Blue Sox set sights on state tournament

Published 6:47 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2009

If the Austin Blue Sox want to get past the first day of the Class ‘B’ state amateur baseball tournament, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

Austin (20-5 overall) will take on the defending Class ‘C’ state champs Elko (39-6 overall) in Arlington, Minn. Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

“Elko is always tough and they like to run and steal the bases,” Blue Sox manager Josh Kunze, who is hitting a team-high .420 with 10 RBIs and 14 runs, said. “They’re a small town, but they’re made up of players from the cities. I don’t think they’ll be intimidated by us, but we’ve always embraced the underdog role and we’re kind of a goofy group.”

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The loser of that game will have it’s season end and the winner will advance to the final eight and play the following weekend, when the tournament moves to a double elimination format.

The biggest threat that the Express pose is that their two best pitchers, Brian Muell (8-1, 1.21 ERA) and Josh Roiger (7-2, 1.96 ERA) are left-handed.

That could cause some trouble for Austin’s crop of lefties: Casey Toops (.333 avg., 11 runs), Nate Johnson (.386 avg., 21 runs), Brian Voigt (.302 avg., 13 RBIs), and Dan Swift (.384 avg., 5 HR, 38 RBIs).

“They could give our lefties some trouble, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” Kunze said.

The Blue Sox will likely start their ace, Joe Huffman (6-2, 1.69 ERA, 57 K in 64 innings). But with over a week off before the second round starts, Kunze wouldn’t hesitate to throw as many as five or six pitchers if needed.

Nels Nelson (4-1, 2.06 ERA) and Mitch Jaeger (3-0, 0.77 ERA) are also solid options for Austin.

“It will be all hands on deck,” he said.

One thing the Blue Sox have going for them is some close game experience. After falling to Rochester in 11 innings, they beat the Greyhounds 4-2 to advance, despite falling down 1-0 in the first inning.

“It’s easy to allow your emotions to get the best of you at state,” Kunze said. “I don’t see that happening with this team.”

The Blue Sox should get a boost from their draft as Hounds slugger Craig Braaten and catcher Matt Raso join the team. Those two can only play if they are pitching or catching and the Blue Sox will likely get them on the field.

“We will use our draft wisely. The possibilities are endless,” Kunze said.

Two years ago, the Blue Sox took second place in the State Tournament and they’re hoping to be a contender again.

“I’d be lying if I said our goal wasn’t to win it all,” Kunze said. “There are some great teams there and it’s the who’s who of Minnesota baseball. It’s loaded with good teams.”

It is the second time the Blue Sox have advanced to state since they were formed in 2004.