A.L. baseball may have turned things around… for goodPublished 11:49am Thursday, April 14, 2011
Column: Second Thoughts
The Albert Lea Tigers baseball team is no longer the underdog.
After years of mediocrity, the Tigers are currently undefeated in the Big Nine Conference’s young season and have won 15 of their last 21 league games. That’s quite a turnaround for a program that finished last in the conference in 2008 and no better than seventh in the five years prior to the 2009 season.
The Tigers are hitting, fielding and running smarter than any time over the past decade and are playing with a newfound confidence not present in years past.
This season, the local nine are serious contenders to win the Big Nine title. Don’t anticipate those expectations to fade anytime soon.
On Tuesday, the Tigers notched their third straight win to open the 2011 season. The team beat a talented Mankato West squad — that returned six of nine starters off last season’s fourth-place team — 4-3 in an extra inning.
In their previous two games, the Tigers beat Winona and Section 1AAA defending champion Rochester Mayo — a team that killed Albert Lea throughout the better part of the 2000s.
But the Tigers are no longer the punching bag of the Big Nine’s baseball schedule. Standing by the Mankato West dugout Tuesday with the Scarlets leading the Tigers 3-0, it was apparent the opposing coaching staff was not comfortable with a three-run lead. They respected the Tigers’ skill and ability to rally from behind, and when they eventually did, the Mankato West coaches went mum.
This year’s Albert Lea baseball team has a strong senior class looking to lead the Tigers to their first state tournament appearance in years. But the Tigers also regularly start three underclassman, including a middle infield of ninth-grader Henry Fleek and sophomore Ethan Abben, that has played with tremendous poise in three competitive games. Those two, along with starting sophomore outfielder Makael Lunning, should help the Tigers be equally as successful during their senior campaign.
Even younger players are taking notice of the Tigers’ recent success, too. At Tuesday’s game, a group of seventh-graders wearing purple Albert Lea Knights baseball caps played catch along the third-baseline fence. The talented Knights program will eventually pump prepared baseball players into the high school program like never before and help keep the Tigers near the top of the Big Nine. Having Knights players see the big kids win extra-inning ballgames over conference’s best will only fuel their enthusiasm.
Tonight the Tigers host Faribault, who is tied for second in the Big Nine, in a doubleheader at Hayek Field. Don’t be surprised if they win both.
Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears every Thursday in the Tribune.