Sean Repay and his coaching staff knew, but he wanted his players to take care of business themselves.
For the 25th time this season, the Larks did.
Hendry Rodriguez pitched 8 2/3 stellar innings and the Larks scored three runs in their last at bat to officially wrap up the Northwoods League North Division first half title on Tuesday night at Bismarck Municipal Ballpark.
About 30 minutes earlier, Duluth had lost at home to Rochester to seal the championship for Bismack, but Repay kept his players in the dark. It was not easy as a smattering of cheers from the sellout crowd of 1,911 broke out after Duluth went down.
“We wanted to finish this out right. Finish it like we started,” Repay said. “These guys are amazing. It’s 0-0 all game then we find a way to scratch out three runs and now we can party. This is a special group of guys, man, just a really special group.”
The Larks finished the first half 25-11, one game better than Duluth. The 25 wins represented a nine-game improvement from the first half in 2017 and 10 more than the second half last season. As a result of winning the first half championship, the Larks are guaranteed of hosting a playoff game in August. the divisional round is set for Aug. 13 and 14.
“This is my favorite group of guys I’ve ever coached,” Repay said. “It’s a strange group, a high-character group, a really fun group … and they’re really good at baseball. Man, what a blast this has been.”
The Larks have gotten contributions up and down the lineup and throughout the pitching staff.
Tuesday night, Rodriguez delivered.
The right-hander from LSU Alexandria took a shutout into the ninth inning before Colan Borchers recorded the last out with the bases loaded.
“I knew my teammates were there to support me and I felt very confident we were going to win the game,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez allowed just four hits, while striking out nine. His trademark changeup had the Rox baffled all night.
“I tried to give everything I had. I know my game, I know what I have to do and that’s it,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone did their job and we were able to come out with the victory.”
The Larks broke through late to really make it a party.
Jacob Nesbit singled to start the top of the eighth. Braden Williams, the next batter, put down a perfect bunt, intended as a sacrifice, but ended up being a hit.
With runners at first and third, Wyatt Ulrich grounded toward St. Cloud second baseman Ryan Weisenberg, who couldn’t handle it, allowing Nesbit to score.
The Larks added two more.
After a sacrifice by Cristian Montes, Ripken Reyes singled to chase home Williams.
Next up was Michael Farnell, who ripped a hit into right field, allowing Ulrich to score easily for a 3-0 lead. Farnell was thrown out at second, stretching for a double.
“We’ve been swinging the bats so well for so long, but their guy (John Matthews) was really good,” Repay said. “We rode (Hendry) to the bone as much as we could because we wanted him to have that moment. He gave us everything he had. What an amazing outing by him.”
Matthews and Rodriguez allowed nothing through seven innings.
The only scoring chance either team had through the first six innings was produced by Bismarck third baseman Chase Coker, who singled to lead off the second and fifth innings. In the second, Coker stole second and third base with nobody out. Still on third after two strikeouts, Coker broke for home on a pitch the sailed to the backstop. The ball, however, bounced back perfectly to St. Cloud catcher Noah Hill. Coker was caught in no man’s land and eventually tagged out.
Then in the fifth, Coker singled to start the frame. An errant pick off to first base allowed Coker to motor all the way to third. But two strikeouts and a ground out later and Coker was stranded at third.
The Larks start the second half of the season with a brief two-game series in Mankato, starting tonight.
“We got a bunch of guys who are pretty banged up and we’re going to give them a couple days to breath,” Repay said. “The season keeps coming, for sure, but we want to enjoy this. These guys deserve it.”
The Larks entered the game hitting .271, fourth-best in the NWL. … Matthews, featuring a 93 mph heater, is from Punxsutawney, Pa., home of the famed Groundhog Day celebration every Feb. 2, and the location where the 1993 movie of the same name was filmed. … Rox manager Al Newman, a member of the Minnesota Twins World Series in 1987 and 1991, was ejected in the eighth inning for protesting a call.