DUNDAS – Despite sitting through the longest state tournament game in history, Bird Island manager Mike Nagel couldn’t leave the field. He knew what he had just witnessed was something special.
The Minnesota state amateur baseball tournament is in its 99th year of existence. No game had gone longer than when the Bird Island Bullfrogs topped the Loretto Larks in the final game of weekend two by a score of 3-2 in a game that lasted 21 innings.
“After it was done, I just couldn’t leave the field,” Nagel said. “Everybody started to leave, and I just sat down on the bench. One of the guys that were there gave me two beers, and I just sat and sipped on them. Mike Ludwig was there, and they turned off all the lights, and I was the only one there. He asked me if I was OK. I said no. I’m amazing. It was the coolest thing.”
There have been three games that went 20 innings in the state tournament’s history. The most recent one came in 2017 when Brooklyn Park topped Elko 4-3. Hector and Stark in 1971 and Cyrus and Fairfax in 1976 played a 20-inning game as well.
“It was one of the more unique experiences that I’ve ever been a part of,” Bird Island’s Tyler Hebrink said. “I’m 30 years old and have been playing since I was 16. I’ve been playing for half my life. There was just something different about last night’s game.”
There were headline moments coming into, during, and after the record-breaking game. The starting pitchers for Loretto and Bird Island happened to be the sons of former major leaguers. For the Larks, Caleb Koskie got the start on the mound, the son of former Twins player Corey Koskie. For the Bullfrogs, it was Josh Kingery getting the start, the son of Mike Kingery, who played 10 years in the big leagues with six different teams.
“It was almost like it was made for a movie,” Nagel said. “You’ve got two former major leaguers with their kids pitching against each other. Our bat boy got Mike Kingery and Corey Koskie’s autographs. He was beaming the whole night.”
Josh Kingery and Caleb Koskie put on a show on the mound, matching each other early on. Then, in the top of the seventh, Corey Koskie delivered in a big way to break a 1-1 tie. Corey Koskie belted a solo home run in the inning to put the Larks up 2-1, a humbling moment for Kingery on the mound.
“I told Josh that you tried to sneak a fastball past Corey Koskie, and he laughed and said, ‘yeah, that humbled me. An almost 50-year-old man turns around on my 90-mile-per-hour fastball and deposits it 50 feet over the fence.”
Following the solo shot by Koskie, Loretto was feeling good about themselves and was just nine outs away from advancing to Labor Day weekend.
“When Corey hit the home run in the top of the seventh to put us up 2-1, I thought that was going to be enough,” Loretto’s Kent Koch said. “I thought we could finish it. I was feeling pretty confident then. I guess we were just getting started, though.”
Bird Island would tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, setting up for what would become the longest game in state tournament history. Both teams had their chances to end things earlier, even the Larks, who didn’t record a single hit from the 10th through the 19th inning. After Kingery’s day ended after 12 innings and 151 pitches in which he allowed two runs with 13 strikeouts, the Bullfrogs kept Loretto at bay.
“I told him I know you think you’re fine, but you’re 20 years old,” Nagel said about taking out Kingery, “We’re not going to ruin your life in this game. You’ve done your job. We’ll take care of it from here. Our next three pitchers pitched nine innings of no-hit baseball. We had a no-hitter inside of this game.”
Bird Island’s Jared Dettman, Kolby Holtz, and Casey Lewandowski did just that. Dettman, the son-in-law of Nagel, also has professional baseball experience playing for the Atlanta Braves organization for four seasons.
The chances to end the game earlier were both there for the Larks and Bullfrogs throughout. In the bottom of the 13th, Bird Island had the leadoff man reach on an error putting the winning run at second with no outs. After electing not to bunt, Loretto worked out of the jam as Bird Island left the bases loaded. Loretto also left the bases loaded in the top of the 16th. After Bird Island recorded the first two outs of the inning, the Bullfrogs walked three straight batters before getting out of the inning and keeping the game tied.
The Larks would have another shot to win the game in the top of the 20th. Tyler Maher led off the inning with a single and moved up all the way to third with one, thanks to a pair of wild pitches. Maher had a chance to score on an infield single by Koch but elected to stay at third. Bird Island would get out of the inning with a pair of ground balls, keeping the game tied at two.
“They had so many chances, and we had so many chances,” Nagel said. “They had (a runner on third) with one out, and the ball was hit at our shortstop. The ball went off his glove, and I thought he was going to score, but he thought it was better to go back to third. There were so many of those types of plays. Baseball is such a funky game. It’s so mental. It’s so much about mental toughness. It’s the little things like that can make or break a game. In this game, there are probably 10 or more things that each team did that could have changed the outcome.”
With the number of missed chances on both sides, frustration settled in for both dugouts. With how late the game was being played, it was tough for players on both teams to stay focused on each pitch and play as the game dragged on and on.
“I moved over to first base towards the end and was talking to the first base umpire, and we were just trying to figure out what inning it was,” Koch said. “I told him I think it’s the 14th, but I’m not really sure. You lose track in a game like that pretty easily. It was basically a one-inning game at that point no matter what inning it was.”
“I was telling people that it was like that Field of Dreams scene where they don’t keep score, and they just wanted to play,” Hebrink added. “It honestly felt like that. There were so many opportunities for both sides. Whenever somebody got one of those, nobody could do it. It just seemed like we would just keep playing forever. It was a really unique situation.”
Koch also mentioned how tough it is to be ready defensively in a game that saw both teams strike out 24 times.
“In a game like that with a lot of strikeouts, it does get tough to play in the field,” he said. “You’re rarely getting some action, and then all of a sudden you do, and it turns out to be a big play. It was one of those games where you just have to keep each other up and go make something happen with the next chance you get.”
Staying focused got harder and harder throughout the game the later it got. As the game went on, so did the pressure each chance a team had the opportunity to deliver in a big spot.
“It’s so difficult to try and stay in the moment at that time of the night,” Hebrink added. “We’ve been playing for almost six hours. How many times did we have our best hitter up, or they have their best hitter up with a chance to win it? It was almost like you were a completely different hitter with that pressure. That added pressure was so much because we’ve been playing for so long that we’re just begging for somebody to end it. It just took forever to get that hit. We were all just gassed. We have been there since 3 o’clock that day. How do you anticipate playing 21 innings? You just can’t. We’d come into the dugout, and there would be a two or three-inning stretch where we had to build up some energy. Every three innings or so, you’d get a runner. It just took a couple of innings each time to get that energy and momentum back after not being able to capitalize on any situation over and over again. We just got completely drained.”
In the bottom of the 21st inning, closing in on six hours of game time, the Bullfrogs broke through at last. Trent Athmann led off the inning by reaching on an error and moved up to second on a single by Shawn Dollerschell on a perfect hit-and-run call.
“In the inning, we scored, we had a guy on first and with a 1-0 count,” Nagel said. “I thought let’s put a hit and run on.”
With the winning run just 90 feet away, Nagel elected to go small ball and manufacture the run in. There was just one problem. Hebrink had other plans.
“Tyler comes up and won’t even look at me,” Nagel said. “I thought it was unbelievable because he knew I was going to do it. He didn’t look purposely because he knew he was going to get a hit, and he did. I really wanted to go small ball.”
Before the inning began, Hebrink knew Bird Island was going to end the game here if he got a chance. He got his chance, and he delivered.
“We got into the dugout in the last inning, and we’re all fed up at this point,” Hebrink said. “I was up to bat fourth that inning, and I told the guys half joking and half serious that if I get up, we will win this game.”
A base hit up the middle from Hebrink scored Athmann giving Bird Island a thrilling 3-2 walk-off win in the bottom of the 21st.
“He (Nagel) told me after the game he was thinking of doing a squeeze,” Hebrink said. “When I went up to the plate, I didn’t even think about that. Looking back, I absolutely should have thought about that. I was just ready to go. They had the infield in, and he was going to put it over the plate, and I was just going to try to get something to the outfield. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a step out and seen what he wanted to do, but it all worked out.”
At 12:14 a.m., the longest game in state tournament history ended. The time of the game was 5 hours and 36 minutes. There were more than 650 pitches thrown. There were 38 runners left on base. There were nine straight innings of the no-hit ball by the Bullfrogs. There was a major league pedigree on the field and in the stands. There was a little bit of everything.
“When you’ve been in baseball this long, you just respect a moment like this,” Nagel said. “It’s something that might never happen again. This might be my last state tournament. You never know. You just relish the time you’re there. That’s why I just sat there and was so content.”
Bird Island advances to play Red Win on Labor Day weekend following the marathon. Despite playing more than two games worth in one game, the Bullfrogs and the Larks left it all on the field and set a new state tournament record.
“When you play in this tournament, you need some kind of a moment that solidifies you and brings your team together,” Nagel said. “It’s all about that chemistry. This was our game. Whether we win anymore or not, and if we do, I think it’s because of what we had to go through. Almost every team that wins the state tournament has one game they were on the ropes at one point and very likely should have lost. I thought Loretto outplayed us.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports