Fridley second-year head coach Brian Hronski knew what hand he was dealt heading into Friday’s matchup with North Suburban rival Spring Lake Park.
He knew the Panthers were sending their ace to the mound in senior pitcher Jake Matthys.
Despite having a 2-3 record, Matthys is one of the state’s top pitching prospects and is destined next season to pitch Division I college baseball for the Kansas State Wildcats of the Big 12 Conference.
Hronski spent two seasons coaching Matthys as an assistant at Spring Lake Park in Matthys’ freshman and sophomore seasons. The senior pitcher knew going in it would be a friendly rival with his ex-coach and said it was a thrill to be able to pitch against him in an 8-1 Panther victory.
“We got along pretty good when he was here,” Matthys said. “When I first came to the plate he saw my necklace and told the umpire, maybe trying to get in my head a bit there. It was all in fun though and he is a good coach and I like him.”
While Hronski’s Tigers had their hands full, Spring Lake Park head coach Josh Davis had seen his share of hands trumped of late. Losers of four prior games in a row and a 3-7 overall record after the Fridley win, Davis said the season has started slow, but is optimistic for the second half of the year to make their move.
“Our goal is to play the first 10 games of the season for the second 10,” Davis said. “We’re still a young team with guys learning their roles. Yeah, we have a losing record, but looking at the second half we want to string a couple wins together and get on a roll going into the playoffs.”
Earlier in the week, the 3-8 Tigers defeated Columbia Heights 8-1, only to lose two nights later 8-0 to Robbinsdale Cooper. Hronski said his young team has often showed their inexperience this season when taking the diamond.
“We only have four seniors and have a lot of young kids who are playing competitive baseball,” Hronski said. “Like young teams do, they often find ways to lose games and twice the past week we gave up a lot of runs in the late innings.”
Friday’s game was another example of the Tigers playing close, but letting the ball drop at the end.
After Fridley rallied to tie the score in the sixth inning 1-1 on a sacrifice fly, things fell apart for senior pitcher Colin Borop and the Tigers in the last half of the sixth as the Panthers batted around and scored seven runs, breaking the game open 8-1.
The extra runs were more than enough support for Matthys, who later said it was nice to pitch the final inning with no worries.
“That felt good to have a little run support,” Matthys said. “Sometimes we have been having trouble staying up all game and we were able to get a couple key hits there and gave me a nice cushion to pitch in the seventh.”
“Everybody was doing their part,” said Davis, on the seven-run sixth inning. “One guy got on base and the next guy would get on. We just kept it going. With Jake on the mound we know we have a good shot of winning. We just need to play defense behind him and put a couple hits together like we did.”
The Panthers look to continue their winning ways into the second half of the season with a pair of games which started with Monday’s contest against Chisago Lakes. Wednesday night they took on Cambridge-Isanti and Friday night play at 7 p.m. under the lights at St. Francis.
Results from early in the week were unavailable due to deadline, but Matthys said he is confident in his stuff and he and his teammates are destined for a second half run.
“For me, I’m a competitor and I want to win,” he said. “I rely on my two-seam fastball and get it to sink in on righties and away from the lefties. If I can locate that, it’s going to be a pretty good day. I pitch to contact and I trust the guys behind me.”
Fridley has a pair of games with North Branch this week with Monday’s game (unavailable due to deadline) and Friday’s game at 4:30 p.m. at North Branch. Hronski said the team going forward should continue to improve and to face a top-notch pitcher like Matthys will only help them down the stretch.
“What makes Jake so effective is his pin-point’s three or four different pitches for strikes,” he said. “It’s tough on some of our young hitters who have never seen a guy throw with that command before. Our guys were stepping out because they haven’t seen a curveball like that before.
“We dropped down to 2A this year and (Spring Lake Park) is 3A. Our conference is tough and facing a pitcher like Jake should prepare us well come playoff time,” Hronski said.
Rob LaPlante is an ABC Newspapers contributing writer for sports.