With the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers leading 7-0 after four innings it looked as if Lunker ace Dennis O'Grady was well on his way to coasting to his fourth win of the season.
O'Grady who came into the game with a 3-0 record and minuscule, Northwoods-leading ERA of .46 has arguably been the league's best pitcher this season. So spotting him a seven-run lead seemed to gaurantee a win and in the end it did, as Brainerd survived a six-run rally by the Eau Claire Express to capture an 8-6 victory Tuesday.
After a four-run second that saw the Lunkers receive a two-run double from ninth hitter Will Piwnica-Worms, who also scored a run in the inning and a two-run third inning that featured back-to-back RBI doubles by Hunter Nolen and Justin Gominsky, O'Grady looked to be locked in and on his way to an easy victory.
Bobby Rinard of the Eau Claire Express was tagged out at third base by the Lunkers' Shon Roe in the third inning Tuesday night when the Northwods rivals tangled at Mills Field. Brainerd won 8-6. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Yet the Lunkers' bats cooled for the remainder of the game just in time to see the Express' bats ignite.
"We jumped out to an early lead and I don't think we left anyone on base in those first few innings," Lunker coach Ryan Levendoski said. "We did a good job of putting the ball in play consistently and we hit three big doubles that got us some runs early. I think we also did a good job of running. We got some guys on base and started moving them around with some hit and runs and steals. Obviously, we would have liked to hit like that the whole game but the bats kind of went cold and they put together a little run against us."
After coasting through the first four innings O'Grady let up an unearned run in the fifth that was followed by a sixth inning that saw the crafty right-hander struggle for the first time in more than three starts.
The Express tallied five hits in the inning and put together a four-run rally that was sparked by a two-run single by Eau Claire's Andrew Leonard. Eventually, O'Grady was able to recapture his composure and work his way out of the jam.
"We wanted to get six innings out of Dennis tonight," Levendoski said. "He has had some long outings his last few starts and you could see he might not have had his best stuff tonight, but he fought through it and got us those six innings. In college (O'Grady) is a reliever so he knows how to work his way out of some jams and he did a good job of that tonight. He got some runners on and pitched to contact and trusted his stuff and it was good enough to end up with a win."
Mike Frongello pitched the seventh and gave up a pair of hits that scored a run that and made it 7-6, but Eau Claire would not get any closer as the Lunkers manufactured an insurance run in the eighth inning keyed by a Piwnica-Worms sacrifice and a tricky double steal that allowed Shon Roe to score on a close play at the plate with the ball darting away from the Express catcher in the collision.
Matt Mullendore pitched a perfect eighth and Lunker closer Drew Smith came in to slam the door and pick up his ninth save of the season.
Offensively, Piwnica-Worms collected two RBIs and a run scored while Andrew Gudmunsen and Gominsky each finished with two hits and a run apiece for Brainerd.
Lunkers 8, Eau Claire 6
Key: The Lunkers jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and held on as the Express rallied for six runs in the middle innings.
Overall: Brd 2-2, EC 0-5
Next: Brainerd at Alexandria 6:05 p.m. Wednesday
"It is very important with about 30 games left that our relievers are able to pitch in situations like this. I know Mike (Frongello) pitched himself into a little jam but he got out of it OK and then (Matt) Mullendore did a real good job in the eighth and Drew (Smith) comes on in the ninth and was lights out like he has been all year. It is good for us to have to go out there and let the bullpen pitch in some of these close games so that they can gain some confidence and trust their stuff. Tonight it wasn't pretty but we ended up with the win and we will take it."
Eau Claire 000 014 100 - 6 12 2
Brainerd 042 100 01X - 8 10 1
Eau Claire: Louis Head, Ian Campbell (3), Devan Kline (8) and Aaron Fujiki, Dominic Piazza (8)
Brainerd: Dennis O'Grady, Mike Frongello (7), Matt Mullendore (8), Drew Smith (9) and Hunter Nolen
WP: O'Grady (4-0). LP: Head (2-1). Sv: Smith (9).
2B: Brd-Nolen, Justin Gominsky, Will Piwnica-Worms
SB: Brd-Stephen Wickens, Shon Roe; EC-Robbie Knight, Bobby Rinard
RBIs: Brd-Piwnica-Worms 2, Nolen, Gominsky; EC-Andrew Leonard 2, Jon Ringenberg, Knight
LOB: Brd 7, EC 7
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