Living a fun baseball life
By Jarann Johnson
For some people, sports are a hobby. For others, they’re a serious passion. But for a few, sports are more than a hobby or passion – they’re a lifetime endeavor.
For two locals, that life endeavor is the game of baseball. Tyler Schmidt and Erik Ham were both members the 2014 and 2015 Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) College World Series teams and will be coaching youth baseball this summer in Beulah.
The goal for the duo of Beulah High grads entering the 2014-15 school year was to help their club baseball team reach the National Club Baseball Association’s College World Series for the second consecutive year. At the start of the season, it was apparent that they would.
The boys got off to a 13-1 record and were ranked fourth in the nation at one point but knew they were far from accomplishing their task, because they still had to face two good teams during the spring season.
“We played half of our conference games, so we still had University of Minnesota that we had to play in the spring and NDSU. Those were the two best teams other than us in the conference, so it wasn’t like we could just go into spring ball like, ‘Oh, we won.’ But we were still sitting very well – not having a single conference loss, playing really well. So we were confident going into spring,” Schmidt said.
A big event on the team’s season calendar was their trip to Florida. The tournament was a good chance for MSUM to compete against strong competition and try to better their World Series seeding resume.
The only negative for the team about the tournament was that they played a division up. Usually MSUM competes at the Division 2 club level, but for Florida, they played against teams from the top Club Division, going 4-3.
Schmidt called the tournament a mix of results and said he thinks the mediocre tournament record was because coaches focused on using the tournament as a chance to build depth for later in the year.
“We played really well and we also played not so well. I think we were 4-3 in Florida, we lost two 1-run games and then the other game was a 3-run game,” Schmidt said. “Our coaches really wanted to get more depth, because every year toward the end of the season we’ve had an injury. So they wanted guys to be ready to go.”
The team was a little upset because their seeding resume didn’t look strong, while other teams that didn’t play tougher competition had better resumes, since the seeding committee looks at total games instead of the level of competition.
Once MSUM got home they had clear cut goals and knew what they needed to do to win the conference. MSUM needed four wins in six games, but a 1-0 loss to Minnesota, during which Schmidt threw a 2-hitter, made the team nervous. But a hot bat calmed the nerves the rest of the way.
“The next day it was the same thing again, we had no bats going again and we were down. Our leadoff batter led the game off with a home run, so we were up 1-0, and then later in the game we were down and we thought we were going to lose. It was the last inning, and then the same guy hit a grand slam to put us up 5-3 and then we won 5-3,” Schmidt said.
After getting a dramatic win MSUM kept playing well, grabbing a 10-run in the next game to win the three-game series. MSUM still had one series left that would decide their fate, a three-game series against North Dakota State University.
Schmidt and Ham agreed that some of their teammates were nervous because NDSU showed a lot of improvement, but also because MSUM needed two conference wins to lock in a regional playoff berth and conference title.
“We hadn’t ever lost a series to NDSU but they were playing really well. They did really well in Florida, they had a good conference record, and it was the first time they were above .500 – they knew if they beat us two out three they were going to go [to the regional playoffs] so it was going to all come down to this weekend,” Schmidt said.
MSUM won the first two games of the series but the third was rained out. The team had a dilemma though – do they just take their conference championship or try for another win to impress the seeding committee’s thoughts on total wins.
MSUM decided that they were going to try to pad their record but there was a catch. MSUM didn’t have its leadoff batter for the whole game. Schmidt and the head coach were late to the game and Ham didn’t play because the coaches were scared he might get hurt.
MSUM lost the extra game, which cost them a good seed in the region tournament. Despite the loss, MSUM came out strong at the first day of regionals, topping Winona State 11-3 then sweeping Grand Valley State to reclaim the region crown and a large vat of confidence.
Schmidt recollected the Grand Valley State games and how the No. 3 pitcher fared in the game.
“He pitched really well, we hit more homeruns in that game, too. We played so good in Wisconsin. Everything was going well for us. They came to me and asked me ‘Hey, you only throw 80 pitches and you threw really well. Do you think you could pitch again off of one days rest?’ What we all thought was our No. 2 pitcher was coming back because he had two weeks off, so we thought he was going to pitch again and I said, ‘Yes, I can’,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt pitched a no-hitter for most of the game, only getting beat once for a bloop single and MSUM’s center fielder came in to close the game. After winning the region crown, the team started to believe they could do some damage at nationals.
Schmidt said the pitching staff was in a good spot before nationals because the whole team was healthy and playing well. But the 10-day layoff presented the team with a chance to sneak in an extra practice.
Before MSUM would compete in the World Series in Kansas, they had a 10-day rest period. MSUM’s head coach decided to play a scrimmage against a local summer amateur team because the team would get to play on turf, which was the playing surface type the team would see at the World Series.
The center fielder/closer tweaked his arm during the scrimmage, making him unavailable for World Series pitching. On top of getting a late injury, the team’s fear about the seeding committee rating total wins higher than quality wins and strength of schedule came true.
Penn State, the No. 1 team in the nation, was punished for their tough schedule and seeded fourth for the tournament. Penn State beat MSUM at last year’s World Series, but MSUM’s players quickly adopted a new form of thinking for the big game.
“I was like, ‘I’m pitching well, whatever. If there is ever a time to play them it’s right away’,” Schmidt said, then Ham noted the team’s mentality entering the big game, “To be the best you have to beat the best, and that’s kind of what our mentality was.”
Schmidt entered the game nervous because he was the starting pitcher in 2014, when MSUM lost to Penn State at the World Series. But he didn’t have much trouble until the fifth with his team leading 3-1.
“Bottom six, I start to run into problems. I think I walked a kid, then Erik made an error – I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is getting dicey.’ But we ended up, I had the bases loaded, but I got this kid to pop out so we got out of that inning,” Schmidt said.
The only bad news for Schmidt was that the seventh had Penn State’s leadoff hitter coming back up. Schmidt tried to finish off the game, but the first batter reached on an error and was pulled for the No. 3 pitcher instead of the hurt center fielder, usually the closer.
The No. 3 pitcher couldn’t save it and the game went to extras. MSUM got up by one run, but again the No. 3 pitcher couldn’t hold the game and Penn State’s No. 4 hitter won the game with a walk off grounder up the middle, 5-4.
After the game the boys tried to come back on the elimination side, but fell to Colorado Mesa, 10-5. Ham described it as a game where his team hit the ball hard, but right to their opponent. Ham summed up the last day of the tourney, “Baseball is a lot like a woman – one day she loves you, and the next day she hates you.”
Ham will have two more seasons on the MSUM club team and will be part of the club transitioning from the Division 2 club level to the Division 1 club level. In the National Club Baseball Association rules, if a team wins regional titles in consecutive years they have to automatically move up.
Schmidt will be starting his teaching career in West Fargo this year.