Jun. 11—SPICER — Connor Barker was shaking as he walked towards the dugout. Swarmed by teammates and coaches, Barker had just connected with the biggest hit of his life.
With bases loaded and two outs, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City third baseman was in an 0-2 count and battled his way to 3-2. Then he saw a fastball up the middle. And with one swing of the bat, Barker sent the Falcons to state for the first time in 20 years.
Barker belted a grand slam over the fence in left-center at Green Lake Diamonds, giving ACGC the 4-0 victory over Paynesville in the Section 3AA championship.
"I was just thinking foul off pitches, and once I got to 3-2, I knew he didn't have anywhere to go other than to throw it to me or put me on and have a run score," Barker said. "So he threw it down the middle and everything worked out. Last time I hit a grand slam, I was 12 or 13. It's been a while."
Talking about the mob awaiting him at home, the grin on Barker's face grew.
"It was a crazy feeling. It feels good to have the whole team just come on you and feel like you won the game, I guess," he said. "It was a good team effort; everyone did their part."
ACGC has plenty of quality bats scattered throughout the lineup. But it was Barker's keen eye in the batter's box that helped him work out of a jam and become the hero of the day.
"I have a couple guys in my lineup who are aggressively selective," said Falcons head coach Mike Kingery. "Some people expand the zone too much, and Connor typically does not. ... He didn't expand his zone or go for any goofy pitches. The first two pitches that were strikes weren't great driving-the-ball type pitches but if he throws him that same pitch with two strikes, then he's going to attempt and try to hit something to right field or whatever."
Mike added, "I always tell my kids the key to hitting is hitting hitter's pitches and not swinging at pitcher's pitches. When he gives you a pitch to hit, you have to be ready for it."
Scoreless through four innings, there was some frustration for the Falcons' lineup. Paynesville starting pitcher Bennett Evans and the Bulldogs' defense kept working out of jams. Josh Kingery reached third base with two outs in the third, only for a groundout to end the threat. The fourth saw runners at second in third before Evans got one of his two strikeouts to get out of the frame unscathed.
"He pitched extremely well," Paynesville head coach Brad Skoglund said of Evans. "We made a good pitch on Barker and Barker went down and got it and hit it out of the ballpark.
"We played very well. (I'm) very proud of the kids; it was a heck of a game."
His counterpoint on the mound, Josh Kingery, gave up just two hits — singles to Eli Nelson and Drew Tangen — with no walks over seven scoreless innings. Facing Paynesville for the third time this season, Josh worked mainly with his fastball and changeup while having trouble with the curveball.
"I didn't have my curveball at the beginning of the game but started to get it later," Josh said. "Just trying to mix it up."
Josh continued, "They're a good team. Kudos to them, they made an awesome run."
It helped that behind Josh was a defense that vacuumed up every ground ball and pop up. At third, Barker accounted for four assists.
"That's definitely our best defensive game of the year," Josh said. "It couldn't have come at a better time. I had guys behind me today."
ACGC will play in state for the first time since 2001 after knocking off a team that won three of the last four section championships. The Class AA state quarterfinals get underway Tuesday, followed by the semifinals Wednesday, both at the Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud. The Class AA championship game is set for 1 p.m. Friday, June 18 at Target Field in Minneapolis.
"My nephew (Brian Kingery) was on that team. A lot of those guys and even some alumni who weren't in that grade are here," Mike said. "It's cool being in a situation like this does to the whole area."
Section 3AA final
ACGC 4, Paynesville 0
Paynesville 000 000 0-0 2 1
ACGC 000 040 x-4 6 0
Hitting — Paynesville: Drew Tangen 1-3, Eli Nelson 1-3 ... ACGC: Josh Kingery 1-3, Logan Straumann 1-2 bb, Connor Barker 1-1 hr r rbi-4 bb-2, Zach Bagley 1-3 2b, Masson Hiltner 1-3, Malcolm Ludwig 1-2, Jack Peterson 0-2 r bb, Jaxon Drange r, Hunter Bjur r.
Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Paynesville: Bennett Evans (L) 5-6-4-4-4-2, Trent Wendlandt 1-0-0-0-0-3 ... ACGC: Kingery (W) 7-2-0-0-0-6.