By: Erik Buchinger – Northwoods League
Rochester, Minn. – Following the 72-game regular season, the Northwoods League has found its eight teams that have a chance to win the title. The league saw some incredible performances in the regular season, but big moments await as the 2016 Northwoods League Playoffs begin today.
In the North Division, the second-half champion St. Cloud Rox will host the Willmar Stingers, while the first-half champion Eau Claire Express will play host to the Mankato MoonDogs. Over in the South Division, the winners of the first and second half Wisconsin Rapids Rafters will host the Lakeshore Chinooks. Lastly, the Madison Mallards will play host to the Battle Creek Bombers.
The first two rounds are single elimination, and Monday will serve as the Divisional Round, while Tuesday will determine the Divisional Champion. Teams will have an off day on Wednesday before the best-of-three Summer Collegiate World Series begins on Thursday and goes until either Friday or Saturday if necessary.
St. Cloud (48-23)
Pitching Guides Rox to Playoffs
After finishing in second place in the North Division by a half-game in the first-half standings, St. Cloud punched its ticket to the playoffs by taking the second-half crown, which was also by a half-game.
St. Cloud’s path to the postseason was guided by its pitching staff. The Rox rank among the top teams in the league in most major categories. Rox pitchers combined for a 3.34 earned run average throughout the season, which is good for the second best in the league. St. Cloud pitching ranks third by limiting opponents to a .241 batting average, and the Rox have shown the ability to shut opposing hitters down with a league-leading nine shutouts. Collin Strall (Louisiana State University) has been one of the most reliable relievers in the entire league with 25 appearances and 58 2/3 innings, and his 1.53 ERA ranks second among qualifying pitchers. Strall and Brian Glowicki (University of Minnesota) lead the team with 10 saves each. Starter Carlo Graffeo (Southeastern Louisiana) leads the team in ERA with a 2.04 mark in nine appearances, including seven starts and a 3-0 record. Lefthander Dan Metzdorf (Boston College) is not far behind with a 2.09 ERA and a record of 4-1.
St. Cloud certainly has some capable hitters throughout its lineup. Though power is not the Rox strong suit with just 30 home runs as a team, they do rank seventh in the league with in runs scored with 399. Shortstop Brett Pope (Western Carolina University) finished the regular season with a .331 batting average to lead the team. Ricky Ramirez (McNeese State) is hitting .298 with a team-high 42 RBI, while Denis Karas (Cal Berkeley) is tied for the team lead with five home runs.
St. Cloud will match up with Willmar on Monday night at 7:05 at home in the divisional semifinal. The Rox and Stingers played each other eight times in the regular season, and St. Cloud won five of the games.
Consistent performance fuels MoonDogs to postseason play
The Mankato MoonDogs finished third in the first-half standings and followed that up with a second-place performance in the second half for the second best overall record in the North Division.
The MoonDogs finished with the fourth-best ERA as a team in 2016 at 3.54. Starting pitcher Ricky Digrugilliers (Western Illinois) has been the go-to pitcher for Mankato with a 2.31 ERA and finished the regular season with a 6-3 record in 10 starts. Righthander Reece Eddins (Nebraska) boasts a 3.02 ERA with a record of 4-2 in nine appearances, including eight starts. In the bullpen, Kevin Yarabinec (Youngstown State) led the team with seven saves and finished with a solid 1.77 ERA in 25 appearances. Brian Gadsby (UCLA) had five saves in the regular season with a 2.38 ERA in 20 appearances. Brick Paskiewicz (Grand Canyon) also saved five games and had a 1.59 ERA in 11 games.
Mankato boasts some of the best hitters in the Northwoods League, as the MoonDogs rank third in batting average at .279. Infielder David Metzgar (CSU Bakersfield) is third in the league in batting average at .356, while outfielder Jake Shepski (Notre Dame) is fourth in the league with a batting average of .333. Shepski connected on 11 homers, drove in 55 runs and scored 52 times, all of which led the team, and also proved to have a good eye at the plate with 56 walks, which ranks second in the Northwoods League.
Mankato will play Eau Claire on the road on Monday night at 6:35. The two squared off eight times in the regular season, and the MoonDogs appeared to have their number, as they beat the Express in seven of their eight matchups.
Eau Claire (45-27)
Big First Half Earns Eau Claire a Playoff Spot
Eau Claire opened the season with a first-half championship, squeaking by St. Cloud by a half-game. The Express finished in fifth place in the second half for a third-place finish overall.
Eau Claire had a solid year on the mound, finishing the regular season with a 3.85 ERA, which ranks fifth in the Northwoods League. Righthander Caleb Boushley (UW-La Crosse) has been a consistent starter for the Express. In 10 starts, Boushley recorded an 8-2 record with a 2.95 ERA, and in 61 innings of work, he walked just seven batters. In six starts, Austin Schulfer (Milwaukee) finished the regular season with a 1.77 ERA and struck out 50 batters in 40 2/3 innings pitched. Schulfer has recorded three double-digit strikeout performances this season. Eau Claire has a solid option at the back end of its bullpen with righthander Christian Tripp (New Mexico), who had 11 saves, struck out 24 batters in 23 innings with an ERA of 2.34.
The Express scored 424 runs in the regular season, which ranks second in the Northwoods League. One big reason for the high run total is Eau Claire’s base running. The Express stole a season-high 123 bases, while getting caught 30 times. Eau Claire’s catcher Daulton Varsho (UW-Milwaukee) had an incredible breakout season for the Express. He finished the regular season with 15 home runs, which was second most in the Northwoods League behind only La Crosse’s Griffin Conine (Duke). Varsho’s 63 RBI also ranks second in the league, and he finished with a .321 batting average and 26 stolen bases. Outfielder Zach Ashford (Fresno State) hit .327, had 68 hits and stole 17 bases for the Express.
Eau Claire will host Mankato on Monday night at 6:35. In eight games, the Express lost to Mankato seven times as the two play again for a spot in the Divisional Championship round.
Batting brings Stingers into Playoffs
The Willmar Stingers squeaked into No. 4 spot in the playoffs. Willmar finished sixth in the first half of the season but placed third in the second half to earn a playoff bid.
Willmar brings a solid pitching staff into the postseason with a team ERA of 4.00, which is good for sixth in the Northwoods League. Left-handed starting pitcher Blake Stockert (North Dakota State) has been lights out in his time with the Stingers. In seven starts, Stockert had a 5-1 record in the regular season with an incredible 0.71 ERA. In 37 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 37 batters and walked 16. Joe Vranesic (Kent State) has been a reliable arm out of the bullpen for the Stingers. Vranesic has appeared in 20 games in the 2016 regular season and struck out 26 batters in 26 1/3 innings with an ERA of 1.36 on the year.
The main reason the Stingers are in the playoffs is because of their offense. The team ranked first in batting average, slugging percentage and on base plus slugging percentage in the regular season. Up and down the lineup, Willmar’s batters are stacked, and it all starts with outfielder Danny Pardo (Montevallo). He is second in the Northwoods League with a batting average of .360. His 95 hits and 75 runs lead the league. Pardo also stole 27 bases on the season, which ranks third. Infielder Greg Lambert (Southern Illinois) hit .330 at the plate and finished with 93 hits, second only to Pardo. Lambert knocked out nine home runs and led the entire league with 66 runs batted in.
Willmar will play St. Cloud on the road on Monday night at 7:05. The teams appear to be fairly evenly matched, but St. Cloud won five of the eight games played between them.
Wisconsin Rapids (49-23)
Balance of hitting and pitching fuels Rafters
The Wisconsin Rapids Rafters swept both halves of the North Division. Wisconsin Rapids is the favorite going into the playoffs and will have the target on its back as the No. 1 seed.
Wisconsin Rapids has some of the best pitchers in the League with a team ERA that ranks third. Rafters’ pitchers have shown a great deal of control, as the team has thrown the fewest walks with 236 and finished with the third-most strikeouts with 547 on the season. In 10 starts, righthander Chris Cooper (Texas A&M – Corpus Christi) has a 2.02 ERA with a 4-2 record. Lefty Gareth Stroh (Coffeyville CC) has started 11 games for the Rafters and stands with a 5-2 record, 3.60 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks. Righthander Garrett Schilling (Xavier) has been an incredibly effective closer for Wisconsin Rapids. Schilling has appeared in 26 games and had a league-leading 18 saves on the season with a 1.91 ERA with 40 strikeouts and just eight walks in 28 1/3 innings.
At the plate, Wisconsin Rapids is tied for third with a team batting average of .279 on the season. Infielder Jake Lumley (Canisius) finished a .309 batting average in the regular season and led the team with 82 hits and drew 42 walks. Outfielder Dustin Woodcock (SIU-Edwardsville) hit .299 and finished tied for the team lead in home runs with Joe Wainhouse (Washington) with nine. Woodcock’s 39 RBI led the team. First baseman Ben Fisher (Eastern Kentucky) added some extra power to the lineup with eight home runs and a team-high 21 doubles. After joining the team in late July, infielder Max Widmar (Iowa Central) has shined at the plate with a .462 batting average in 15 games.
The Rafters and Chinooks will face off on Monday night at 7:05. In the eight games between the two teams in the regular season, Wisconsin Rapids had a 6-2 record over Lakeshore.
Madison earns No. 2 seed with consistency
Madison finished one game behind Wisconsin Rapids in the first-half standings and placed third in the second half for an overall record that slotted the Mallards in second place.
The Mallards have an above-average pitching staff in terms of most major categories. Madison comes into the postseason ranked seventh in overall team ERA. Righthander Heath Renz (UW-Whitewater) has completed a very nice season for the Mallards. In nine starts this season, Renz boasts a 3-0 record and an ERA of 1.84. Frank German (North Florida) has made the most starts for the Mallards this season with 11. In those starts, German had a 5-3 overall record and finished with a 2.60 ERA. He struck out 38 batters in 45 innings with 22 walks. Righthanded reliever Troy Bacon (Santa Fe College) led the team with six saves in 21 appearances. Remarkably, Bacon struck out 53 batters in 34 2/3 innings for the Mallards.
At the plate, Madison has a team batting average of .273, which is good for fifth in the Northwoods League. Outfielder Josh Stowers (Louisville) led the team with a .311 batting average. Outfielder Nelson Maldonado (Florida) hit .308 and has a good eye at the plate with 30 walks and only 19 strikeouts. Zach Jarrett (UNC-Charlotte) brings some added power to the Mallards’ lineup, as he leads the team with nine home runs and 57 RBI. First baseman Nick Palace (Valparaiso) finished the regular season with a .303 batting average with seven home runs and 33 RBI.
The Mallards will host the Bombers on Monday night at 7:05. Madison has played Battle Creek eight times in the regular season and won five of those games.
Battle Creek (39-33)
Big Second Half Leads Bombers to Playoffs
The Battle Creek Bombers finished with a .500 record in the first half for fourth place, but they finished 21-15 in the second half for second place in the division, earning a spot in the playoffs.
Battle Creek’s pitching ranks at No. 9 in terms of team ERA with a 4.18 mark. Battle Creek has gotten a big boost from starting pitcher Scott Sency (SVSU). The lefthander started 12 games in the regular season and finished with an ERA of 3.26. Sency threw 63 1/3 innings and struck out 56 batters with 20 walks. Lefty Cody Puckett (Middle Tennessee State) was mixed in as a starter and reliever this season with a .326 ERA and has been impressive with his strikeout rate. In 41 1/3 innings pitched this season, Puckett has struck out 56 hitters. Krystien Johnson-Battilana (Davenport) has played a big role out of the bullpen for the Bombers. In 23 appearances, he has a 2.43 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched.
The Bombers have had a good season at the plate with a team batting average of .269 – good for seventh in the Northwoods League. Outfielder Dean Miller (Riverside City College) has had a big year for Battle Creek with a .330 batting average. Miller has homered seven times and knocked in 43 runs. Outfielder Daniel Jipping (Central Michigan) has provided a significant amount of power to the Bombers’ lineup. Jipping is hitting .314 so far this season with 13 home runs and 54 RBI, and he leads the team with 82 hits on the season.
Battle Creek will play Madison on the road to begin the playoffs. The Mallards won the first four games of the series, but the Bombers have won three of the last four games between the two teams. Game time is set for 7:05 on Monday night.
Chinooks Playoff Bound After Slow Start
The Lakeshore Chinooks got off to a slow start to the season, as they finished the first half in a tie for seventh place in the South Division. Lakeshore rebounded with a fourth-place finish in the second half.
Lakeshore has made its way to the playoffs because of its pitching, which has been the best in the Northwoods League this season. The Chinooks have a team ERA of 3.31 and limited opponents to a .230 batting average. Righthander Marshall Kasowski (Houston) has been the star for Lakeshore. His .154 ERA ranks No. 3 in the league. Kasowski has struck out 87 batters in 63 1/3 innings and had a 3-1 record. Tyler Jandron (UW-Parkside) has also shown a dominant presence on the mound for the Chinooks. In seven starts, Jandron has a 2.04 ERA and a 3-1 record. He struck out 42 hitters in 48 1/3 innings pitched.
For as good as the Chinooks’ pitching has been this season, Lakeshore’s offense has been its downfall. The Chinooks have a team batting average of .240, which is last in the Northwoods League. In 34 games played, infielder Matt Reardon (Florida Gulf Coast) has the best batting average on the team at .366. First baseman Matt Johnson (South Dakota State) finished .227 at the plate but led Lakeshore with eight home runs and 32 RBI. Catcher Tim Dalporto (Kent State) hit .278 in the regular season and hit one home run with 25 RBI for the Chinooks.
Lakeshore has some momentum after clinching its playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. The Chinooks have played Wisconsin Rapids eight times in the regular season but won just two of them. Game time is Monday night at 7:05.
The Northwoods League is the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players. The 22-year-old summer collegiate league is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 18 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, more than 150 former Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (CWS), Jordan Zimmermann (DET), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Lucas Duda (NYM) and Ben Zobrist (CHC). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League website. For more information, visit www.northwoodsleague.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store and on Google Play.