Solid defense, quality pitching and the clutch hit are key ingredients for any baseball championship. The Isanti Redbirds had all those elements on display when they outlasted Waconia 4-3 in 13 innings to claim their first State title Monday, Sept. 5 at Brownton.
The victory closed a 6-0 run in the Class C State brackets for Isanti. As in previous games, the game-winner came in dramatic fashion.
In the bottom of the 13th, Packy Lind reached when the Laker second baseman could not handle his hot grounder. Eric Rysdam laid down a perfect bunt to advance Lind, then No. 4 hitter Kyle Johnson was intentionally walked to set up the double play. Then in what could be his final at-bat playing amateur ball, Bud Heifort smoked a one-hopper through Waconia’s first baseman which deflected far enough into right field to score Lind.
The mob pile at the plate soon followed, along with the trophy and awards presentations.
“I was down two strikes, and I was just looking to hit something hard on the ground somewhere. We saw in the game a few balls that took bad bounces, so I was trying to make them make a play,” replayed Heifort. “And sure enough, the ball took a bad bounce on their first baseman, and we were able to win the State title.”
“On Bud’s hit, I took a quick peek wondering if he (the first baseman) fielded it. I looked at (third base coach) Steve, and he told me to keep going, so away I went. It was unbelievable to touch home– the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. Pretty amazing!”
Lind scored three runs in the championship, including one in the first inning after he and Rysdam drew walks, then Johnson stroked an RBI single. Waconia drew even at 1-1 in the second when clean-up hitter LePlante ripped a double off the top off the fence, and he scored while the Redbirds turned a double play.
Adam West started on the mound for the Redbirds, getting his first action this tourney. “The Batman,” as he’s called, held the Lakers in check by striking out two batters with runners at second and third in the fourth. He also rung up a third out with another curve and a runner on second to get out of the fifth.
Waconia also had strong pitching, keeping the Redbirds from more runs over six straight innings. The Lakers got a run off Isanti reliever Justin Krie with a bases-loaded walk in the seventh, but Krie struck out LePlante looking to escape further damage.
The Redbirds were close to locking up the game in regulation. In the bottom of the eighth, Lind reached on an error at short. Two outs later, Heifort directed a double down the right-field line for an RBI. Tyler Schaff then worked a great at-bat, and singled home Heifort for the 3-2 lead.
“We’ve been talking in the dugout that their pitcher was throwing a lot of strikes, and that we needed to sit back and hit either line drives or something on the ground. I kind of got lucky fouling a couple off, then I pulled that one in the hole and Bud flew around the bases. That was awesome,” said Schaff.
Heifort came on to pitch the ninth and struck out the first batter. But the next Laker hit a grounder that caromed sideways past Brian Schultz at shortstop, and a double to left field put runners in scoring position. A sac fly scored the tying run, but Schaff saved the go-ahead run when he made a barehanded pickup on a roller and threw in time to a stretching Matt Duong at first.
“Our pitching is unbelievable. We knew they were going to get us groundballs, and we just had to be ready to field them,” added Schaff. “Packy it seemed like had 35 plays at second without an error– and Schultzy at short and Bud at first, too. Duong came in on that particular play and made a great stretch at first.”
Isanti did not threaten in the bottom of the ninth, and Heifort threw a scoreless 10th. Ryan Bruns relieved in the 11th, striking out the side. In the 13th, Waconia had a two-out double, and the runner was on the move when the next batter hit a dribbler down toward third base. But Bruns made the quick pick-up and throw to first for the out as the runner at second was heading home.
“I’ve got to build up the adrenaline, that’s the only reason I’m effective,” said Bruns, the draftee from Champlin. “I didn’t know it until I got back to the bench, but I went from the wind-up with that guy at second, and I got lucky getting that last out.”
Five Redbirds were named to the All-Tourney team: Johnson, Wade Reichmann, Joe Ramberg, Wyatt Soderquist and Heifort. Johnson was named tourney MVP for his .375 average and .467 on-base percentage over the six games, plus he caught every inning for Isanti.
“We’ve been so competitive the whole tournament. The parity among teams has been so good,” said Redbird manager Steve Allen. “I said to Adam, ‘Give me two or three good innings,’ and he gave us five. And he hadn’t pitched for a long time. Our draft picks Justin Krie of Mora and Ryan Bruns of Champlin– I can’t say enough good things about them. They have just been class teammates. Getting Bud one more time on the mound– he deserved that. His leadership here has been just huge. And Kyle getting the tourney MVP, that’s just great recognition for our battery.”
Heifort was drafted by the Redbirds for the 2008 State tourney, then he joined the team the next season. He plans on retiring from baseball this year.
“This is a good way to end my career. I’ve played amateur ball for 17 years,” he said. “Fifteen years ago I got drafted by Tink Larson and the Waseca Braves and played my first State tournament here in Glencoe and Brownton, so I figured I came full circle and it would be a good way to go out. The rest of the ‘Birds sent me out a champ.”
Two wins set the stage for the championship
When the Labor Day weekend started, there were still eight teams alive in the Class C brackets. On Friday night, Isanti kept rolling with an 8-4 win over Nisswa. Reichmann earned his third State win by tossing 5.6 innings, striking out eight while allowing seven hits. Bruns pitched the final 3.3 innings, recording two Ks.
Isanti led 2-1 when they scored four runs in the fourth. B.J. Samuelson drove in one run with a groundout, Rysdam singled home another run, then Heifort doubled home two more. Johnson was 4-for-4 in the game, with Heifort collecting three hits and four RBI.
Then in the final winners’ bracket game Saturday night, Isanti defeated Waconia 11-5, opening with five runs in the first inning. Lind was hit by a pitch, Rysdam singled, then Johnson drove in Lind with a hit. After Schaff reached on an error to load the bases, Schultz’s fly to center wasn’t handled, clearing the bases. Soderquist then singled home Schultz.
Rysdam later ripped a solo homer in the fourth for insurance. Ramberg, who pitched spendidly all through the playoffs, went eight innings for the ‘Birds, striking out seven while allowing eight hits. Heifort struck out two in a scoreless ninth inning of relief.
Reflections on the championship
Tourney MVP Kyle Johnson on how the Redbird pitchers approached this tourney: “I was interested to see how it would go today in the championship since we had two guys carry us up to this point (Reichmann and Ramberg). I knew Westy was up to the task. We knew we had a lot of guys behind him able to throw. Our pitching approach is make the other team try to beat us; we’re not trying to blow it by them, we’re using our defense. It ended up working out for us.
“This is pretty special. I’ve been playing with these guys for nine years. After I moved to the Cities I had a lot of teams calling me to play. But I wanted to play with some of my best friends, and I knew we had it in us to get this far. We just had a lot of clutch hits, the crowds were always good. That’s what makes it a lot of fun to play in front of a lot of people. These towns did a great job putting on a great tourney.”
Leadoff hitter and fleet centerfielder B.J. Samuelson has been with the Redbirds four years after coming through the Pine City system: “This championship is a goal I’ve always had with this crew since I’ve been on this team. My role is just to be kind of leader and motivator, the vocal guy. That’s what I try to do, and I try to do it with the bat, too, to back up my mouth.
“The key was our defense was amazing. I’m out there in the outfield, and our defense was sick all playoffs. My quote the whole time they made a good play was, ‘It’s fun to watch, guys– fun to watch!’ That’s all I kept saying!”
Packy Lind on the meaning of the championship: “After Steve started us back up again, we’ve been working toward this 10 or 11 years. We’ve been chipping away. And God was looking down today and said it’s our turn to win a championship.”
Ty Schaff has spent 10 years with the Redbirds: “This is pretty unbelievable. The whole tourney we were pretty relaxed. Packy and I have been playing together for so long, and we’ve been talking about a championship since we started. With the pitching we have now and the defense we had, everything came together at the right time.”