A timely return

BEULAH – Jaime Villarreal knows a bit about dramatic timing.

The Grafton Spoilers’ ace – who hadn’t pitched for three weeks due to a sore arm – returned to the mound Sunday at Goldmann Field with the American Legion Class B state championship on the line.

Villarreal felt his way through the first three innings, then revved up his fastball to complete a 1-0 shutout of Cando and give Grafton its second consecutive state title.

“I’d been feeling better and better every day and (thought), ‘Why not? It’s the state championship game, try to give it a hurl,’ ” said Villarreal, who had only thrown one bullpen session since his last outing on July 12.

The Valley City State signee allowed six hits with a walk and a hit batter.

The Spoilers (29-8) needed the dominant outing, as Cando starter Brooks Larson matched Villarreal quick inning for quick inning. The game which lasted only 1 hour, 19 minutes – featured just one error, three walks and one hit batter.

Grafton finally broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth inning. Austin Markel led off the frame with a double to left-center, then advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Garek Droog.

Cleanup batter Sam Heuchert squared around twice for safety squeeze attempts, but took both pitches. On the next offering, Heuchert swung away and slapped a single down the third-base line past Cando’s Christian Kvilvang, who was playing in to defend the bunt.

“That situation absolutely dictated that we should’ve bunted. That situation absolutely dictated that (Kvilvang) play in,” Grafton coach Chad Kliniske said. “It’s a roll of the dice. He hits a line drive to the third baseman and it’s a double play.

“We went against conventional wisdom in this tournament about six times and came out on the right side of it every time. And quite frankly, because we had, I had every confidence that that ball was gonna find grass somewhere.”

Cando started the top of the seventh with a strikeout and flyout before Daniel Grande – who led the Bearcats with three hits – singled up the middle to keep his squad alive. But Jayden Komrosky became Villarreal’s eighth strikeout victim as he watched a fastball sizzle over the outside corner. Villarreal, the tournament MVP, punctuated the win with a fist pump – a celebration he began seemingly before the ball settled in Heuchert’s mitt.

The Bearcats (17-13) had plenty of chances to get on the board, though, particularly early. Cando put a runner in scoring position with less than two outs in each of the first three innings, but never cashed in. The Bearcats stranded seven runners in the game.

Cando’s best scoring opportunity came in the top of the second. Kvilvang led off with a double and advanced to third on a single by Larson.

After Aaron Bergdahl struck out, the Bearcats still had runners on the corners with one out. During the next at-bat, Larson stole second, drawing a throw from Heuchert. Kvilvang attempted to swipe home on the throw, but got a bad jump and was thrown out on a close play at the plate.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Larson said of Cando’s missed opportunities. “There were a couple times where we needed just one hit to score two runs … but sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”

After repeatedly working out of jams early in the game, Villarreal increased his velocity noticeably in the fourth inning. The result: 11 consecutive batters retired spanning from the end of the third frame into the sixth.

“They hit everything we left over the middle of the plate on the first pitch,” Kliniske said. “I think he had to make a little adjustment and I think – quite frankly – it pissed him off a little bit that they hit balls. He came out there and put 15, 16 mph more on his fastball and that was the equalizer.”

Cando loaded the bases again in the sixth with a single, a hit batter and a walk, but Villarreal coaxed Bergdahl into a groundout to end the inning.

The Bearcats, who lost to Grafton 9-2 on Friday, enjoyed their deep run in the state tournament. And making it to the title game isn’t such a bad performance for a group of athletes who readily admit that baseball isn’t their No. 1 sport.

“Ever since we got here we’ve been having fun,” Larson said. “We just love to have fun with baseball because we take basketball and football so seriously. It’s more of our relaxing sport, I guess, and it’s nice to have some success with it at the same time.”

Larson allowed five hits and two walks in the loss.

Daniel Allar reports on Minot State University athletics and assists with high school and Legion coverage. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.