Crushing collapse

Sabre Dogs inaugural season ends in first playoff game after holding a seven-run lead

Souris Valley slugger EJ Ranel (1) strikes out Tuesday evening in a Divisional round playoff game against the Badlands Big Sticks in Minot. Alex Eisen/MDN

Ben Smith watched, admired and flipped his bat above his teammates who were catapulting over the dugout fence in excitement.

His towering two-run home run to left field in the second inning had historic Corbett Field buzzing and sparked the Souris Valley Sabre Dogs out to a 7-0 lead against the Badlands Big Sticks in the franchise’s first-ever playoff game.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Pure joy turned into heartbreaking anguish in an unbelievable way.

The Big Sticks flipped a 7-0 deficit into a 12-9 Divisional playoff victory Tuesday evening in Minot to end the Sabre Dogs’ inaugural season.

The killer blow was a pinch-hit, three-run home run by pitcher Cort Dietrich in the seventh inning to give the Big Sticks their first lead at 9-7. It was Dietrich’s first at-bat of the season.

“I’ve been asking coach all year to just get me an AB,” Dietrich said. “That’s every pitcher’s dream to get one AB in a season… Man, I was glad to see that thing go out. It was amazing.”

Badlands scored eight runs in the seventh inning to stun the Sabre Dogs and their home supporters. Dietrich pitched the final three innings to seal the come from behind victory.

“There were two outs when they really started to pour it on (in the seventh),” Souris Valley head coach Corey Thompson said. “It was just one pitch and then bang. Another pitch and then bang. So, there was no time for our bullpen to get going.”

The Sabre Dogs struck first in the bottom of the first inning on a sacrifice fly by Chauncey Callier.

A six-run second inning for Souris Valley saw Smith go yard, Hunter Holland score on an error and — with Expedition League Triple Crown winner EJ Ranel standing in the batter’s box — Stephen Skeggs crossed home plate on a wild pitch and an RBI groundout by Ranel, combined with a throwing error, brought in two more runs.

So, to recap, Ranel inadvertently cleared the bases with a routine groundout and a lot of help. Everything was seemingly going the Sabre Dogs’ way and that’s when the Badlands mounted its rally.

The Big Sticks chipped away with a two-run home run of their own by Auggie Francis in the third inning. Then, Eli Jung powered the third home run of the contest to right field to cut the Sabre Dogs’ advantage down to 7-3.

Souris Valley starting pitcher Seth Kuykendall ran into more trouble in the decisive seventh inning. An RBI single to right field by Jake Thurber ended Kuykendall’s outing.

Minot State pitcher Aaron Kern stepped in and things ballooned out of control. An RBI groundout and an infield RBI single set the stage for Dietrich’s unique moment.

“It felt good and I was like, ‘Oh, I think I got a hold of this one,'” Dietrich said. “But, I didn’t think it was going out. I got a good piece, but I didn’t know until I rounded first (base that it was gone).”

Ben Thoma dropped in a two-run shallow double to right field later in the seventh inning to extend the Big Sticks’ lead to 11-7.

Ranel pulled a run back for the Sabre Dogs in the bottom of the seventh with an RBI double to the gap in left center.

But, that was matched by Francis hitting his second home run of the game on the first pitch thrown to lead off the eighth inning.

Souris Valley scored its final run of the season on another RBI groundout from Ranel. He finished with a team-high three RBIs despite going 1-for-5.

“They are all going to go back to school and I think each and every one of them got better,” Thompson said about his players. “That’s the whole reason why we are here. Sure, it would have been nice to win a division championship, but they are here to get better and move on.”

That said, the sting of this defeat is going to linger for a while. Thompson set the timeline at “a couple weeks.”

The Badlands Big Sticks advance to the Expedition League championship series this weekend against the Western Nebraska Pioneers.

Alex Eisen covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.