Tigers hold off Titans

Published 7:40 pm Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Kole Smith of Albert Lea watches the ball Wednesday against Tri-City United in the Subsection 2AA South semifinals at Hayek Field. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

Kole Smith of Albert Lea watches the ball Wednesday against Tri-City United in the Subsection 2AA South semifinals at Hayek Field. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

A suicide squeeze in the eighth inning lifted Albert Lea over Tri-City United in the playoffs last year.

This year, it was a safety squeeze in the seventh.

Kole Smith produced the walk-off bunt to score Jake Thompson from third, and the Albert Lea baseball team erased a three-run sixth-inning deficit to advance past Tri-City United 6-5 Wednesday in the Subsection 2AA South semifinals at Hayek Field.

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“Kole is a magician with the bat, and now it’s two years in a row that we’ve gone right down to the wire,” said Albert Lea coach Joe Sczublewski.

Smith took the batter’s box in the bottom of the seventh with one out and the bases loaded after a lead-off single by Jake Thompson and intentional walks for Alex Bledsoe and Parker Mullenbach.

“Coach told me that I’d have one pitch to drive it, and after that I could squeeze,” said Smith. “Last year, I bunted pretty well, so I felt pretty good about it.”

Chris Enderson took the win on the mound for Albert Lea. In one inning, he struck out one batter and gave up one hit and no runs.

Jake Kilby pitched the first six innings, struck out four batters and gave up five hits, four earned runs and a walk.

“Our pitching was outstanding,” Sczublewski said. “Jake was in command, and Chris did what he had to do.”

Kilby, a junior, played in his first varsity postseason game. He stopped playing baseball after eighth grade but knocked off the rust with the Legion Post 56 baseball team last summer and continued pitching this spring.

“Being a part of these games — two walk-offs my first year back in baseball — it’s been a fun time,” he said. “I’ve been throwing side-armed a little bit and not over the top so much. I’ve been stressing this week to be throwing over the top.”

The first walk-off win Kilby referred to was an 8-7 victory over Mankato East when Enderson blasted a two-run shot over the left-field fence in the bottom of the seventh.

In the first inning, Tri-City United jumped out with a 2-0 lead, but Kilby ended the inning with a strikeout and held the Titans scoreless in the second, third and fourth.

Albert Lea scored its first run on an RBI single by Parker Mullenbach in the bottom of the first.

With one run in the fifth and sixth innings, Tri-City United built a 4-1 lead.

However, the Tigers rallied in the bottom of the sixth.

Jake Thompson headed to first after being hit by a pitch, and E.J. Thomas took a base on balls. An RBI single by Bledsoe cut Albert Lea’s deficit to two runs. Mullenbach followed with an RBI double down the third-base line, and Albert Lea trailed by one run with no outs.

After Tri-City United replaced Trevor Smisek with Ryan Thompson on the hill, Smith hit a two-RBI double to give the Tigers their first lead, 5-4.

“Our guys have battled back so many times this year,” Sczublewski said. “We hit the ball. We made plays. They don’t hang their heads and mope. We were down 4-1, and things weren’t looking good, but we came up in the top of the order and just started slapping the ball.”

The Titans countered by scoring with the tying run with no outs in the top of the seventh. Albert Lea produced its first out when Parker Boyum picked off a Tri-City United baserunner at first.

“That was a huge play,” Sczublewski said. “It took them out of a good rally situation.”

After a strikeout by Enderson and a flyout to Mason Hammer in center field, the Tigers had a chance to win or force an extra inning.

Smith’s bunt in the bottom of the inning put the Tigers over the top.

Last year, Albert Lea beat Tri-City United 3-2 in eight innings in the Subsection 2AA South semifinals at Montgomery.

Next, the No. 1-seed Tigers (12-10, 4-7 Big Nine) will host No. 3-seed Waseca (12-8, 6-6 Big South) in the Subsection 2AA South finals at 5 p.m. today at Hayek Field.

Albert Lea defeated Waseca 5-4 on April 27 during the regular season.