--by Louie Opatz, MBA freelance writer
***UPDATE! The game has been postponed until Wednesday -- same time (6 pm) and location (Red Haddox in Bloomington) due to certain and heavy rains in the forecast all evening Tuesday.)
Entering the 2016 Class A Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament, the defending champion Minnetonka Millers were the consensus pick to hoist the state trophy again — and considering their 50-5 record, a run differential of 459 to 132 and 12 state titles, you can see why. On Wednesday, against the Tri-City Shark, the Millers have the opportunity to do just that.
Though they may have been expected to reach the final again this year, few prognosticators could have predicted the circuitous route Minnetonka took to get there.
After a rocky opening weekend that saw the Millers upset 7-1 by Kelley Fuels Diesel in the tournament’s first shocker, Minnetonka has won five straight games — including a tune-up exhibition game, for good measure — to reach the final against the unbeaten Shark.
Wednesday night, they’ll need two more.
After beating the Minneapolis Angels 4-2 last weekend in their first game in the consolation round, the Millers beat the St. Paul Capitals, earned retribution with a 7-3 win to eliminate Kelley Fuels Diesel and won a tight 5-3 game over Continental Diamond to take the long road back to the championship.
The Capitals gave the Millers a scare on Sunday: Minnetonka looked comfortable enough entering the ninth inning with an 8-2 lead, but St. Paul rallied for five runs in the bottom of the ninth to push the Millers to the brink before the reigning champs held on for the 8-7 win.
Millers shortstop Joe Shallenberger has paced the offense on Minnetonka’s comeback trail: the three-hole hitter went 10-14 with three home runs, a double, eight RBI and four runs in the team’s three tournament games this weekend to give the former Concordia-St. Paul star five total dingers for the tourney.
Pitcher Casey Jacobson went the distance for the Millers in the semifinal against the Diamond Cutters, allowing only four hits, two walks and one earned run in Minnetonka’s 5-3 win.
Tri-City Shark now has two shots to snatch the title from the Millers after winning both its games in the winners’ bracket this weekend.
The Shark started the weekend with a 5-4 lead in the top of the eighth against K.F. Diesel in a game that was being resumed from the weekend before.
Tri-City quickly banished any thoughts of a Diesel comeback, as the Shark added six runs in Friday night’s resumed game to post a convincing 11-4 triumph to reach the winners’ bracket semifinal against Continental Diamond.
The Diamond Cutters rallied back from an early 3-0 deficit to tie the game 3-3 in the seventh inning, but the Shark persevered after posting two runs in the eighth to send Continental Diamond to the losers’ bracket and punch their ticket to the final.
Wednesday at 6 pm at Bloomington’s Red Haddox Field, two teams riding four-game state winning streaks will look to continue their hot play and close out a wild, rain-soaked state tourney with the ultimate prize: the Class A state championship.
(Editor's note: if Minnetonka wins the 6 pm game, a final game will follow immediately afterwards.)