Baseball is a game in which a team can hit the proverbial reset button when the playoffs roll around.
In the one-and-done format of the WIAA playoffs, how teams have performed over the 30-game regular season matters little. It takes getting hot at the right time to go on a run. Wauwatosa East has taken full advantage, erasing a regular season filled with close losses with a pair of postseason upsets.
The 12th-seeded Red Raiders followed up a 3-0 win over Pewaukee on July 11 by pounding out 17 hits in 10-1 win over fourth-seeded Kettle Moraine at UW-Whitewater on July 12 to win the program's first regional championship since 2006.
"We talked at the beginning of the year that we can play with top teams," Tosa East coach Pete Schwichtenberg said. "It is just the belief that they are starting to have. We are finally starting to believe and feel it.
"It has taken so many close losses and tough battles. It takes wins. If we are not winning, it is tough to build that belief."
Tosa East will face either top-seeded Marquette or ninth-seeded Mukwonago in a sectional semifinal at Brookfield Central at 10 a.m. Monday, July 17.
"All the games before the playoffs don't matter anymore," Tosa East left fielder Sam Rutkiewicz said. "The seeding is out the window. We are just playing it one game at a time."
The Red Raiders struggled to score early throughout the regular season, often finding themselves having to play catch-up late. But things have changed in the playoffs. Tosa East struck for three first-inning runs against Pewaukee and did so again against Kettle Moraine in the regional final.
Blake Kratzer singled and Sam Rutkiewicz drew a walk off before Aaron Plaisted hit a ground ball to first base that should have been a routine out.
But Kettle Moraine pitcher Jason Abatto did not cover the first base, and first baseman Christian Ishag did not see Kratzer streaking home for the first run of the game.
Jeff Mason followed with a shot that center fielder Josh Kolb overran. The double plated a pair of runs to give Tosa East a 3-0 lead.
"We haven't been able to score first-inning runs at all," Schwichtenberg said. "Most of our runs have been in the fifth or sixth innings. That was huge again. It puts a ton of pressure on the opponent right away."
Kettle Moraine got a run back in the bottom of the first, but the Red Raiders answered in the top of the second when Kratzer reached second on an error by right fielder Nathan Strelka and scored on a single by Rutkiewicz.
Tosa East broke the game open in the fourth inning, scoring six runs on eight singles.
Tim Fuerst, Josh Edrtmann, Evan Bertotto and Chris Fuerst all had run-scoring singles in the inning before Rutkiewicz capped the frame with a two-run single.
That allowed Mason to pitch with a big lead, a rare occurrence for a Tosa East pitcher, as the Red Raiders have relied heavily on their strong pitching to keep them in games.
Mason allowed seven hits and walked three but kept the Lasers off the scoreboard off after the first inning with help from his defense, which turned a pair of double plays.
"I've never pitched with a nine-run lead," Mason said. "It was nice to know that even if I gave up big inning or something, we'd still be on top. It's not that difficult for me, as long as I'm feeling good, to just throw strikes."
With Mason and senior Aaron Plaisted as a one-two punch on the mound, the Red Raiders are well-equipped for postseason play.
"We have other guys in our bullpen we trust just as much as those guys," Schwichtenberg said. "It is just huge to have that. We can take out teams with those guys."
The Red Raiders will be underdogs on paper again. Tosa East is 0-3 against Marquette this season, but one of those games went to extra innings and the other two were decided by two or fewer runs.
Fellow Greater Metro Conference foes Brookfield Central and Sussex Hamilton also could be at the sectional. Three of Tosa East's four losses to those teams were also by two runs or fewer.
"We know we can play with anyone," Mason said. "We come in with a lot of steam. We come in with the most steam of any team in the tournament right now.
"We've hung with Marquette three different times and they are possibly the best team in the state. It is great to have this momentum going."