State Farm takes best-of-three

HANCOCK – On Tuesday night, Dean Kangas State Farm got a look at Lee Naugle, pitcher for Pat’s Foods/Mosquito Inn, at his absolute best, and they struggled to keep up, eventually striking out 13 times and losing the series opener. On Thursday, they battled back to force a deciding Game Three thanks to the strength of their team defense and some timely hitting.

Getting another crack at Naugle on Sunday, State Farm proved much more patient at the plate and were rewarded for their efforts as his fastball was not quite as fast and his curveball did not hook quite so much, allowing them to rack up nine runs early and then cruise to victory in the game, 9-3, and the series at the Hancock Driving Park.

For the hosts, Owen Kariniemi pitched a gem on short rest, and added a couple of hits as well, including one big hit in the third.

“I wasn’t 100% because I was coming off a little bit of a short rest,” said Kariniemi. “[Scoring those runs early] definitely made things a lot better up there. We trust our defense. It’s a matter of keeping the ball in the zone and not giving them passes.”

Pat’s threatened right away as Nick Bolton led off with a single. Justin Kirby followed with one of his own, but neither player could be advanced.

In the bottom of the first, Brady Turner forced Naugle to walk him. After stealing second, Turner scored when Dave Wesa hit a ball into left field that Pat’s outfielder Rob Brooks missed. Wesa advanced to third before being knocked home by State Farm manager Brian Juopperi, who hit a sacrifice fly to center.

Two runs would hardly be enough to guarantee a victory so early in the game. In the top of the second inning with two down, Dan Wood walked. Alex Nettell singled to second, putting two men on. Bolton hit a long ball to left field, scoring Wood easily. Nettell rounded third, trying for home, but was picked off while attempting to jump over catcher Scott Pietila.

In the top of the third, Kirby walked. He then stole second while Naugle was at the plate. Kariniemi walked Naugle before working his way through the jam from there without giving up another hit or run.

What had been a tight game broke open in the bottom of the third when State Farm posted seven runs. Wesa walked to open the inning. Brian Juopperi singled past Naugle on the mound, putting two men on. After Kyle Storm and Jason Koski both failed to advance the runners, Jay Daavettila walked to load the bases.

Kariniemi, looking to help his own cause, blooped a fly ball to center field, scoring all three runners while he reached second safely.

“The thing with Lee is that you just have to get a good swing on it,” said Kariniemi. “He’s a heck of a pitcher, but when they are coming in that fast, and you connect with it good, you can put a decent crack on it.”

Scott Pietila moved Kariniemi to third with a single of his own. Dan Juopperi singled two more runs home to give the hosts a six-run cushion. Turner brought Juopperi home with a single to right field. Turner would eventually score when Brian Juopperi singled to center field, pushing the lead to eight runs, 9-1.

Pat’s threatened to answer right back in the top of the fourth. With two men out, Nettell crushed a ball to center field, and safely reached second base on the play. He advanced to third on a passed ball at home, but could not score before the inning ended.

Brooks replaced Naugle on the mound to start the bottom of the fourth, and he scattered five hits over the final three innings.

“It gave us some hope when he came in there and got them off balance,” said acting Pat’s manager Rexx Janowiak about Brooks’ performance on the mound. “It was huge for Brooks to come in and settle things down.”

In the top of the fifth, Pat’s jumpstarted a modest comeback when Kirby blasted a ball over the left field fence for a solo home run to open the inning. Brooks reached first on an error as the next batter. He moved to second on a sacrifice before reaching third on a passed ball. Naugle brought him home with a single. Naugle advanced to third himself before the inning and the threat ended.

Both teams scattered base runners over the final two innings, but neither managed to get another run home.

Koski came in to relieve Kariniemi in the top of the seventh inning. He surrendered a walk to Chris Nielsen, but nothing more before retiring the side.

With the win, State Farm advances to face Wolverine-Orbit in a best-of-three series beginning Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. in Kearsarge. Wolverine-Orbit is the top seed and swept Stanton to get to the Championship series.