Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Duluth's Evan Dumas stretches to try and tag Wheeler's Trey Birdsong (8) at second Friday.
DULUTH — Duluth went from famine to feast during its Class AAAAA state baseball first-round doubleheader with Wheeler.
After being shut out on one hit by Sam Bragg in the first game, the Wildcats erupted for 15 hits, five of which left the park for home runs in the nightcap.
Two of those bombs highlighted a 10-run outburst in the top of the seventh to break open a tie game as Duluth recovered from a frustrating 3-0 loss in the opener to earn the split with a 17-8 win Friday at Franklin Field.
“I’ve never seen going from a one-hitter to (15) hits and 17 runs,” Duluth coach Matt Champitto said after the Wildcats (18-10) forced a third and deciding game this afternoon at 2 p.m. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The Game 2 hit parade actually started when Eric Sutor led off the fourth inning with a solo homer to tied the game at 4-4.
After a 13-minute delay by the umpires to allow the sun to set below the batter’s eye, the Wildcats continued with some two-out thunder as Chris Rich’s double was followed by back-to-back homers from Alex Raffensperger and John Clark, giving Duluth a 7-4 lead.
But the real explosion came in the top of the seventh after Wheeler (17-11) tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the fifth.
Rich followed Tommy Matton’s leadoff walk with his second double of the game and Raffensperger was intentionally walked to load the bases with nobody out.
Clark then sent a liner past a drawn-in infield into left for a single that put the Wildcats in front 8-7, but it was only the beginning.
Edward Willemse drove in two more with a single to make the score 10-7, and Evan Dumas delivered some much-needed insurance by blasting a two-out grand slam to open up the lead to 14-7.
Rich later added a two-run homer later in the inning and Clark drove in another with a double and when the smoke had cleared, Duluth had a 17-7 lead.
It also made a winner of Rich (4-2), who came on to strike out the side in the sixth inning, and will start today’s Game 3 after throwing fewer than 15 pitches Friday. Rich also went 4-for-5 in Game 2, while Clark was 3-for-5 with two RBIs.
“I know if you make bad pitches, you get hurt,” Wheeler coach Jeff Milton said. “But I don’t know that I’ve never seen so many balls (leave the park), especially in that last inning.
“I’ll be tough (today), but we’ve got to have a short memory.”
The opener was much more frustrating for the Wildcats even though John Clark (5-4) threw a solid game, scattering six hits and two earned runs with five strikeouts over six innings.
Wheeler jumped in front 1-0 when Alan Peters took advantage of Franklin Field’s diminutive confines with a pop-fly home run to left with two outs in the top of the first.
Two innings later, Peters fisted a single to right as Wheeler took advantage of two Duluth errors to extend its lead to 2-0.
Peters was again involved when the Wildcats scored again in the sixth, looping a triple into the right field corner before coming home on Kyle Allen’s double to make the score 3-0.
He finished the doubleheader 6-for-6 with the homer, triple a double and four RBIs.
Meanwhile, Bragg (9-3) managed to keep Duluth hitless through the first six innings, but the Wildcats still had chances to score by drawing seven walks from the Wheeler right-hander.
Their best chance to get to the Wheeler starter came in the sixth, when Rich and Raffensperger drew walks, and a fielder's choice ground left runners on first and second with one out.
Jacob Timmie then sent a liner towards right center that seemed destined to be Duluth’s first hit, but Peters thwarted the Wildcats again, leaping into the fence to make the catch and then throwing back to second to double up Raffensperger to end the inning.
“If that ball falls, you’re looking at them scoring three,” Milton said.
Duluth had one more chance in the seventh as Noah Hoback finally got the team’s first hit by doubling into the right-field corner and ending the day for Bragg.
One out later, Sutor and Dumas drew walks to load the bases, but Wheeler reliever Keaton Tobin struck out David Matton and got Rich to pop to short to lock down the save and the Game 1 win from the visiting Wildcats.