The Litchfield Blues played a meaningless exhibition game against St. Martin July 28 at Optimist Park.
Meaningless in terms of outcome anyway — but by the way, the Blues topped the Martins 5-4.
In terms of what it meant about the Blues’ progress, however, the fact they were playing an exhibition game at this point in the season spoke volumes.
You see, for the past several years, the Blues have been busy with regional tournament play-in games at this point in the summer.
But for the first time since John Anderson took the reins as manager of the club in 2017, the Blues qualified for the Region 12C tournament without any play-in games necessary.
“Since I started managing in 2017, the goal was always regions,” Anderson said. “That’s kind of that first step. We’ve had a couple years we’ve played decent baseball, but we just haven’t gotten over that hump.
“These young guys, though, they keep developing … and we’re starting to see the product of that,” Anderson said.
Litchfield finished with a 9-11 record in the North Star League, good enough to give it the sixth and final guaranteed seed for the Region 12C tournament. Their nine wins put the Blues just ahead of Maple Lake, which finished 8-12 mark and was forced into the play-in tournament.
Without play-in games on the schedule, Anderson said, he wanted the Blues to have a game that would help them stay sharp during the nearly two-week period between end of regular season and beginning of playoffs. He contacted St. Martin, and they got a game.
“Win or lose, the goal was to keep these guys in baseball shape,” Anderson said. “We played, everyone is healthy, our arms are good, and we can go into the playoffs with the best possible lineup.”
That lineup will square off against third-seeded Buffalo at 1 p.m. Saturday in Delano in the first round of the region tournament.
Buffalo finished 15-5 in the North Star League, just one game behind league champion Hutchinson. But the Blues split their regular-season series with Buffalo, winning 7-5 July 9 at Optimist Park in game that Anderson called pivotal to their season.
“I don’t think it was a game a lot of people had us winning,” Anderson said. “I think Buffalo know what we’re capable of.”
There was another game that probably not many saw the Blues winning that illustrated the Blues’ improvement this season. Two days after losing to Maple Lake 14-3, Litchfield traveled to Hutchinson on June 25 and posted a 3-1 win. Jack Ramthun tossed a complete game, scattering six Hutchinson hits, to collect the victory on the mound.
“When we went into late June, were were ina situation where ... it wasn’t a very good one,” Anderson said. “We were down a couple arms (with starters Dylan Koll and Joey Hyde unavailable), and Jack Ramthun threw a nine-innig gem. That completely changed our outlook then. To get that spark of energy from that big win, that definitely catapulted us.”
Ramthun proved his workhorse capabilities on the mound, Anderson said, giving him another option between staff ace Hyde and Koll.
Hyde earned his No. 1 spot in the rotation this season, leading the North Star League with seven victories.
“With Joey on the mound, we’ve been competing with everyone,” Anderson said. “If we can keep our errors down, we can hang with anyone. Joey’s going to find ways, he adjusts his pitching so well.”
Another surprise for the Blues, this one on the offensive side, has been Cody Klabunde, who started the season in the ninth spot in the batting order but now “is on a tear” and has risen to No. 1 in the order while lifting his batting average to a team-leading.361.
“I don’t remember a time where I’ve seen Cody not hit the ball hard,” Anderson said. “For a while, he was north of .400. And he’s an absolute speed demon on the bases, too.”
Andrew Loch is close behind Klabunde with a .357 average, while youngsters Winky Estrada (.344) and Avery Liestman (.308) have swung the bat well in limited at-bats.
It seems the Blues have the pieces in place to, at the very least, be competitive in the regional tournament. And in Anderson’s mind, just being a part of the field for the first time is a win for the Blues.
“I just want us to play our game and have fun doing it,” he said. “It’s a whole new season. Records mean nothing at this point. We’re ready to leave it all out there.”