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Fish win SCVBL title

River Falls' Joe Paatalo beats the throw home to score from second on a base hit by Tyler Hunter for the only run of the game in the bottom of the fourth inning of Saturday's 1-0 Fighting Fish victory over the Hudson River Rats. The win, in the final game of the regular season, gave River Falls its second straight St. Croix Valley Baseball League North Division championships and first overall league title. Bob Burrows photo

The River Falls Fighting Fish took care of business Saturday, but the Hudson River Rats didn't make it easy.

The Fish, behind a complete-game, 15-strikeout, effort by lefty Rick Wells blanked the River Rats 1-0 to win their second straight St. Croix Valley Baseball League North Division championships and first overall league title.

The game at the River Falls High School field became a SCVBL championship game thanks to Hudson's 8-1 win over New Richmond the previous night. Both teams entered Saturday's contest with records of 11-4 and both held tiebreakers over Osceola, the third team in the title race.

All River Falls had to do was win, and with Wells and Hudson's Brian Sparstad locked in a pitcher's duel, the Fish got the only run they needed in the bottom of the fourth when 47-year-old veteran Joe Paatalo hustled home from second on a two-out base hit by 19-year-old rookie Tyler Hunter.

"This kid has done nothing but get big hits in big situations all year, and Sunday's two-out RBI was very typical of the summer he's having," Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said about Hunter, who is batting .347 as a rookie.

Wells and Sparstad both worked out of bases-loaded jams in the second to keep the game scoreless.

Wells waked his only two batters of the game in the top of the second as Hudson loaded the bases with one out. But he struck out the next two batters to end the inning.

River Falls loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the second when Ryan Gilbertson and Clint Kempf both reached on errors and Paatalo legged out an infield single. Dan Kretovics flied out to short right for the first out of the inning and Sparstad got Hunter swinging before inducing Adam Stuessel to fly out to right.

The Fighting Fish fourth started when Kempf hit a liner that got past a diving River Rats centerfielder for a single and two-base error. Paatalo followed with a sharp grounder to short that caught Kempf too far off third base and he was thrown out trying to score.

Paatalo reached first on the fielder's choice and moved to second on a base hit by Kretovics before Hunter hit a grounder through the left side of the infield. Fish third base coach Nate Schurman waved Paatalo home and he slid under a high throw from the left fielder for the only run of the game.

Wells did the rest for River Falls, getting the final out on strikeouts with men on base in four of the final five innings. He finished with 15 strikeouts in the game while allowing six hits and two walks to improve to 5-0 on the season and lower his team-leading earned run average to 1.02.

"That was the best Wellsy has thrown in his three years with the Fish," said Eidem, who caught the complete-game shutout. "He worked both sides of the plate, hit spots all day long, and made some big pitches when he needed to get out of jams."

The Fish will find out Tuesday night where they will open the Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs Aug. 13. Sites are Osceola, Haugen, Ashland and Rib Lake. Eidem said the Fish have plenty of momentum heading into the postseason.

"With the single elimination format, it's imperative that a team is playing great baseball heading in, and with wins over Prescott and Hudson to end the season, we're feeling pretty good heading into the postseason."

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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