The Thunder Bay Border Cats took an opening-day laugher and made it close.
But close doesn’t count in baseball.
The Cats, who trailed 7-0 to the St. Cloud Rox on Tuesday night through four-and-a-half innings, sent 12 men to the plate in their half of the fifth, scoring seven times to tie the contest.
Cue Harrison Wenson in the seventh.
Stepping to the plate against Nathaniel Leon, a hard-throwing right-hander with a sidearm delivery, Wenson slashed a double to left-centre scoring a pair of runs that proved to be the difference in St. Cloud’s 9-7 win in front of 907 fans at Port Arthur Stadium.
“That’s baseball,” said Cats first-year manager Johnny Hernandez, looking for a rebound season with a team that won just 21 times in 2013.
“When you fall behind in counts, eventually you’re going to have to throw strikes and it happens.”
Still, while it wasn’t the start he wanted to his Northwoods League career, there were plenty of positives for the Cats, who rapped out a dozen hits, one more than their opponent managed against four Border Cats hurlers.
“Any time you can come back as a team, that’s great. But the difference between good teams and great teams are that great teams come back and win. But that was huge for us. I think the guys were a little nervous, trying to throw a little harder, swing a little harder,” Hernandez said.
“But I thought they played well and I think we’re going to be OK.”
There was plenty to like from the offence and the seven runs were a marked improvement over last year’s start, where it took the Border Cats until their fourth game to plate that many runs.
Centrefielder Tyler Rolland, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles, the lone extra-base hits collected by Thunder Bay hitters, said they gave it their all.
“We battled very hard. It was pretty exciting to come out the first game and have 12 hits or whatever we had. But we’re going to have a good team. We’re going to be all right this year,” said Rolland, a Broken Arrow, Okla. native.
Minnesota’s own Eric Loxtercamp started the St. Cloud onslaught in the third, blasting a two-run shot off Thunder Bay starter Tyler Lequire, who told team officials he’d never pitched in front of more than 75 people before drawing the opening-day start.
Lequire found more trouble in the fifth, loading the bases on a pair of singles and a catching error by second baseman Brandon Arnold.
Clay Ardeeser promptly cleared the bases with a double to left, then scored on a follow-up Will Craig double that chased Lequire, who gave up seven hits, and seven runs, though just five of them earned.
A Wenson sacrifice fly stretched the Rox lead to seven.
The Cats began chipping away in the bottom half of the inning, when St. Cloud reliever, who subbed for starter Kenny Anderson, started having control problems. He walked Zack Speer, then with runners on the corner, hit returnee Alex Bautista to load the bases. He then hit Carter McEachern, plating the first Border Cats run.
Reliever Patrick Van Daalwyk fared little better when he took over a batter later, hitting Rolland to score Bautista from third.
Arnold singled home two more, with the aid of a Danny Baer error in centre, and the Cats tied it up when Zack Speer singled home Gabriel Hernandez. But with runners on the corners and Trevor Charpie on the mound, Canadian Nick Studer lofted a fly ball to left to end the threat.
Daley (0-1) was saddled with the loss, while Charpie earned the win. The save went to closer Kevin Burgee, who tossed two innings of no-hit ball when the Rox needed it most.
Claw marks: The two teams hook up again on Wednesday morning, the 11:05 a.m. start scheduled to allows students from both school boards to attend.
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