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Menomonie tops North behind Zydowsky, Huskies defensive gaffes

The Eau Claire North Huskies welcomed the Menomonie Mustangs to Carson Park to kick off a two-game Big Rivers Conference baseball set Tuesday. North entered the day tied atop the league standings with Hudson, but it was the Mustangs who largely dominated the day and shutout the Huskies 7-0 behind a huge effort from starting pitcher AJ Zydowsky.

While Menomonie (5-6, 2-3 BRC) was in control for the entire game, much of the contest can be encapsulated by what happened in the sixth inning.

North (4-3, 3-2) was already trailing 4-0, but Huskies starter Chase Watkins was looking to battle his way through the sixth frame after a 1-2-3 fifth.

Watkins looked like he’d start the inning off on the right foot, getting catcher Kahne Johnson to send a grounder to shortstop Ben Mettler. But the North junior’s throw was way up the first base line, allowing Johnson to advance to second base. Third baseman Max Erickson then moved the Menomonie catcher up another 90 feet with a groundout to second.

That brought Zydowsky up to the plate, looking to help his own cause. North brought the infield in and the gambit worked as the Mustangs pitcher sent a sharp grounder for short, but it got through and went into left field. Johnson scored easily and it was 5-0 Menomonie.

North had three errors in the inning and seven for the game

Zydowsky and Drout moved to third and second respectively on a wild pitch from reliever Maddux Geurts. Menomonie paid it off with a base hit from nine-hole hitter Mitch Scribner that scored Zydowsy before center fielder James Hoff engineered another run with a groundout to short. By the time the top of the inning was over, the Mustangs had it all but wrapped up with a 7-0 lead.

Zydowsky, however, needed far less support than that. The junior righty dominated the Huskies lineup the entire afternoon. The Mustangs starter was expected to be the team’s ace coming into the season and he lived up to the billing Tuesday.

The junior pitched all seven innings, striking out eight batters and allowing just six total baserunners. North only had multiple baserunners reach base in the same inning once coming in the fourth. Zydowsky responded by retiring the next three batters.

“He’s been super consistent for us this year and I could not be more proud of what he’s brought,” Menomonie head coach Zach Slowiak said. “He brings a competitive nature. Super calm and collected on the mound. You look at him, you don’t know if he just struck out a guy or if he just walked the guy and that’s something we really preach in our program is ‘Same player no matter what.’”

Errors and small ball were the key cogs in the engine that drove Menomonies offense.

The scoring was opened in the second when Erickson laid down a perfect bunt to move a pair of runners to second and third with one out. Zydowsky then lifted a flyball to center that scored designated Hitter Taylor Mars — who’d earlier reached on an error — on a sacrifice-fly.

An error on an Owen Welch grounder kickstarted a two-out rally one inning later. The Mustangs took advantage when Welch stole second and left fielder Landon Mittlestadt promptly sent a line drive to right field, making it 2-0.

“We’ve been really talking about attacking pitches and attacking pitchers,” Slowiak said. “Small ball kind of gets the momentum going. We want to keep things rolling and it lets those types of things happen and keep the guys running around the bases [and] use our strengths.”

Menomonie made it three innings in a row with a run when Johnson led the inning off with a single and Erickson crushed a double off the right field wall to score him. A walk and an infield single then loaded the bases with one out. Or so it should’ve been.

Instead, Mettler — who’d just saved a run by knocking down a ground ball, keeping it on the infield — tossed the ball back into Watkins. The ball bounced just in front of the North lefthander and hopped right by his glove before rolling out of play. That allowed another runner to score.

All told, North, a normally sure handed team, committed seven errors. In sharp contrast, the Mustangs went the entire game without a single defensive mishap. It was a key difference in the game and helped Zydowsky on the mound in a big way.

“These things are starting to come along and they’re doing a great job,” Slowiak said. “When you know your defense is gonna make plays, it makes it really easy for the offense to go out and put a couple up and then put a couple more up and a couple more up because confidence rolls in the games like that.”

North will try to split the series at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Wakanda Park in Menomonie.