Third baseman/pitcher Seth Miller is one of Blaine's team leaders. Photo by Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine
The numbers are enough to catch the eye of even the most jaded baseball fans: Fourteen consecutive victories, eight of them shutouts. Eleven shutouts overall. Just 44 runs allowed in 24 games. Opponents batting a measly .178.
The statistics put up by Blaine’s pitching staff this season are far from typical. They’re what realists dream about but dare not expect.
Unless, that is, you happen to be a Bengal.
“We knew,” senior pitcher/third baseman Seth Miller said.
“I expected it all a long,” echoed senior first baseman Connor Melton.
“I’ve always seen this coming,” emphasized shortstop Mikey Gottschalk.
Blaine will be making its second state tournament appearance when the Bengals face Wayzata in the Class 4A quarterfinals Thursday at CHS Field in St. Paul, boasting the best pitching staff in a field overloaded with pitchers.
Miller is the ace, with a 7-0 record and 0.65 ERA. On any other team, senior Logan McDonald would occupy that spot, with his 5-1 record and 1.11 ERA. Then there’s a group of junior hurlers led by Jack Haring and Jason Kaul, both of whom have sub 1.00 ERAs. Both Miller and Kaul have thrown no-hitters this season.
“Early in the season, we said ‘Guys, we can be really good if we get good pitching,’ ” coach Eric Feigum said. “And our pitching has been fantastic.”
It would be an embarrassment of riches if the Bengals (21-3) were inclined to ego trips. Instead, they project a confidence and unity that comes with familiarity.
Much of the roster played last summer for the American Legion team that finished second in the state tournament.
“We’ve been together since 11-U [youth baseball],” Miller said. “We’re basically a family.”
That bond has become the foundation of the most important part of Blaine’s success: Trust. The pitchers have faith in the defense. And the defense knows the pitchers are going to make things easy for them.
Where some teams lean on pitchers who rack up strikeouts, the Bengals strive to let the opponent hit the ball, knowing they have a defense that will catch it.
“We don’t walk guys,” Feigum said. “We have a thing we call A3P — after three pitches. At that point, the count has to be 1-2 or the ball should be in play.”
With a rock-solid defense to back them up, the Blaine staff has embraced the pitching-to-contact philosophy.
“Our defense has been unreal,” said Miller, a vacuum-gloved third baseman when he’s not on the mound. “They don’t make errors. We know we can throw it in the middle of the plate and absolutely be sure that if a ball is going at a guy, he’s going to catch it.”
Feigum pointed out that confidence in the defense is tied to everything the Bengals have accomplished this season.
“We know if we let [opponents] hit the ball, they’re going to get themselves out 75 percent of the time,” Feigum said. “That has been our difference-maker.”
For players such as Gottschalk, a slick-fielding shortstop who will play at Minnesota State Mankato next year, playing behind pitchers who keep everyone involved and don’t bog down the game with walks and deep pitch-counts is baseball Nirvana.
“It keeps us sharp and makes things as easy as they can be,” he said. “This is 100 percent the most fun I’ve had playing baseball.”