With renewed focus and an obvious horse of a starting pitcher, a Mounds View team that lost five of its first seven games showed that it's not where you've been but where you're going that matters most.
The Mustangs rode the left arm of 6-foot-7 starter Sam Hentges and played nearly mistake-free baseball en route to a 9-0 victory over Eden Prairie on Tuesday in the Class 3A championship game at Target Field. The state title was the second consecutive for Mounds View (21-6).
"This is a pretty great feeling," junior catcher Wyatt Meyer said. "We turned our season around and started making plays. And we always feel very confident when Sam is on the mound."
Hentges, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, benefitted from weather that postponed the championship game Saturday and again Monday. He pitched a shutout in Thursday's quarterfinal victory over Elk River and the delay allowed him to take the mound on four days' rest.
"I would have started yesterday if we had played, but having an extra day was nice," said Hentges, who just hours after the game signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians for a reported $700,000 signing bonus and another $160,000 for college tuition after being a fourth-round pick. "But even if I'd had to pitch sooner, I was confident. I've got the best defense in the state backing me up."
Hentges helped stake himself to an early lead, doubling off the wall in right-center field in the bottom of the first inning. His courtesy runner, Joe Janey, came around to score the game's first run on Charlie Callahan's triple.
The 1-0 lead proved all that Hentges would need. Mixing a 90-plus mph fastball with a curveball that was finding the corners, he kept Eden Prairie off-balance all game. The Eagles (20-7) had baserunners in each of the first five innings, but Hentges, despite walking three batters, worked out of trouble each time. He finished with a five-hitter, striking out eight.
"It's always nice to pitch with a cushion," Hentges said. "Having that one run makes things just a little bit easier."
Save for the first-inning run, Eden Prairie starter Corey Binger matched Hentges through five innings but ran out of gas in the bottom of the sixth. Mounds View's first five batters reached base and all came around to score. By the end of the inning, the Mustangs' slim lead had ballooned to a 9-0 advantage on six hits, two walks, two errors and a sacrifice fly.
"Corey had a fantastic game," Eden Prairie coach John Buteyn said. "But we ran into a very good team with a very good pitcher."
Hentges credited a meeting convened when the team was struggling earlier this year for the' turnaround.
"We all came together, players and coaches, and talked about what we needed to do and the adjustments we needed to make," he said. "Since then, we've won 18 out of 19. Coming from where we were, it feels awesome to do this in my final high school game. And two championships are always better than one."