THE DUCK POND — The Madison Mallards had two decided advantages Monday night. Neither paid off.
Despite having their home-field crowd behind them and their opponent’s aces on the shelf, the Mallards fell 5-4 to the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the second game of the Northwoods League’s South Division playoffs.
Madison returns to Wausau tonight for the series’ final game, with the winner advancing to the championship later this week. Alexandria forced a third game in the North Division after beating St. Cloud 5-4.
“Both teams played great,” Madison manager Darrell Handelsman said. “We just came up short.”
A league playoff record crowd of 4,865 came to Warner Park for the first home playoff game in team history. Victorious in its inaugural postseason appearance Sunday in Wausau, Madison only needed to do what it had done 22 times this summer – win at home – to eliminate the Woodchucks.
Madison even got a pleasant surprise – and a potentially decisive edge – when Wisconsin manager Steve Foster announced his two aces, Adam Rowe and Steve Grasley, were suspended for the rest of the postseason for unspecified off-field actions.
Rowe (9-1, 1.98 ERA) had not lost since June 10 and was 8-0 in his last 10 starts, while Grasley (9-2, 2.72 ERA) had fanned 91 batters in 86 innings.
Despite avoiding Wisconsin’s big guns, Madison ran into inspired pitching. Jeff Gilmore, starting in place of Rowe on two days’ rest, allowed one run on four hits before leaving after three innings. Bryan Gale halted Madison’s only major offensive explosion and went 1 innings to get the win.
Most impressive was closer Clayton Stewart, who threw four perfect innings of relief to earn his seventh save. Stewart had not gone more than 2innings all summer.
“Their guy came in at the end and did a great job,” Handelsman said. “Twelve up and 12 down. What are you going to do? He shut us down.”
The same could not be said for B.J. Brandenberger, the only pitcher not to have success against the Mallards. Brandenberger followed Gilmore and let Madison climb almost entirely out a 5-1 deficit, allowing two hits, three earned runs, a wild pitch and a hit batter in two-thirds of an inning.
Madison’s Mike Rohde, who committed an error in the fourth that led to two runs, redeemed himself in the next half-inning with an RBI double to deep left-center field. David Hrncirik added an RBI groundout one pitch later, and Rohde came in on a wild pitch to cap the scoring.
“That definitely got us back in it,” Rohde said. “We needed it.”
Madison’s pitching picked up following the rally. Starter Corey Cabral, who was responsible for three of Wisconsin’s five runs, retired the side in order in the fifth before being pulled. Cody Hall followed suit in the next two innings, facing the minimum number of batters before finally allowing a lead off hit in the eighth. Hall induced a pop out and a pair of groundouts to end the inning.
Closer Kyle Yates, who started the game in right field, got out of a jam in the ninth with two runners on base to give Madison one last shot.
“The bullpen was great tonight,” Handelsman said.
Unfortunately for Madison, Wisconsin’s was just as good.
Said Rohde: “We kept waiting for that big hit, a little bit of magic. It never happened.”