As the highly favored Hill-Murray slowly crept back into the game, eradicating a six-run Raiders advantage in three innings, Roseville coach Ryan Flanagan felt like he had seen the whole thing unfold before.
Of course, that just buoyed him and his squad, which held on for a 7-6 win to upset the Pioneers in the 4AAA quarterfinals on Tuesday. A month ago his team had given him the same fright – choked a five-run lead with same starting pitcher and closer on the mound, that time against the then-conference-favorite Forest Lake – but had pulled it out, to win by the same score.
While his players’ knowledge of the talented Hill-Murray made his players believe the Pioneers would launch a comeback, that prior experience enabled them to not let things fly out of control, Flanagan said.
“It was eerie,” he said of the similarity. “But I think it calmed them.”
Coming into the fourth inning, starter Eden Cranston had shut out Hill-Murray, as Raider offense padded their lead to six runs. But in the fourth, Flanagan said he could tell Cranston was tiring, allowing two runs, another in the fifth and three more in the sixth before he was pulled in favor of closer Ryan Busch (3-0 with two saves). From there, the Raiders were able string together three singles and a sacrifice fly to score one more, and clamp down defensively to pull out the victory, something Flanagan said has become characteristic of his team.
“It got a little close at the end, but they didn’t crumble, they didn’t fall away,” he said.
Back in early April, imagining the Raiders in this position would be difficult. After starting the season 0-3 Roseville stretched its slow start to 1-6 before regrouping to make the section tournament as a nine seed. Flanagan said the team has improved their defense tremendously, going from averaging four errors per game in the first half of the season to one per game in the second. Offensively, they have relied on a lineup that is capable of getting flurries of singles, and has been able to make the most out of its modest power with timely extra-base hits. On Tuesday, three of the seven runs were knocked in by sophomore Dan Busch, who has stepped into a larger role this year and averages around .450 in on base percentage.
“We’re a completely different team than we were the first couple of weeks,” Flanagan said. He chuckled a little. “I don’t think they purposely started slow, but we always try to tell them to play their best baseball at the end of the year and they truly believe that.”
If the squad wasn’t taken aback by Hill-Murray, which they had seen only in a scrimmage in March, his players may have fewer surprises to follow: the other three teams remaining in section play are in Roseville’s Suburban East conference.
“We’re lucky we’ve had good competition this year, so we know what we’re up against,” Flanagan said.
That also means he’s sticking with the tried-and-true strategies that has allowed the Raiders to prevail in big games this season.
“We bend but we don’t break,” he said. “If we put the ball in play, good things should happen. They have so far.”