sports blog by andy shenk

Northfield Knights Blank Dundas

In At The Game, Northfield Knights on July 6, 2012 at 3:18 PM

The Northfield Knights improved to 14-3, 6-3 and 2nd place in the Classic Cannon Valley League, with their Independence Day 4-0 blanking of the Dundas Dukes. Knights’ ace, Jeremie Kruse, led the team to victory by scattering three hits and two walks over nine shutout innings in steamy Sechler Park. Indeed, Northfield celebrated the nation’s birthday in sweaty style. At 2:10 PM, when Kruse threw an opening pitch ball to Dukes’ center fielder Carson Jones, the humid air temperature registered 95°, encouraged by sunny skies that never clouded once during the day.

At least 75 fans joined the ballplayers at the park, though most of the crowd chose to watch from beneath shady trees lining left field, beyond Northfield’s third-base dugout. My wife, Nikki, her friend, Lizzie, and I also plunked down on blankets in the shade to watch the first three innings.

In the bottom of the first, two away, Northfield third baseman, Eric Pittman, slapped the first pitch he saw from Matt Neuger to short. Portending the error-ridden day ahead of Dundas, Tyler Jones muffed the grounder, allowing Pittman to get on base. Though clean-up man Cody Groskreutz subsequently flew out to center, the Dukes’ next errors would not prove so harmless.

In the top of the second, Kruse put Dundas away quickly by inducing grounders to short, third, and second, sandwiched around a single to right field from Dundas player-manager Charlie Ruud. Catcher Troy Deden led off the bottom half of the frame for Northfield with an infield single. Huffing and puffing after beating out the throw from Jones, the portly Deden may or may not have heard the Knights’ fans near us playfully call out “Wheels!” First basemen Bret Berry struck out, but Matt Larson got aboard, too, with a single and designated hitter Scott Benjamin loaded the bases after drawing a walk.

Northfield’s center-fielder Chris Paradise, the last man in the lineup, swung at the first pitch he saw, bouncing a ground ball to the shortstop. Jones quickly fired to second baseman Adam Langer, for what looked like the start of a double play, but Langer inexplicably dropped the throw. Deden scored the game’s first run, Benjamin slid in safe at second and Paradise took vacant first base, loading the bases again for leadoff man, Sam Maus. Maus and the man on deck, second baseman Nick Kulla, however, left their teammates to roast on the basepaths, mustering only a foul pop-up and grounder to first.

Midway through the 3rd, Lizzie took off for a holiday party in the Cities. A half-inning later, just as I’d expected, Nikki and I picked up our things and sauntered past the Knights’ dugout to the green bleachers behind home plate. Half a dozen fans sat under umbrellas at the top of the bleaches. Otherwise, we had our pick of metal bleachers, choosing the same row we’d sat in twice before, directly behind the batter’s box. Out came sunscreen and, for a short while, my sunglasses, though I later ditched them because they kept slipping down my nose. Exposed to the sun’s rays, I looked with greater appreciation on the ballplayers’ commitment, as well as that of the home plate and second plate umpire. As the game progressed from our new vantage point, I noticed the home plate ump break for the tiny press box every half-inning, presumably for a swig of water, then with more and more reluctance each time walk back on the field, bend down to dust off home plate, before taking his position behind the catcher.

In the home half of the fourth, Northfield once again made Dundas pay for a fielding lapse. Scott Benjamin, leading off for the Knights, knocked a ball to 2nd-inning culprit, Adam Langer, who again dropped the ball, allowing Benjamin to take first. Paradise sacrifice bunted his teammate to second and Sam Maus popped up to first baseman Charlie Ruud for the second out. With Benjamin still on second, Nick Kulla sent a fly ball into right field for what should have been the third out. To everyone’s shock, the ball bounced off of Rich Bordas’ upheld glove, and Scott Benjamin hustled around from second to plate Northfield’s second unearned run. The drop caught Kulla so much by surprise that he only made it to first on the play. Neuger ended the Northfield frame two batters later, when Groskreutz grounded out to third.

As Neuger began pitching to Groskreutz, two guys settled on the first row of bleachers, just in front of where Nikki and I sat. One of them held a radar gun, and by craning my neck, I could just make the speeds his gun recorded. Neuger threw mostly in the 60s, relying on placement and lots of breaking balls. Kruse, however, warming up for the top half of the fifth, threw as hard as 85. His power paid off, too, in the fifth frame. The bottom of the Dundas batting order, Ruud, Langer, and Freiermuth, could only manage three routine groundouts.

Only one man reached base over the next two frames, the Dukes’ third baseman, Brandon Rolloff, and only then because Kruse nicked his jersey at the elbow. In the bottom of the seventh, Northfield took its turn to bat, still leading 2-0. The inning began quietly with Neuger disposing of Kulla and Pittman on three combined pitches. Four singles and two Northfield runs later, however, Neuger got the hook from manager Ruud, who opted to bring second baseman Langer in to pitch, while Ruud shifted to second and Neuger took over first.  After allowing Benjamin a free pass to first, loading the bases for Chris Paradise for the second time in the game, Langer redeemed the error he’d committed in the second on a Paradise ground ball, and got the Knights’ center-fielder to pop up to first base.

Unfortunately for Dundas, Kruse cruised through the final two innings to seal Northfield’s ninth consecutive win. In addition to moving into 2nd place in the Classic Cannon Valley League, Northfield jumped into a tie for third with Dundas in the six-team Section 1B standings. If the season ended now, Northfield and Dundas would play each other in the first round of the Section 1B playoffs on Sunday, July 29. Each team still has three regular season section games against comparable competition remaining.

Nikki and I, meanwhile, stumbled home under the blazing sun. The game took two hours and twenty minutes to play. It took us thirty minutes to walk back to town from Sechler, our heat exhaustion exacerbated by the disappointment of not finding any ripe black raspberries along the way.

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