The North Branch Nighthawks were supposed to play a pair of Eastern Minny league games July 8, but neither of their opponents had enough available players to field a team, handing the North Branch team two wins by forfeit.
On July 9, the Chisago Lakes Bulldogs came to town with a full roster, but even though a nine-inning game was played, for most of the day it seemed like only one team was playing — at least on offense. North Branch pitcher Jimmy Skroch gave up only two hits over eight innings to help the Nighthawks earn a 5-1 victory.
“I was getting quick innings, that made everything easier,” Skroch said.
Skroch picked up seven strikeouts and didn’t walk a single batter. He pitched seven 1-2-3 innings, while the Bulldogs’ lone run was unearned.
“Jimmy has been one of our go-to guys,” coach Eric Linder said. “He did a fantastic job; it’s great to have him out there.”
At the plate, the Nighthawks were efficient, turning seven hits into five runs.
“This was the best game we’ve played,” Linder said.
The first Nighthawk run was scored by Dillyn Negley, one of two current North Branch High School students on the squad. In the bottom of the third, Negley ripped a Dylan Magnuson offering over the head of left fielder Jeremy Knutson. Rounding second as the return throw came in, Negley saw the ball skipping slowly toward the cutoff man, so he made a try for third. The Bulldog relay throw flew wide of the bag and Negley was safe.
Charlie Linder hit a grounder to the right side, leaving the Bulldogs with no choice but to throw him out and give up the run.
Bulldog errors led to another Nighthawk run in the fourth. Skroch hit a sharp grounder to third, which Dustin Rhodes collected with an impressive diving stop. His throw was less than impressive: it sailed high and wide of first base, forcing the first baseman off the bag to catch it.
Nick Fairbanks laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Skroch to second, then shortstop Miles Turk commited a throwing error on a Nick Solberg grounder to allow Skroch to score.
By contrast, the Nighthawk infielders were nearly perfect — in particular, shortstop Brady Brodin flashed his leather several times to turn difficult plays into outs.
“Brady was on fire today; he saved me a few times,” Skroch said.
The infielders needed to be on their game, since Skroch almost exclusively gave up ground balls. Only one of the Bulldogs’ 27 outs came on a pop-up.
Skroch had a perfect game going through 4 1/3 innings. Bulldog catcher Derek Kluge broke the hitless streak when he hit a looping flyball to shallow right field. Although right fielder Tanner Danks, first baseman Charlie Linder and second baseman Solberg converged, the ball dropped between them for a single. It was the only time a Bulldog put a ball in the outfield.
Later in the inning, Turk hit a low liner that Solberg initially played for a catch, but then backed off to play on one hop. Needing to hurry his throw to beat the speedy Turk, Solberg’s assist skipped low and away from Linder and into the fence. In the ensuing confusion Kluge came around to score and Turk moved to second; the play was recorded as a single with an error allowing the runners to advance.
That would prove to be the Nighthawks’ only mistake. No more Bulldogs would reach base for the remainder of the game.
Negley led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, and moved to second on a Solberg sacrifice. Danks brought Negley around to score on an infield single, and Skroch ripped a first-pitch liner into center field to score Danks.
“He just threw it right to me,” Skroch said. “Don’t miss the first pitch if he throws it right to me.”
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, Tony Dahlberg hit into a fielder’s choice that scored Kevin Johnson.
Charlie Linder pitched the ninth, continuing the theme set by Skroch by recording a groundout and two strikeouts.
Skroch, the hero of the game, is a rising sophomore on the Hamline University team. He pitched in two games for the Pipers as a freshman, with one start.
“It was a lot of fun playing at a higher level,” Skroch said. “Hopefully next year I can get a few more innings on the mound.”
In the meantime, Skroch has relished the opportunity to play in North Branch.
“It’s so fun to be back with friends from high school,” Skroch said. “It’s fun to all be back together again.”
In their inaugural season, the Nighthawks are off to an 8-3 start and stand one game back of the Princeton Panthers for first place in the Eastern Minny, West division. They will head to Cambridge to face the Rum River Bandits on July 12 at 7:30 p.m. Their next home game will be July 22 at noon against the Pine City Pirates.
“We should be seeded pretty well for the league playoffs,” Eric Linder said.
The Eastern Minny playoffs will run from July 25 through Aug. 2. The winner and runner-up from that tournament will move on to Regionals Aug. 4-13, with a chance to qualify for the Class C state tournament.