Kalamazoo, Mich. — The Kalamazoo Growlers were a strike away from ending the 2014 season with a win over the Madison Mallards, but like almost everything baseball-related in the team's injury and departure-racked maiden season, fate, bad luck and unnamed other magical forces intervened and refused to make things clean and tidy.
With the Growlers leading 8-7 in the top of the ninth with Mallards on first and second, John Schreiber (Northwestern Ohio) trying for the nine-out save, Dylan Detert (Madison College) spoiled what could have been the final pitch of the season and poked a single into shallow right field, driving the tying run home. A single by Matt Thaiss (Virginia) drove home the go-ahead run, and a wild pitch made it 10-8. That was the margin by which the Growlers lost.
"We jsut leave one fastball that's up, and they kind of stick it where we're not," pitching coordinator Mike Ott said. "Unfortunately, that's happened probably six or seven times, it feels like."
The final game of the 2014 season was a back-and-forth affair full of offense, like many of the Growlers' affairs this season. Kalamazoo took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first off Jesse Puscheck's (Canisius) single, and though Alex Bacon (North Florida) hit a three-run dinger to give Madison a lead in the third, Puscheck hit another single, this one driving two home, in the bottom of the inning to tie it.
Kalamazoo took a 4-3 lead in the fourth off Justin Fletcher's (Northern Illinois) sacrifice fly, and though Madison responded with four in the six to make it 7-4, RBI singles by Tommy Hook (Northern Illinois), Fletcher, Karl Sorensen (St. Cloud State) and an RBI groundout by Alex Maloney (Ball State) gave them an 8-7 lead.
Schreiber completed flawless seventh and eighth innings to maintain that margin, but he couldn't seal the deal in the ninth.
The loss belied a number of positives that recalled successes of the Growlers' inaugral season. Ryan Lidge was undoubtedly the best Northwoods League backstop at controlling the running game, and, throwing from his knees with astounding quickness and ease, he gunned down a runner trying to steal second.
"You create bonds with these guys that you don't really create in spring," Lidge said of playing a full Northwoods League season. "It's what summer ball is. That's the biggest highlight for me."
The Growlers' improvements in the second half were largely due to crucial mid-season pickups, and Schreibers' two innings of dominance, as well as the contributions of Fletcher, Maloney and Sorensen, who had two hits each, spoke to those players' effectiveness and importance.
And the most important part of the Growlers' 2014 was the unwavering fan support they enjoyed. Sunday was no exception: 3,610 packed Homer Stryker Field and sent out the season with as much energy as they greeted it with.
The Kalamazoo Growlers are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. Playing its 21st season of summer collegiate baseball, the Northwoods 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 115 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (DET) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (CWS), Jordan Zimmermann (WAS), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Allen Craig (STL) and Ben Zobrist (TB). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League YouTube channel. For more information, visit http://www.growlersbaseball.com.