MARSHALL - Ben Kain was projected as the Fairmont pitching staff's ace, but an early regular-season arm injury knocked the senior right-hander out of the starting rotation.
After playing the bulk of the spring schedule at third base with a compression sleeve, Kain finally made his return to the mound during Tuesday night's Section 3AA elimination baseball game in Marshall.
Kain literally delivered the most important pitching performance of his prep career, firing a seven-hit complete-game gem to engineer the Class AA No. 5-ranked Cardinals' 7-2 triumph over the unranked Morris Area Tigers at American Legion Field.
FIRING STRIKES — Fairmont starting pitcher Ben Kain delivers a pitch during a Section 3AA elimination baseball game Tuesday night at American Legion Field in Marshall. Kain went on to earn the complete-game victory. (Photo by Joe Brown/Marshall Independent)
Fairmont (22-3), who avenged last Thursday's 7-1 postseason loss to Morris Area, advances to face South Central Conference rival and No. 9-ranked New Ulm (19-5) for the Section 3AA championship at 5 p.m. Thursday back in Marshall. The Cardinals will have to defeat the Eagles in back-to-back games to earn their third consecutive trip to the Class AA state tournament.
Morris Area ended its season with a 15-8 record.
"He (Kain) got better as the game went on. He gained confidence in his breaking ball with each inning, and that was good to see," said Fairmont mentor Todd Sukalski. "It's nice to know we have another (pitching) option."
No. 2 batter Tanner Picht and No. 3 hitter Chandler Erickson legged out a bunt hit and lined a single to left, respectively, to create a one-out scoring opportunity against Kain during the top of the first inning.
"No doubt about it - I was nervous in the first," said Kain, who also gave up a two-out RBI single to Mac Beyer as the Tigers pounced to an early 1-0 lead. "Once we got out of that situation with just one run, and we scored three runs right away (in the home half), I started to relax. It felt good to be back on the mound again."
Spencer Chirpich drew a one-out walk from Morris Area ace right-hander Sam Mattson before Levi Becker drilled a vapor-trail double down the third-base line to set the first-inning table for Mitch Pfingsten.
Pfingsten hammered an infield hit that allowed Chirpich and Levi Becker to cross the plate for a 2-1 lead. Courtesy runner Alek Borchardt then stole second base, wheeled to third when Michael Forster's hot smash was mishandled and scored on Bryce Holm's sacrifice fly.
Kain caged the Tigers during a 1-2-3 second at-bat before Picht's one-out single and Tyler Henrichs' towering RBI triple to deep center narrowed the Cardinals' lead to 3-2 in the top of the third.
The Cardinals, however, quickly countered in the home half as Pfingsten collected his second hit of the game before Mattson plunked Forster and Holm reached on one of the Tigers' six errors. Jay Ruen drilled a pivotal two-run single to left to extend Fairmont's edge to 5-2.
Kain then faced only three batters over the limit in hurling four shutout innings to cap his winning complete-game performance. Kain struck out two and issued only one walk.
The Fairmont offense added two insurance runs in the last of the fifth by combining two hits with three more Morris Area errors. Forster legged out a leadoff infield hit, Holm reached when his sacrifice bunt was mishandled and Ruen followed with an RBI single. An error on Ross Wilken's pinch-hit grounder plated the final run.
Ruen and Pfingsten each produced two of the Cardinals' six hits, with Ruen generating three RBIs and Pfingsten two. Picht went 2-for-4 and scored both of the Tigers' runs.
Mattson gave up seven runs - only two earned - on six hits in six innings to absorb the loss. He struck out three, walked one and hit two batters.
MA 101 000 0 - 2 7 6
FHS 302 020 x - 7 6 0
Sam Mattson (LP) and Chandler Erickson. Ben Kain (WP) and Mitch Pfingsten.
LOB-Fairmont 6; Morris Area 6. 2B-Levi Becker (F), Lincoln Berget (MA). 3B-Tyler Henrichs (MA). SF-Bryce Holm (F). SAC-Bryce Holm (F).