Nighthawks blast East Bethel 16-4, earn playoff bye

The Nighthawks finished their inaugural regular season 10-5 and will enter the Eastern Minny League playoffs on July 29.

In their final regular season game of 2017, the North Branch Nighthawks collected more runs than hits — though they collected quite a lot of both.
The Nighthawks hit safely 14 times on their way to a 16-4 victory over the East Bethel Bandits in St. Francis July 21.

“It was our last league game, so it was great to end on a high note,” coach Jim Skroch said. “Everyone was having fun.”

In addition to their hits, Nighthawk batters earned eight walks and reached base on East Bethel errors five times. Such was the potency of the North Branch offense that had the game not been called after eight innings due to the mercy rule, the Nighthawks would have completed their sixth trip through their batting lineup in the final frame, and perhaps started on a seventh.

The Bandits actually held an early 1-0 lead, after catcher Brandon Hartzberg led off the bottom of the first inning with a single and right fielder Josh Kosel doubled him home with two outs.

The Bandits’ advantage was a distant memory by the time they batted again, with the Nighthawks sending 11 batters to the plate in between. Catcher Nick Solberg doubled, then left fielder Tyler Ball and right fielder Kevin Johnson drew walks to load the bases.

With two outs, the Nighthawks first run-parade commenced. Pitcher Charlie Linder was hit by a pitch to bring in the tying run, then the go-ahead run scored on a wild pitch before second baseman Nick Pilz walked to reload the bases. First baseman Ryan Byrkit singled to score one, then shortstop Jimmy Skroch singled to bring in two. Solberg came back to the plate and hit a single – his second hit of the inning – to bring the North Branch lead to 6-1.

East Bethel picked up a run in the bottom of the second, which was answered in the third when Linder singled to score Johnson from second. Linder did much to help his own cause, finishing 3-for-4 with two walks and four RBIs.

On the mound, Linder, Pilz and Skroch combined for 10 strikeouts, and forced one Bandit batter, Tyler Marcio, to wear “the golden sombrero” (four strikeouts in a game).

In the fifth, Byrkit was safe at first when his grounder rolled croquet-style through the second baseman’s legs. He advanced all the way to third when a pickoff attempt sailed wide of first and skipped into the acres of foul ground that the St. Francis field provides, and was later singled home by Solberg.

In an evening of offensive fireworks, Solberg provided one of the bigger explosions, finishing 4-for-5 with a walk and two runs batted in.

Johnson walked to lead off the seventh, then Jim Skroch hit a grounder that Bandit third baseman Triston Lundsten will always remember — after first booting the ball to preclude the possibility of a double play, he then threw over the first baseman’s head, allowing the North Branch runners to move to second and third, from whence they were brought home by a Linder groundout and a passed ball.

The Nighthawks put together another 11-batter, six-run frame in the top of the eighth to trigger the mercy rule. Skroch, Solberg and Ball singled; two wild pitches and an error brought them each home in succession, then Linder doubled to bring home third baseman Josh Beaver, the beneficiary of the error.

Casey Schwalbe scorched a double to bring in the 15th run, and Jimmy Skroch singled to finalize the score.

The Nighthawks’ victory moved them to 10-5 on the season, which combined with other results from the weekend lifted them back into second place in the final Eastern Minny League, West Division standings, a game ahead of Rum River and two back of league champions Princeton. The runner-up finish means the Nighthawks did not have to contest the win-or-go-home first round of the East Minny playoffs, and will instead go straight to the double-elimination rounds.

“Finishing 10-5 is a great season for us,” Jim Skroch said. “There’s a lot of quality teams in this league, so a finish like that is great. We’re excited to build on this.”

The Nighthawks will meet an opponent to be determined at Brennan Field in Hinckley at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 29. The playoffs will continue through Aug 2 — if the Nighthawks can collect two wins, they will qualify for the Region 1-C tournament, also at Hinckley.

“All the teams that are in the playoffs, we’ve played really tough this year,” Jim Skroch said. “A 16-run game helps us build, so we’re excited to go in a high note.”

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