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Tigers well-armed for state tournament run

There's always been a debate about whether good pitching trumps good hitting in baseball.

The Morris Area Tigers baseball team obviously has made a case for good pitching this season.

But now, heading into the Class AA state tournament, the Tigers hitters are beginning to put doubts in the the minds of opposing pitchers about whether the opposite is true.

The Tigers (12-11) play Maple River at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud in the first round of the Minnesota State Baseball Tournament.

The Tigers earned the program's first state tournament berth since 1990 primarily behind a pitching staff of Chase Rambow, Craig Knochenmus and Andy Lembcke that is 5-0 and has allowed just four earned runs in 35 postseason innings.

But the Tigers hitters, who collectively were barely Mendoza Line caliber during a 7-11 regular season, are hitting about .300 in the playoffs. Both Tigers' home runs this season figured in playoff victories -- none bigger than Knochenmus' three-run, game-winning jack in the Tigers' 7-3 win over St. Cloud Cathedral in the Section 6AA championship game.

"We knew as a coaching staff that some of the games we were losing were a lot tighter than our record was showing," said Tigers head coach Lyle Rambow. "As a season goes on, you can't just give up, and the kids bought into that. We were close, and when we won a few games, they really gained confidence."

A known asset

The Tigers finished 8-14 in 2005, but entered this season knowing that their three top pitchers from that season -- Chase Rambow, Knochenmus and Lembcke -- would be their top guys again.

Despite the losses, Knochenmus had a 2005 earned-run average of 3.56, Lembcke's was 3.59 -- with an 0-5 record -- and Rambow had a 3.27 ERA.

"We knew we had a good, solid three guys and a couple other guys who could do the job when we needed them to," Chase Rambow said.

But while the staff flourished, the team floundered, unable to produce with any consistency. What kept the Tigers going was faith that the team that hit pretty well in 2005 would resurface soon. For example, Knochenmus hit .360 in 2005, but just .216 this year.

"It's uncanny the way thing were going," Lyle Rambow said.

"We were pathetic the first six weeks, he said. "We couldn't knock in a run to save us. But in the playoffs, we started getting some clutch hits and took off from there. They say hitting is contagious, but not hitting is contagious, too."

The Tigers didn't get a rolling start at the end of the regular season, however. It was more a flip of a switch.

"It kind of developed as the playoffs started," Lembcke said. "We beat West Central at the end of the year 2-0 and we had three hits. It wasn't like we were hitting the ball real great coming into the playoffs."

Browerville got it started

Morris Area broke out in its first playoff game, winning 9-0 over Browerville. The Tigers followed that with a 4-1 win over Staples-Motley and a 6-2 victory over Breckenridge.

They earned a spot in the section title game, after defeating Pierz, at one time ranked No. 5 in Class AA, 6-0, then handled Cathedral in the final.

Lyle Rambow said the turnaround began when the junior varsity season ended and assistant coach Jim Greenwaldt was able to spend extra time working with Tigers batters.

"You could really see the difference," Lyle Rambow said, adding with a laugh, "and I'm supposed to be the hitting coach on this team."

While Knochenmus' home run was the memorable blow against the Crusaders, a bloop, two-run single by Tony Schultz in the seventh inning might have been as satisfying.

"Some games, we hit the ball well but right at people," Chase Rambow said. "One game we hit four line drives and all of them were outs. Now, hits are starting to fall in. Everything is falling our way now."

And the Tigers haven't needed a ton of offense.

Rambow is 2-0 in the playoffs and tossed shutouts in both games while striking out 15 in 13 innings.

Knochenmus has two wins with 14 strike outs in 14 innings. Lembcke tossed a complete game against Breckenridge -- inexplicably, it was just his second varsity win -- and also nailed down the Browerville game by working an inning and striking out three.

For the season, Rambow is 6-2 with a 0.91 ERA, Knochenmus is 3-4 with a 1.76 ERA and Lembcke is 2-3 with a 2.16 ERA.

"It was frustrating, but we knew we were a good team and we knew we'd win some games," Chase Rambow said. "It was just a matter of when the sticks came around."

Maple River a test

The Tigers' arms and bats will have to be even better on Thursday.

Maple River is 22-4 this season, and came through the Section 2AA loser's bracket to defeat St. Peter twice for the championship. Maple River won the first game 12-1, then took the championship with a 15-14 win in 13 innings in the deciding game.

"Their hitting stats are huge," Lyle Rambow said of Maple River. "They've scored a bunch of runs this season. If we give up 10, 12 runs, I don't like our chances. We have to stick to our formula."

But Lembcke said the Tigers' confidence is such that they're not overly concerned by their opponents' numbers.

The players last week stayed in St. Cloud after defeating Pierz to watch the elimination game between the Pioneers and Cathedral.

"The coaches were saying that they hoped we'd play St. Cloud Cathedral," Lembcke said. "The players, I don't think we really cared who we play. That's kind of how we all feel. We think we can play with anybody."

Especially if the Tigers' golden arms keep getting even a little support from their previously slumbering lumber.

"Our pitching has been consistently outstanding," Lyle Rambow said. "We've put those three out there and game after game they go out there and just hum. We don't have any all-state players, but we're a good team, and a good team can beat some talented teams."