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Larks second baseman Ripken Reyes throws to first base after forcing out Thunder Bay's Willie Bourbon (2) during Northwoods League action at Bismarck Municipal Ballpark.

The final sprint to the first-half finish line has taken its toll a bit on the Bismarck Larks.

After a strong final charge pushed the team to clinch its first Northwoods League playoff berth with a North Division first-half title, things have been tougher at the start of the second half.

Drew Gooch threw seven shutout innings and Thunder Bay jumped to an early lead in posting a 5-2 victory over Bismarck on Saturday at Municipal Ballpark. It was the Larks’ fourth straight setback since clinching a playoff berth on Tuesday with a win over St. Cloud.

“We’re resting some guys here and there,” Larks coach Sean Repay said. “It was a really, really, really long stretch the last 15 games to go 13-2 and win the first half. Some guys are just completely burnt.

“We’re trying to rejuvenate here. Last night we didn’t play very good baseball and I thought we played better today. We’ve got to find our groove again. Offensively, we hit the ball hard. It was just right to guys, untimely double plays today we rolled into. Leadoff guy would smash one, double play immediately. You’re going to have days like that.”

Thunder Bay got to Bismarck starter Bruce Bell (0-1) early, scoring two runs in the first inning and three in the third.

The Border Cats took advantage of three walks in the first frame. Cam Pearcy drew a leadoff walk. Billy Cook followed with a line-drive triple to the right-center field gap, making it 1-0. Cook came in to score the second run on Nick Conti’s sacrifice fly to right.

The Larks had two hits in the home half of the first, but came up scoreless when a strong throw from Pearcy in left cut down Wyatt Ulrich at home plate, trying to score from second on Cristian Montes’ two-out single.

The Border Cats added to the lead in the third.

Cook lined a shot to center with one out in the third for his second consecutive triple, and came in to score on Brady Gulakowski’s single up the middle, making it 3-0. Two more runs came home when Shane Connahan’s high fly ball dropped just fair down the left-field line with two out for a double.

The Larks finished with nine hits, all of them singles. Bismarck had baserunners in every inning but the fourth, but Gooch kept battling out of trouble. Thunder Bay turned three double plays and threw out a runner at the plate, and the Larks stranded nine baserunners.

Gooch (2-2) went seven innings, scattering six hits, walking two and striking out three. Bismarck led off five innings – including four of the first five – with hits, but couldn’t push a run across until the eighth.

“Today was a lot more competitive,” Repay said. “That’s the first step towards us getting right and getting back on track. We just have to have faith that it will be with us tomorrow and I have a good feeling about tomorrow. It will all come together. We’re working on it.”

The Larks got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the eighth.

Ulrich sprinted home from second when Thunder Bay first baseman Daniel DeSimone couldn’t handle Michael Farnell’s line drive down the first-base line. Montes’ two-out single up the middle scored Farnell with the second run of the inning, making it 5-2.

But reliever Brandon Trammell worked out of trouble with the tying run at the plate, striking out Matt Warkentin with runners at the corners to get out of the inning with a three-run lead.

In the ninth, the Larks brought the tying run to the plate again, but John Sakowski pitched around a two-out walk to Conner Bock and a single by Ulrich, getting Ripken Reyes to line out to short to end the game and pick up the save.

After Thunder Bay opened up the early lead, the Larks’ bullpen kept the Border Cat in check. Frank Greco and Matt Butler combined for six shutout innings to give the Larks a chance to rally late.

“Our bullpen was solid,” Repay said. “Those guys are guys that haven’t been used a whole lot and they came out and did a fantastic job, keeping us there and giving us a chance.

“At the end of the day, all you want is an opportunity to come up and tie the baseball game and we had that chance twice. Eventually one of those things are going to fall for us.”

Cook had three extra-base hits – two triples and a fifth-inning double – for the Border Cats (16-24, 3-1 second half).

Ulrich, Montes and Bock had two hits apiece for the Larks (25-15, 0-4 second half).

“We started off 0-4 in the second half. It’s not what we want but every day we need to continue to prepare ourselves for a playoff game,” Repay said “I had a message to them about that last night and today we responded a little bit better – swinging better at bats, very unselfish at bats tonight, just had some bad luck.”

The Larks will open a two-game set with Willmar today at 3:05 p.m.

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