VELVA - The Velva Aggies made a habit of finding timely hits during this year's high school season, a characteristic that eventually led to a Class B state tournament appearance.
Now weeks into the summer season, the Post 39 American League baseball team is struggling to rediscover the clutch performances that sustained it throughout the spring.
Tuesday stands as proof. Velva dropped its fourth straight contest with a 6-4 loss to region rival Watford City, a loss which might have been avoided had it not stranded six runners in scoring position.
Velva’s Dixon Bauer swings through an offering from Watford City starter Andrew Sampsel during a Class A American Legion doubleheader Tuesday in Velva.
Andrew Sampsel tossed a complete game for Watford City on Tuesday, limiting Velva to four hits and four runs — one earned — while striking out seven.
"We were one pitch, one play away from a win, and we just couldn't find it," Velva coach Brent Engebretson said. "In the spring we found that. We needed that big hit and we'd get it. But we haven't had a really good two-out hit all summer.
"We're working on it. If we're gonna win that game, I'd rather have in in July than in June."
After a strong start to the summer, Post 39 (9-5 overall, 2-2 region) has stalled offensively in recent games. When struggling at the plate, it certainly doesn't help facing a pitcher like Andrew Sampsel, someone who Engebretson referred to as "one of the best pitchers on this half of the state."
The reigning senior athlete of the year, Sampsel enjoyed another strong performance on the mound, allowing four hits and four runs - one earned - in seven innings on the bump. He struck out seven.
"Every once in a while I lost control out there a little bit, but I felt good for the most part," said Sampsel, who tossed the final pitch in Watford City's title-clinching victory over Hazen on May 31. "I had good fastball command and I was able to work off that with my curveball. Overall it was a pretty good day."
Sampsel's job was made easier by the Walleye (5-4, 3-1) offense, which plated four in the first inning.
Dustin Kleppen with a bloop single to the right side of the infield, a hit inspired by confusion between Velva first baseman Dixon Bauer and starter Brady Engebretson. After a wild pitch moved Kleppen to second, Sampsel stepped to the plate, driving a one-out single to right field for Watford City's first run of the game.
Brandon Allex then induced Brady Engebretson's first walk of the game - the first of four first-inning walks by the Velva lefty.
Two pitches later, Trent Grimes made it 4-0 with one swing of the bat, sending a no-doubter over the fence in right center.
"Last time we played them, we got one right away and we left the bases loaded in the first inning. So it was nice to cash in right away," Watford City coach Pat Spacher said. "We've been seeing a lot of left-handed pitching, and I'm left-handed, so I couldn't figure out why we can't score off of left-handed pitchers when all the batting practice they see is from me.
"So it was good for our confidence to come out and hit a left-hander, and that's a pretty good pitcher they've got over there."
After getting one back in the bottom half of the first, Velva eventually tied the game in the third thanks to some sloppy Watford City fielding.
With Isaac and Drew Effertz standing on first and second, respectively, Velva catcher Marcus Mack stepped to the plate with two outs.
Mack laced a sharp grounder to the right of the Watford City shortstop, who bobbled the opportunity and let the ball pass him into left field. Isaac Effertz came around to score with ease.
Drew Effertz then attempted to gain third base, drawing an off-target throw past the third baseman and into the Walleye dugout. Drew Effertz came in to score after the ball went out of play. Mack moved to third and scored on a sacrifice fly moments later to make it 4-4.
After giving up four in the first, Brent Engebretson reminded his players of the time they last played Watford City at the Class B state tournament.
"The first thing we said was, 'remember what happened at the state tournament.' We did that to them, and they responded and crushed us," Brent Engebretson said. "It's a long game. Just play the game and have a little more fun."
The game wasn't tied for long.
After three straight walks to start the fourth inning, Watford City notched two more to go up 6-4.
Velva swept the Walleye in a June 12 doubleheader. For the sake of his team's confidence, Spacher was happy to see his team respond in the rematch.
"I guess you could say we had a little bit of a score to settle with them today," he said. "When you look at the history of us playing them in baseball, it's always tight, it's always a one-run ballgame. That's a tremendous ballclub over there and we have nothing but respect for them."
Preston Milstead picked up the win for Watford City in the nightcap.
Joe Mellenbruch covers legion baseball and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.