series on Sunday. (Greg Stanek photo)
The Valmeyer Lakers nearly scripted a fairy tale ending this weekend to a season that appeared lost following a promising start.
Monday night, the Lakers lost a three-game series to the St. Louis Spikes in the Mon-Clair League playoff finals after having beaten rivals Millstadt and Waterloo to get there.
The Lakers started the season very hot, jumping out to a 7-1 league record before struggling down the stretch to finish regular season league play at 12-14. But Valmeyer stepped it up in the playoffs, advancing to the finals and putting themselves one win away from the title.
Waterloo advanced to the second round by beating the St. Louis Printers, 6-2, on Friday behind a strong outing from starting pitcher Brandon Musso.
Jake Friederich and Drew Curtis each hit two-run homers to power the Millers offense. The game started last Wednesday but was not completed until Friday due to rain.
Valmeyer faced Millstadt in their first game of the playoffs at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville. Lakers hurler Mike Wuelling pitched a gem, allowing just three hits to give the Lakers a 1-0 win and the chance to play Waterloo for a berth in the championship series.
Chris Rohlfing had the game-winning hit against Millstat on an RBI double in the second inning.
On Saturday, Waterloo jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth against the Lakers on a solo home run off the bat of Justin Dunning. The Millers loaded the bases after Dunning’s bomb, but just could not push another run across the plate.
Millers starting pitcher Andy Galle took a no-hitter and a slim 1-0 lead into the final inning — and that is when things got interesting.
Wes Degener led off the top of the seventh inning for Valmeyer with a bunt single to break up Galle’s no-hitter.
Following an error by the Millers shortstop that put runners on first and second, Matt Reinholz hit a single to right to score Degener and tie the game 1-1.
A double to center by Jake Degener then put the Lakers up 2-1.
With two outs and runners on second and third, Chris Rohlfing hit a slow roller to third that should have ended the inning, but the throw bounced past the Millers first baseman and two more runs scored.
Down 4-1, Waterloo did not roll over and almost tied the game up in the bottom of the seventh. With runners on first and second, L.J. Watson smoked a ball to deep center that hit off the top of the centerfield fence for an RBI double, cutting Valmeyer’s lead to 4-2.
Justin Dunning was up next, and he hit a ground out to second but the Millers would score to cut the lead to 4-3.
With two outs and a runner on third base, Lakers pitcher Andy Fleet got Nick Dunning
to fly out, giving the Lakers the win and a berth in the finals against the Spikes.
“Heck of a game,” Lakers manager Dennis Pieper said. “They made some errors that helped us out. Both teams played well. Good defense and timely hitting.”
After falling behind 4-1 in the first game of Sunday’s championship series, the Lakers put up six runs in the sixth inning with the big blow coming off the bat of Ben Thoma. He launched a three-run homer over the scoreboard in left center to put the Lakers up 9-5.
The Spikes scored two more runs, but Valmeyer held on for a 9-7 win.
“No errors in the game was a big thing for us and our pitching kept us in the game,” Pieper said. “We got good hitting tonight. Everyone contributed on offense. This was a good win.”
The stellar defense and good pitching that advanced Valmeyer this far would not be there in the next two games.
In the first inning of game two, the Spikes drew back-to-back walks to lead off the inning and Lee Cruz made them pay with a three-run homer to left.
The Spikes tacked on two more runs in the third inning to open up a 5-0 lead.
Valmeyer scored two runs in the fifth on a hit by Thoma that was ruled a ground rule double on a questionable call, and a sac fly from Reinholz to cut the Spikes lead to 5-2. But they were unable to do any further damage as the Spikes tied the best-of-three-game series up at one game apiece.
The Spikes got on the board first in game three on Monday night. After a double and walk put runners on first and third, an error by the Lakers’ shortstop gave St. Louis a 1-0 lead.
The Spikes went up 2-0 in the second inning on an RBI single.
Valmeyer responded in the fourth when Justin Lilly hit a two-run home run to right to tie the game 2-2, and it looked like there was going to be a fight to the finish.
The Spikes had other ideas in mind. They pushed across six runs in the bottom of the fourth, with the big blow coming again off the bat of Mon-Clair League Championship Series MVP Cruz. He hit another home run and St. Louis was up 8-2.
Valmeyer got a run back in the fifth inning, but the Spikes went on to take the game and the championship with a 12-4 win in a deciding game three.
“Errors and passed balls put us in a bad situation and made it hard for us to come back,” Pieper said after the game. “We had no errors to get here and tonight they killed us. You can’t give a good team like the Spikes runs and that’s exactly what we did tonight.”
In addition to the second place finish in this year’s Mon-Clair League playoffs, the Lakers placed third in the Valmeyer Mid-Summer Classic tournament over the July 4 weekend.