In was opening day for the St. Paul Saints, but this was no ordinary opening day. The team opened their plush new ballpark, CHS Field, a 7,500 person stadium in lowertown St. Paul that will quickly become the envy of baseball teams throughout the country. The Saints welcomed American Association rival the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks in a game that was full of pomp and hoopla even before the two teams took the field.
The game had plenty of fireworks, including 15 runs scored and five home runs. It featured last season’s American Association home run champ squaring off against the player who led the Can-Am League in homers. By the time it was over these two would play a huge role in the outcome.
Fargo got on the scoreboard in the top of the first inning with the benefit of an error. Frank Solerno led off the game and grounded down to third baseman Michael Antonio, but his throw was off line allowing Solerno to reach second. Chad Mozingo followed with a lined shot off the wall in right field. Saints right fielder Mike Kvasnicka made a heads up play, making it look like he was going to make the catch, so Solerno stayed at second looking to tag up. By the time he realized it was not going to be caught he could only reach third base. Mozingo attempted to reach second, but Kvasnicka gunned him down. Stefan Gartrell followed with a sacrifice fly, and Saints starter PedroHernandez got Joe Dunigan to fly to shallow right field to end the inning.
Fargo-Moorhead starter Brandon Mann kept the Saints off the scoreboard in the first inning, but in the second they would take the lead. Newcomer Ian Gac grounded a single into right field and Kvasnicka followed with a bloop single into left, moving Gac to second. Michael Antonio then hit a hard grounder to third baseman Ryan Soares who was eaten up by the ball at first, but recovered to throw out Antonio. Both runners advanced. Mann was laboring, but it looked like he may get out of the inning unscathed when he struck out Angelo Songco. That brought catcher Vinny DiFazio to the plate, who grounded a single up the middle scoring both runners.
Anthony Phillips came to the plate and the Fargo-Moorhead defense showed very little respect for him, positioning the outfield quite shallow. Phillips made them pay. The St. Paul third baseman worked the count full, then drilled a ball over the center fielders head for a triple, scoring DiFazio.
The lead did not last long however. In the top of the third Zach Penprase and Ryan Soares led off with back-to-back singles. One out later it was Gartrell again, this time lining a double into the gap in right-center field to score both runners and tie the game.
In the bottom of the third Ian Gac demonstrated why the Saints were so excited to sign him. Sam Maus led off the inning by drawing a walk, and one out later Gac lined a ball off the top of the wall in left field scoring Maus and giving St. Paul back the lead.
In the bottom of the fourth inning catcher Vinny DiFazio became the first St. Paul Saints player to hit a home run in CHS Field when he homered off Mann over the left field fence to increase the lead to 5-3.
The RedHawks cut the deficit in half in the top of the fifth. Zach Penprase reached on an error to begin the inning, and promptly stole second base, barely beating a great throw by DiFazio. One out later Penprase scored on a single by Frank Salerno to make it 5-4. Fargo looked like they would tie the score when Gartrell drilled a line drive into the gap in right center field, but Kvasnicka got on his horse and ran down the drive making a fine running catch to end the inning.
In the fifth the St. Paul Saints would extend the lead and it would be Gac leading the charge again. Sam Maus singled to lead off the inning. One out later last season’s American Association home run champion came to the plate, and drilled a shot over the left field fence to increase the lead to three.
In the top of the sixth Joe Dunigan proved that he has a big bat as well, blasting a home run to cut the Saints lead to two. Dunigan was last season’s Can-Am League home run champ, and he was not to be outdone by Gac. That was the last pitch for Hernandez.
The lefty’s night was over after going 5+ innings. He allowed 6 hits, 5 runs, 3 earned, and did not walk a batter. He also struck out 3.
Drew Gay came into relieve for St. Paul, but struggled a bit at first. Joe Staley led off with a double, and moved to third when an error by the St. Paul third baseman allowed Ryan Matthews to reach base. Chris Duffy singled, scoring Staley and cutting the lead to just one. Penprase grounded to third, moving both runners into scoring position. That brought Ryan Soares to the plate. He grounded down to Steve Nikorak, who had taken over at third. Nikorak threw to DiFazio ahead of Matthews reaching home. The runner turned and headed back to third, but DiFazio chased after him and threw to Nikorak who made the tag for the out. Gay recorded the final out, but Fargo-Moorhead was back within one.
In the top of the seventh the Saints turned to Dylan Chavez to hold the RedHawks down. He retired the first two hitters of the inning, but Dunigan came through again. He drilled a deep fly ball over the right-center field wall to tie the score. Already his second home run of the season.
In the bottom of the seventh inning the Saints needed a spark to get back the energy from the crowd in their new park. Dunigan’s home run seemed to have deflated the enthusiasm, but Willie Argo brought the crowd back to life when he lined a Mike Noteware offering over the left field wall to put the Saints back on top.
From there the Saints bullpen came through. Ryan Rodebaugh allowed a single hit in the eighth inning before retiring the side. Alan Oaks came on in the ninth to close out the game, but the RedHawks were not going down quietly. Salerno singled to lead off the ninth, and Mozingo followed by grounding into a fielder’s choice. Gartrell singled sending Mozingo to second with just one out. It was looking like St. Paul may let this one get away, but Oaks got Dunigan to fly out, then struck out Staley to end the game.
Chavez (1-0) was the winner. Noteware (0-1) took the loss. Oaks earned his first save.
After the game Saints manager George Tsamis had a lot of praise for his new star. “He’s something else,” Tsamis explained about Gac. “He is really something special, and is just so tough to get out.”
Gac was pleased with his debut in St. Paul. “It was a great way to start. I am pretty happy about my performance. Hopefully I will be able to keep it up.”
Gac finished his first game in a St. Paul Saints uniform 4-4, with 2 runs, 3 RBI, a double and a home run. DiFazio also had a big day, going 2-4 with 2 runs and 3 RBI. Dunigan had the big bat for Fargo-Moorhead. He finished 2-5 with 2 home runs.
Tomorrow these two teams will go at it again. Dustin Crenshaw will make his debut for the St. Paul Saints.
By Robert Pannier