By Mitchell A. Skurzewski
For Wausau Pilot & Review
The second half of the Northwoods League season is playing out eerily similar for the Wisconsin Woodchucks as the first half did.
The Woodchucks held a lead much of the first half, but a late charge from the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders left the Woodchucks one game short of winning the first half Great Lakes West Division crown and with it clinching a playoff spot. The winners of the first half and second half of the four divisions play in a Northwoods League Divisional Playoff.
Now, the Woodchucks who held a three-game lead just over a week ago, find themselves in a three-way tie with Fond du Lac and the Madison Mallards atop the Great Lakes West. The Woodchucks enter the final day of the regular season needing a Mallards loss to Fond du Lac to earn a trip to the postseason. Fond du Lac with a win would win the first and second half, allowing the Woodchucks to enter the postseason with a better overall record. But if Madison and Wisconsin win, Madison is in based on the tiebreaker scenario of having a better head-to-head record vs. the Dock Spiders.
Got all that?
It would be quite an achievement for the Woodchucks to make the postseason. In the last week the Woodchucks have undergone significant roster turnover with their entire middle of the lineup (their usual 3-6 hitters), including possibly the NWL Most Valuable Player Kevin Kilpatrick returning to school.
“That is common, you know, kids go back to school,” Woodchucks manager Corey Thompson said. “Unfortunately for us it was our top hitters, all middle of the order guys. But, we are confident as a group we can go out there and grind this out and make the playoffs.”
Not only was Kilpatrick and the lineup key for the Woodchucks earlier this season, the Woodchucks bullpen has been a pillar of strength most of the year. The Woodchucks have set a franchise-record in saves with 26 this season.
“We have a bunch of guys who are very unselfish (in the bullpen),” reliever Colin Millar said. “In a league like this, you can have a bunch of guys here not willing to do anything to help the team. But we really bought into coach, his program. As a group, we will do whatever we are called on to do and whatever will help the team, whether you come in in the sixth inning or the ninth.”
Despite the losses of some key lineup pieces the Woodchucks have tried to add pieces to keep the team competitive and perhaps sneak into the playoffs. Chase Bessard has played less than 10 games with the Woodchucks, but has eight RBIs in nine games.
“This is really a blessing for me,” Bessard said after Wednesday’s win over Wisconsin Rapids. “It is exciting, I just want to help these guys win. I am fresh and ready to give 110 percent down the stretch.
It has been a tight-knit squad the entire year, which can be difficult with guys coming and going, Thomspson said.
“You know the bus trips have been great and we really have tried to have a very welcoming and a light and fun atmosphere,” he said. “This has been a great group. It’s tough to lose guys, but we have really good camaraderie and guys have been welcoming.”
The Woodchucks will need to lean upon each other and get some help from Fond du Lac beating Madison to earn the Woodchucks’ first NWL postseason berth since 2014. It is something the players desperately want.
“We are still confident in who we have here,” Millar said. “We feel like if we get in, we can do some damage and win it all.”