The Duluth Huskies have the best overall record in the Northwoods League’s North Division and are all but certain to make the playoffs — but it’s a safe bet the Huskies are relieved they won’t run into the Rochester Honkers when postseason play begins.
On Wednesday, for the second consecutive game, the Honkers bested Duluth in dramatic fashion when Matt Hardy crushed a two-run walkoff homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for a 7-5 victory.
It was the home finale for the Honkers, and Hardy was thrilled to provide the final heroics in a game that abounded with heroes.
“He threw me a changeup the first time I saw him earlier in the game, and it was a good pitch, so I figured I might get another one,” Hardy said. “I did, and I was able to get ahold of it.”
It was fitting the game ended with a homer because the ball was carrying well on a warm, muggy night at Mayo Field.
With Rochester trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the third, Honkers No. 9 hitter Grayson Bowman drew a walk after Duluth starter Jason Braziel had retired the first eight batters.
Rochester’s Nate Webb made Braziel pay for his mistake, hitting a two-run homer deep into the parking lot behind the left-field wall to give the Honkers a 2-1 lead. For Webb, it was his third homer of the season.
Then, in the bottom of the fourth, Hardy led off with a single, and Rochester native Michael Michalak drilled a line drive that cleared the wall in left for his seventh homer of the season, giving the Honkers a 4-1 lead.
In the seventh, it was Alex McGarry’s turn to go yard, as he hit a towering home run off the apartment building behind the wall in right to move the lead to 5-1. For McGarry, it was homer No. 7.
Duluth scratched out a run in the eighth off Rochester native Michael Brandt and had the bases loaded with one out, but Honkers closer Joshua Ibarra slammed the door, recording two straight strikeouts to end the threat and keep the score at 5-2.
Ibarra wouldn’t fare nearly as well in the ninth.
Duluth’s Sean Watkins led off with a homer to cut the lead to 5-3, and with two outs and a runner aboard, Ibarra served up a two-run, game-tying homer to No. 9 hitter Julian Escobodo.
Hardy, however, saw to it that the fans who turned out on Fan Appreciation Night wouldn’t have to linger long and got to go home happy.
Less than a week ago, Honkers manager Thomas Walker had seen his team shut out three times in four games, but now they’re red-hot.
“We’ve got some guys who can really swing the bat, and they just did their jobs tonight,” he said. “That was a lot of fun, and it was great that they picked up Ibarra, who’s been a horse for us all summer at the back end of the bullpen.”
Amid all of the home runs, Rochester starting pitcher Drew Slade was using every bit of his lefty guile to totally befuddle Duluth’s hitters, giving up just two hits, four walks and one unearned run through six innings.
And, on those occasions when a Duluth batter did reach first base, his troubles were far from over.
Slade seemed to hypnotize runners with his delivery and his move to first, which produced three pickoffs.
“I throw over so many times, and tonight it just worked,” he said. “I was just hoping that they would be going on my first movement, and sure enough, a few of them did, and it worked out.”
Slade, who made what is likely his last start as a Honker after two full seasons in Rochester, delivered his best performance of the season.
“I felt really good out there, just pounding the zone and letting them put it in play and letting my defense make plays,” he said. “It’s been a fun two summers here. I couldn’t have asked for anything better in the coaching staff and playing in front of the fans here. It’s been the time of my life.”
Walker said it was fitting for Slade to deliver a big performance in the Honkers home finale. “That was a heart-warming night for me when it comes to Drew Slade,” Walker said. “We had him here all of last summer, and he battled for us all year. He’s a leader, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a great kid. To see him do that in his last Honkers outing, that’s really special.”
The Honkers end the season series against Duluth with a record of 5-3. Their second-half record is 16-16, and overall they are 33-35.
So, with four games to play in the regular season, Rochester could still finish with a winning record.
But with the home season now complete, it wasn’t too early for the 24-year-old Walker to reflect on his first season as the field manager for the Honkers.
“Being a field manager at 24 is definitely not easy,” he said. “You’re responsible for young men who are almost as old as you — and some of them are guys I’ve played with or against. It’s been challenging at times, but it’s always been fun. That’s the one thing I stressed this summer. Winning is fun, but no matter what, we were going to have a good time. I think the boys really embraced that. It’s been awesome, a real blessing, and I’m proud of the guys and the whole organization.”
The Honkers are at Willmar for two games starting Thursday, then close out the season with two games at Waterloo.
HONKERS 7, HUSKIES 5
Duluth: Isaacson 1-for-3; Monroy 1-for-4, RBI; Moseley 1-for-4; Watkins 1-for-3, HR; Jones 2-for-3, 2 R; Escobedo 1-for-3, HR, 3 RBI. Pitchers: Braziel 5 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 2 K; Holdgrafer (LP) 3 2/3 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K.
Rochester: Webb 2-for-5, HR, 2 R, 2 RBI; McGarry 2-for-5, HR; Hardy 2-for-5, HR, 2 R, 2 RBI; Michalak 2-for-4, HR, 2 RBI; Adams 1-for-4; Schell 1-for-4. Pitchers: Slade 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 2 K; Brandt 1 1/3 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB; Ibarra (WP) 1 2/3 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 K.