Two aces strutted their stuff, but only one could lift their team to the coveted double-elimination rounds.
No. 8 seed Medford (11-7) and No. 9 Le Sueur-Henderson (5-12) both brought strong pitching and tidy defense to Saturday afternoon’s Section 2AA playoff opener. Medford survived a seventh-inning scare to win 2-1.
AJ Vandereide tossed a complete-game three-hitter with nine strikeouts in a winning effort for the Tigers. The Gustavus Adolphus-bound baseball and basketball athlete mowed down the first 11 batters he faced and allowed no walks or runs until the final frame.
“At this point it’s kind of expected. He’s just been like this all year for us,” Medford head coach Joe Melles said of the 6-foot-5 right hander. “I couldn’t be more proud of him, the way he works, his leadership with the guys. He’s almost like another coach with us helping out the younger guys.”
The game cruised by in approximately 80 minutes. There was no score through two innings thanks in part to Medford’s senior left fielder who made all three outs in the second, including a diving catch just shy of the warning track.
“Josiah Hedensten has been so good out in left for us,” Melles said. “It seems like he has a diving catch every game.”
Nate Gregersen pitched all six innings for LS-H. His line included seven hits, two earned runs, five strikeouts and one intentional walk.
Sophomore Casey Chambers led off the bottom of the third with a double, moved up to third base on a sacrifice bunt by senior Peyton Seiler and crossed the plate on junior Justin Ristau’s double. Those were the game’s lone extra-base hits.
Chambers was the only player with two hits.
Junior Reed Cumberland singled and junior Jack Paulson hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Ristau.
Senior Zach Berndt singled to center field to end Vandereide’s perfect game with two outs in the fourth. Lightning struck twice with senior Aiden Gulbranson following with a single, only for the two to be stranded after another Hedensten catch ended the threat. The Giants went hitless until Gregersen singled to left field with one out in the seventh.
Gregersen advanced to third base due to a throwing error on the play. Vandereide issued his first walk to eighth-grader Brody Berndt and allowed his first run when sophomore Ben Miller plated Gregersen on a fielder’s choice groundout.
Vandereide coaxed a routine groundout to second base for the final out.
“I was glad to see we made plays. They made it easy, the guys behind me,” Vandereide said. “We hit the ball when it mattered. Ultimately, we put enough across to win the game. Two isn’t always enough, but today it was.”
LS-H went 21-5 and advanced to the section finals in 2019. Another promising season in 2020 was canceled statewide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then a two-week COVID-19 shutdown just one game into this season.
The ripple effects of an inexperienced team went beyond just the two weeks away.
The Giants opened with a 1-7 record that included a six-game losing streak. With little time to practice due to an array of make-up games to squeeze in, they righted the ship to win four of their last eight regular season games, as well as three of the last five.
“We were playing three or four games a week just to get to where we were at,” Bruns said. “Nate threw a good game today, defense backed him up. We hit some balls to the outfield, had they fallen, would’ve been doubles. They had balls equally as hard that fell between players. That’s baseball, it’s a split second.
"We really worked hard in practice the last couple of days to get them ready to have a good approach, and they did. There’s nothing to hang your hat about on this one."
Medford already clinched its first winning season since 2016. Saturday was the Tigers’ first playoff win since 2017.
LS-H beat Medford the four previous meetings since 2017.
“We really respect the Le Sueur program. Rick Bruns does a great job,” Melles said. “We knew despite their record that they were going to be a good baseball team and we can’t overlook them. It took one of our best performances of the year to beat them and I respect the hell out of them. They played really well, we played really well. It was just a fun game.”
Medford advances to face the No. 1 seed Belle Plaine Tigers (14-4) 5 p.m. Tuesday at Tiger Park in Belle Plaine. Belle Plaine received a first-round bye.
Belle Plaine eliminated Medford in round one in 2018 and 2019.
“Just put the ball in play, play the best defense we can and see what happens,” Vandereide said. “It’s fun to be the underdog.”