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Vermilion in playoff chase

Sweep over Hibbing sets stage for a crucial, dramatic final week

After a difficult series down south, Vermilion was back in familiar territory Wednesday and picked up two badly-needed victories.

Strong pitching and defense, and one very timely hit lifted the community college baseball team to a Northern Division sweep of rival Hibbing.

Vermilion prevailed 2-1 and 4-3 at Aurora, bouncing back after four losses to division-leading Itasca and improving to 4-6 in division play at the midway point of the conference season.

A four-game series with Mesabi this weekend, followed by six more contests with Hibbing (two) and Northland (four) between now and May 7 will determine the Ironhawks’ playoff fate.

Vermilion needs a top-three finish in the division in order to claim a regional playoff berth at St. Cloud May 11-13.

“These wins today put us in the hunt, but there’s a long way to go,” said coach Tom Coombe. “We’ll need to play well against Mesabi and continue the momentum we got against Hibbing.”

Vermilion rode the pitching of freshman Jake Palomo in the opener.  The righthander from Colorado tossed a three-hitter with eight strikeouts en route to the win, his first as a college pitcher.

“Jake has had some very good starts, but everything came together for him in this one,” said Coombe. “He got stronger and got some help from our defense.”

That included a beautiful double-play turn in the sixth when the Cardinals put two runners aboard with one out.

Shortstop Mason Kostka went deep in the hole to field a ground ball off the bat of Kris Rivera. Kostka’s throw to second went for one out and second baseman Jesus Trejo completed the turn to first to get Rivera by a step to end the inning.

Palomo retired the Cardinals in order in the seventh to finish things off.

Vermilion got all the runs it would need in the second, when it got its only two hits in the game.

Kostka doubled and Charlie Wonser had a bunt single, and Vermilion scored when Trejo was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, and a Jake Casazza walk forced in the second run.

Freshman Chase Snyder was one of the heroes in the nightcap.

His bases-loaded, one-out double down the left field line plated Marcus Haire with the tying run and Kostka with the go-ahead run.

That set the stage for sophomore Angel Torres, who set down Hibbing in order in the seventh and closed the game with back-to-back strikeouts.

Torres got the win, his second of the spring, in relief of starter Kelbee Woodham.

Woodham, a freshman from Bonifay, Fla., worked five-and-two-thirds innings and scattered seven hits in his first collegiate start.

“We’ve been using Kelbee out of the bullpen but it was  time to get him a start, and he delivered,” said Coombe. “I think it was the first time he had started a game on the mound at any level and he really looked good.”

Backup catcher Charlie Spahn also gave Vermilion a boost, throwing out two runners at second base, while Vermilion also turned another Kostka-to-Trejo-to-Michael Feralio double play.

At the plate, Kostka had two hits and scored a run, DeSoto Hood had a run-scoring hit, and Snyder’s sixth-inning blow off the bench proved pivotal.

“That was a team win in every sense of the word, really a team sweep,” said Coombe. “There were so many contributors.  Not just one or two or three guys. I was proud of how we bounced back after a pretty tough go of it against Itasca.”

Other than an 8-6 loss in Sunday’s first game at Le Sueur, Vermilion was dominated by Itasca, which has won nine of its first 10 division games.

The Vikings completed Sunday’s sweep by winning 12-1 and followed up Monday with 8-2 and 11-1 decisions.

Hood was the losing pitcher in the opening game and Torres worked three innings of scoreless relief.

Franklin Wildes was two-for-two with two runs scored for Vermilion, and Kostka had two hits including a double and two RBI.

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