Middleton has a comeback for the ages

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Dan Larson/For the Times-Tribune
Drew Farrell was the winning pitcher in Middleton’s come-from-behind victory over Waunakee on Sunday.Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Of all the possible ways for the Middleton 29ers’ perfect season to come to an end, the odds of it happening in blowout fashion as the top seed in the Home Talent League’s Northern Section playoffs were pretty low.

But there the 29ers were, trailing Waunakee by 10 runs after the top of the fifth inning in Sunday afternoon’s section championship game at Sorenson-Bakken Field.  

That longshot suddenly seemed all-too-likely.

And so begins the story of how the 29ers, winners of 14 HTL championships since their inception way back in the league’s first year in 1929, pulled off one of the most improbable wins in team history.

But first the ending. 

Brennan Schmitt’s solo homer to right-center field — his second dinger of the contest — to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning tied the game and Matt Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly to right-center punctuated it, plating pinch runner Stephen Paulson for a 12-11, walk-off victory.

Middleton will play host to Western Section champion Verona (12-4) on Sunday in the HTL’s round-robin format Final Four, while Southeast Section champ Stoughton will take on Eastern Section champ Sun Prairie in the other contest.

“This ranks right up there. This win was unbelievable,” said 29ers manager Brandon Hellenbrand, in his 22nd year with Middleton as either a player or coach and his 11th year as the skipper. “Being down 11-1 going into the fifth, guys stuck with it. I’m just unbelievably proud of what these guys did. Hats off to Waunakee, they were phenomenal today. They gave us everything that they could give us. We just kept chipping away.”

Which is pretty much the only way to erase a deficit that large. There is no 10-run homer, after all.

The comeback started innocently enough, with a one-out single by Drew Farrell in the bottom of the fifth. Schmitt followed with a single, then an Easton Zempel base hit loaded the bases.

Ross Hellenbrand drew an RBI walk to make it 11-2, but Josh Hinson struck out swinging for the second out of the frame.

Andrew Zimmerman and Matt Zimmerman followed with back-to-back RBI walks, however, making it 11-4 and chasing Waunakee (9-7) starter Blake Bieri.

It was at that point that Middleton’s (16-0) confidence began to bloom.

“When he came out we were like, ‘Alright, we’re going to see some different arms here, just keep battling,’ ” Schmitt said of when the 29ers’ comeback chances began to feel real. “We were definitely happy when we were able to work him out of the ball game.”

Jacob Ross, Middleton’s No. 9 hitter, immediately delivered a two-run single off Waunakee reliever Adam Acker to make it 11-6 — and while those two runs would end up being the last runs of the 29ers’ big inning, the damage was done.

The deficit was cut in half.

“That inning definitely got us right back in the game, got the crowd back in the game. We were kind of in a lull and it gave us life,” Brandon Hellenbrand said. “And that’s what we needed. We needed a little bit of life.”

Scoring is just one half of the equation when it comes to pulling off a big comeback. The other half is pitching and defense.

Farrell, on in relief after Ross Hellenbrand started and went three innings and Zempel pitched the fourth, was charged with two runs in the top of the fifth as the 29ers’ deficit grew to 11-1. Farrell clamped down after that, though, allowing only a pair of two-out singles — one in the sixth and one in the ninth — over the final four innings to keep Middleton’s comeback hopes alive.

“Drew came in and absolutely pitched his butt off. He really kept us in this game,” Matt Zimmerman said. “We just didn’t give up. We kept believing we could win even though people probably counted us out. We didn’t count ourselves out.”

Middleton added a run in the sixth on Zempel’s RBI ground out, but left runners at first and third, squandering a chance to make things really interesting.

The 29ers didn’t waste such a chance in the seventh.

Ross led off that frame with a single, Farrell reached on a one-out single and then Schmitt stepped to the plate.

The left-handed swinging third baseman drilled a two-strike pitch that just barely stayed fair inside the right field foul pole, bringing the 29ers within 11-10.

The baseball gods listened to his request.

“I was trying to talk to it the best I could to keep it fair,” Schmitt, who also doubled in the game and finished 5-for-6 with four runs and four RBIs, said of his Carlton Fisk-like motion as he ran to first base. “That’s as close as it gets. I’ll take the fair call and be good, but I’ll tell you what, that was pretty close.”

The 29ers left the bases loaded in the eighth inning, however — consequently leaving themselves just three outs to finish the comeback.

They didn’t waste them.

If the comeback itself wasn’t dramatic enough, the hero — the last one to put on the cape, anyway — was only in the line-up Sunday because regular starting center fielder Brandon Scheidler wasn’t available.

Matt Zimmerman, who just graduated from Middleton High School three months ago, came through with the game-winning sacrifice fly.

“It’s not an everyday thing where you get to play one of your first Home Talent games to go to the Final Four,” said Matt Zimmerman, whose only other at-bats this season came when Scheidler was away for a weekend when the 29ers had two games on the docket.

Zimmerman didn’t try to do too much.

The moment wasn’t too big.

“I did choke up a little bit. I shortened up,” he said of his game-winning swing. “I wasn’t trying to kill it at all. He threw a first-pitch fastball that was called a strike, and then a low curveball and I kept my weight back and drove it to right field. That did the trick.”

Yes it did.

It was the last brushstroke on a work of art painted by the 29ers, a comeback for the ages.

“We’re going to remember that one for a long time — a real long time,” Schmitt said. “Any time you do that where you’re down 11-1 and come back like that, even if it’s not to go to the Final Four, you’re still going to remember it.

“Going to the Final Four just makes it that much more fun.”


Aug. 22

Middleton 12, Waunakee 11

Waun ... 502 220 000 - 11 19 1

Midd .... 001 051 302 - 12 17 1

Pitchers (ip-h-er-k-bb): W: Blake Biere (4.2-8-6-7-3), Adam Acker (0.2-2-1-1-2), Zach Johnson (2-5-3-1-0), Finn Melchoir (L: 0.2-2-2-1-2). M: Ross Hellenbrand (3-10-6-0-0), Easton Zempel (1-3-2-1-2), Drew Farrell (W: 5-6-2-4-1).

Leading hitters: W: Howie Rickett 2x6; Dane Luebke 4x6, 2B; Riley Ripp 2x4, 2B; Bryce Bieri 2x5, 2B;  Finn Melchoir 2x4; Jeff Thomasen 3x5, 2B; Jarrett Fueger 3x5, 2B. 

M: Hunter Bindl 2x5; Drew Farrell 2x5; Brennan Schmitt 5x6, 2B, HR (2); Easton Zempel 2x6, Andrew Zimmerman; Jacob Ross 2x4. 


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