MINNEAPOLIS - Fairmont inched within one out of the school's first-ever state baseball championship on Monday at Target Field.
St. Cloud Cathedral, however, had designs on capturing its eighth state crown under the tutelage of 44-year head coach Bob Karn - the prep baseball ranks' all-time leader in wins (710).
Steven Neutzling delivered the pivotal game-tying two-run triple with two out before scoring the go-ahead run on a throwing error in the top of the seventh inning to transform the Crusaders' 4-1 deficit into a 5-4 lead.
TURNING TWO — Fairmont second baseman Matt Lytle fires to first base to complete a double play after forcing out St. Cloud Cathedral runner Jack Schramel at second base during the Class AA state baseball championship game on Monday at Target Field in Minneapolis. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
Luke Becker - who earned a spot on the Class AA all-state tournament team with Cardinal teammates Spencer Chirpich and Jack Waletich - and Jay Ruen, however, answered the challenge by lining back-to-back singles to open the home half of the seventh.
St. Cloud Cathedral reliever Dominic Austing, however, managed to work out of the jam unscathed by getting a groundout, a strikeout and a comebacker to seal the 5-4 comeback triumph over Fairmont.
The Crusaders (27-1) captured their first state diamond crown since 2011 to extend their winning streak to 26 in a row.
The Cardinals, who qualified for their fourth state appearance in the last five seasons under eighth-year mentor Todd Sukalski, captured the school's third state runner-up finish en route to a 25-2 record. Fairmont last reached the state finals in 1993.
"Neutzling's a hard worker and an even tougher out," St. Cloud Cathedral assistant coach Paul Gross said prior to the Class AA state championship game's opening pitch.
Gross' pre-game analysis proved prophetic as Neutzling, who was not selected to this year's all-state tournament team after earning a spot in 2013, displayed the ice in his veins from the batter's box.
Trailing 4-1, No. 7 batter Jack Schramel legged out his second hit of the game on a slow roller to the right side of the infield to set the table for the Crusaders' comeback with one out in the top of the seventh.
Fairmont junior ace right-hander Spencer Chirpich then coaxed an infield popup for the second out to bring No. 9 hitter Josh Thyen to the plate.
Thyen, who entered the state tournament with a .324 batting average, drilled an RBI double to deep left field to bring Schramel home to slice St. Cloud Cathedral's deficit to 4-2.
Leadoff hitter Brady Yoerg, who joined teammates Jeff Fasching and Brindley Theisen on the all-tournament team, then worked out a walk to put runners at first and second.
Neutzling then turned on a Chirpich delivery and drilled a two-run triple down the first base line and into the right-field corner to knot the game at 4-all. Neutzling then scored what proved to be the game-winning run when Fasching's grounder to short was thrown away at first.
"Pitching and defense win state championships," Fairmont assistant coach Jerry Brooks said during the middle innings of Monday's championship game.
The Cardinals used that exact formula, including two incredible leaping catches by Waletich in center, to build a 4-0 lead after five completed frames. Chirpich limited the Crusaders to only three hits through five scoreless and error-free innings.
With Chirpich putting the clamps on Cathedral's bats, Ruen and Tyler Tennyson delivered back-to-back extra-base hits to stake Fairmont to a quick 2-0 lead.
Becker, who went 2-for-4 on the game, legged out an infield hit with two out in the bottom of the first.
Ruen then hammered a high offering from Fasching, who will pitch for the Minnesota Gophers next season, into the left-field corner. Ruen's towering blast caromed over the fence for a ground-rule double to bring Becker back to third base.
Tennyson then cranked a two-run double down the third-base line to bring home Becker and Ruen for the two-run edge.
The Cardinals then combined walks to Parker Monsen and Matt Lytle with Waletich's RBI single and Chirpich's sacrifice fly into two more runs in the last of the fourth.
The Crusaders countered with an unearned run during the sixth when Neutzling reached on a bad-hop double and crossed the plate when Theisen's grounder was mishandled with two out.
Austing earned the win, allowing two hits in three shutout innings of relief. The right-hander struck out three and walked one.
Fasching allowed four earned runs on five hits, walked four and struck out two in four innings of work to receive no decision.
Chirpich gave up five runs - only three earned - on seven hits, struck out two and walked three in seven innings to absorb the loss.
SCC 000 001 4 - 5 7 2
FMT 200 200 0 - 4 7 2
Jeff Fasching, Dominic Austing (5, WP) and Thomas Imholte. Spencer Chirpich (LP) and Ben Abel.
LOB-Fairmont 9; Cathedral 5. 2B-Jay Ruen (F), Tyler Tennyson (F), Steven Neutzling (SCC), Josh Thyen (SCC). 3B-Neutzling (SCC). SF-Chirpich (F). SAC-Abel (F).