Ben Stalker got exactly what he deserved.
Through five innings of the third-place game of the Bill Miller Big Fish Wood Bat Tournament on Thursday, Stalker sparkled, allowing just four hits without a walk or a run, while also going 3-for-3 with an RBI in the leadoff spot in staking the Post 20 Twins to a 3-0 lead over Service.
In the sixth, however, an inning-opening error by shortstop Josh Gilbert opened the floodgates for three Cougar runs. Service chased the southpaw from the game four batters into the seventh after taking a one-run lead, aided by another miscue, before eventually capturing an 8-3 victory at Coral Seymour Memorial Park.
When the implosion was finally over, Twins manager John Butler gathered his team in center field, where all the position players apologized to Stalker for the four errors they committed behind him, and five overall, all of which occurred in the fifth inning or later.
"I said, 'Ben pitched a terrific ballgame. He pitched well enough to win,' and that's when the team told him that our defense has to back him up and they can do a better job," Butler explained. "When we get a pitching performance like we have been getting from these guys, our defense needs to play well.
"I've always been proud of this team because I think that they have some character and they're maturing. This kind of showed me that, yeah, they are kind of coming together a little bit," he added. "They know that they can play better and they know that they let one of their teammates down. ... You've got somebody that gives you that kind of performance and we didn't execute, we didn't make the routine plays and we let him down. We owed him an apology."
The loss, coupled with another 3-2 setback to Service on June 22 in a game that counted toward the tournament, and two other setbacks to Napolean, Ohio (2-0) and Fairfield, Calif. (11-4) on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, left the Twins winless in their own tournament for the first time ever.
"It's extremely disappointing and it's disappointing for the group of guys because they know they can play better than what we showed," Butler said. "Unfortunately, we have to show it on the field and we didn't do it."
In the championship game played earlier Thursday, Ohio walked off with a 1-0 win over California in the bottom of the ninth inning after a pair of base hits and a bobbled grounder led to the only run of the game.
"It was fitting of the championship," Butler said. "It was a well-played game by two well-coached teams and both their pitchers were around the plate the whole time. It was really a nice ballgame."
The second game started out that way for the Twins. Although it ended that way for the Cougars.
After working out of jams in the fourth and fifth innings, stranding runners on second and third each time, Stalker met his match in the sixth.
Chase Van Allen, who reached when Gilbert's throw to first was in the dirt, advanced to third on Stephen Ferntheil's sharp grounder that ricocheted off the diving glove of third baseman Kris Netschert. Following one of Stalker's two strikeouts of the game, Chase Barrus trimmed the deficit to 3-1 when he knocked in Van Allen with a looping single to right-center.
A balk by Stalker brought home Ferntheil with the second run and Barrus tagged to third on a routine pop out to center fielder Justice Elson, whose throw to third base sailed over the head of Netschert, the Twins second error of the inning.
Service then tied it at three on a Garrett Grenier bloop single that barely eluded the diving attempt of Elson, who got his glove on the ball but couldn't scoop it up.
The seventh inning was even worse.
Jumping ahead 0-and-2 on leadoff man Aaron Miller, Stalker beaned him with an errant curveball and then surrendered an infield single to Michael Mauer, who beat Stalker's throw on the sacrifice bunt attempt.
"He should have just stayed with his fastball," Butler said of the hit by pitch. "From what I understand is that he just didn't have a grip on it and got it away from him. Even after that, I said, 'OK. He can get out of that,' and then of course the bottom fell out."
A single by Van Allen and a five-pitch walk to Ferntheil, which brought home Miller for a 4-3 lead, ended Stalker's day on the hill after 91 pitches, 22 of which came in the sixth inning.
"I do believe that with the errors that were behind him and he was starting to get a little bit tired, I think he got mentally tired more than he did physically tired," Butler said. "That's one of the things about having errors behind your pitcher."
Elson then made his way to the bump where he surrendered a sac fly, a walk and a routine grounder that dribbled through the legs of Mitchell Thompson, allowing three more runs to score.
"The errors that we committed today was nothing more than a lack of focus," Butler said. "We lost our concentration, made the errors at an inappropriate time and they capitalized on it, which is what they're supposed to do."
The Cougars defense, meanwhile, committed just one error, but also contributed sensational diving grabs on a number of occasions.
"That's the best defense they've played all year," Butler marveled. "When they play defense, they normally win. When they play like we did, they get blown out."
Credit much of the victory to Service starter Bryan Beard, who allowed 10 hits, walked just one batter in the sixth and added four strikeouts, while throwing first-pitch strikes to the first nine batters he faced amongst many more.
"He's not been that way all year, but he's adjusted because he can throw curveball for strikes, so we give him a little bit of latitude. We let him get a flow," said Cougars manager Steve Nerland. "He's experienced enough, he's pitched enough innings ... so he knows how to get ready."
Stalker obviously does, too.
Sporting a blue glove on his right hand, the lefty surrendered just one hit through three innings, retiring eight straight in preserving the scoreless game. And following a third-inning single by Vincent Madrid, who took third on a single by Larsen Kohler, Stalker gave the Twins a 1-0 lead with an RBI single to right.
"You don't normally see your pitcher hitting first, but he's been swinging one of our hottest sticks. You just can't drop him down in the lineup," Butler explained. "I was worried that that might affect his pitching performance a little bit, but it didn't. He did both equally well."
The Twins -- who travel to Eagle River and Service for doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday, respectively -- made it 3-0 in the fourth when Ethan Waters was hit by a pitch, stole second and scored on an infield single by Bobby Myles and a throwing error by Barrus. Myles then scored from second when Thompson rifled a 3-and-1 pitch down the left-field line.
"As upset as we get at ourselves because we know we can do better," Butler said, "we just take it as a learning experience and we'll go back in our conference play this weekend and pick it back up."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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