Musso notched a complete game shutout win to advance Waterloo to the winner-take-all game three.
L.J. Watson hit a solo home run in the fourth inning of the third game to give the Millers a 1-0 lead. Friederich added an RBI single in the fifth as Waterloo won, 2-0. The defense for Waterloo was again flawless, turning two double plays and catching a runner trying to steal second.
If Musso was stellar in game two, the Millers’ starter for game three, Mark Mueller, was lights out. He struck out the side in the first and threw 5 1/3 innings of hitless ball before the Spikes would notch their first and only hit of the game in the sixth inning.
“I have been thinking about this since last year when Spikes pitcher Kit Crooks no-hit us in the playoffs,” Mueller told the Republic-Times. “I showed up in a surly mood today, and that’s usually when I pitch my best.
“I had my fastball working good today, I’m just glad it missed their bats. This is a great team and it’s good to go out like this. You never know when it’s going to be Vern’s last year coaching us.”
Mueller got a little more run support than game two starter Musso, as the Millers’ bats awoke from a short slumber and the Spikes fell apart defensively.
Waterloo got on the board in the first on an RBI from Justin Dunning, and added another in the second on an RBI from Ethan Ruff. In the fourth, Nick Dunning added a solo home run to stake the Millers to a 3-0 lead.
Waterloo added two more in the fifth on one hit and two Spikes errors. Friederich scored on an error by the pitcher and Watson had a sac fly in the inning.
Ethan Ruff stroked an RBI double in the seventh and scored on another error by the Spikes. The Millers went on take the game, 7-0, and win their first Mon-Clair League championship since 2007.
Musso was named series MVP as the winning pitcher in the all-important game two of the series. Overall in the series, he pitched 10 innings, allowing no runs, no walks, striking out three and allowing six hits.
“This was a great team win,” Friederich said. “We got great pitching. The offense got going and we played great defense all season.”
This is Waterloo’s first championship as the Millers, who were formerly known as the Buds.
“They have done a lot for this team,” said Moehrs of their sponsor, Chick Fritz Distributing. “They are a great sponsor and a great supporter of this baseball team.”
Moehrs has been with the Waterloo club since 1952, when he started as a player, and has been their head coach for 53 years. Over those 53 seasons, he has compiled a record of 1,861 wins and 477 losses, 39 division titles and 25 league championships.
“I am very proud of this team,” Moehrs said. “Since the Valmeyer (Mid-Summer Classic) tournament we have played outstanding ball. Watson came in mid-season and stabilized our lineup, and Friederich up the middle and batting lead-off has been great. And Jake Dunning really showed why he was a pro for a time.”
“I’m going to be 80 years old this year and I could not still be doing this if it were not for my wife Lucille,” a retrospective Moehrs said after he game.
“She has been my anchor.”