WAUSAU — A winner-take-all playoff game, tie score, ninth inning, and there were ducks on the pond.
Only it was the Woodchucks, not the Mallards, who brought their own home.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks staved off a ninth-inning rally by the Madison Mallards, then staged their own heroics in the bottom of the ninth to earn a 3-2 victory in the decisive Game 3 of the Northwoods League South Division playoff series Tuesday night at Athletic Park.
The victory sends the Woodchucks – just the third team in Northwoods history to win a playoff series after losing Game 1 – to the league championship series vs. St. Cloud, while the Mallards’ magical season came to a screeching halt after two consecutive one-run losses.
“God, it was exciting,” said Madison second baseman Doug Beck. “The last two games, every pitch.”
Wisconsin’s Andrew Baldwin had the game-winning hit, a one-out rope to left field off Mallards closer Kyle Yates. Ned Yost Jr. trotted in easily from third with the winning run.
“It’s a freaking rush, man,” Yost said amid the postgame celebration. “Couldn’t ask for the game to be any better.”
Yost, the son of the Milwaukee Brewers manager of the same name, drew a base on balls from Madison reliever Tyler Bullock, who started the game as the designated hitter before taking the mound in the eighth inning and finishing behind the plate.
After Pete Wiedewitsch popped up, Mallards skipper Darrell Handelsman brought Yates in from right field to pitch. Rob Marconi greeted Yates by poking a single into left-center that sent Yost to third, bringing up Baldwin.
“The key to the whole inning was getting that leadoff runner on, because then the pressure mounts,” Foster said. “Then Andrew Baldwin came up big for us.”
The pressure seemed to shift to the Woodchucks after the Mallards tied the game in the eighth on a single by Beck and an RBI single from Yates.
Madison threatened in the ninth, when Bullock led off with a single and moved over to third, but Woodchucks closer Clayton Stewart struck out Josh Wettlaufer to end the threat.
Stewart got the win after picking up the save in Monday’s Game 2, when he pitched four perfect innings in relief. The right-hander entered Tuesday’s game with one out in the eighth, but got two quick outs to leave Yates stranded at third.
“They bring the big boy in that threw four last night (and) I’m thinking, ‘God, his arm is going to fall off,’ ” Beck said.
Stewart’s effort was only the second-best performance by a Woodchucks pitcher in Game 3. After Foster suspended his top two starters for the remainder of the season, Wisconsin had no choice but to start Justin Berg, who was pitching on two days rest after throwing a complete game in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Foster figured Berg would only last four or five innings at best, but the right-hander gave up one run on five hits in seven innings, and did not walk a batter until issuing two passes in the seventh.
“That took a lot of guts and courage,” Foster said. “He kept coming in every inning saying ‘Give me one more, give me one more.’
“He had a low pitch count, so I was able to take him a few more innings than I planned on going with him. He came up big.”
The Woodchucks took a 2-0 lead in the third inning, pushing across two unearned runs off of Mallards starter Jake Hansen. Tony Roth’s two-out pop-up dropped inside the right-field line in between Yates, first baseman David Hrncirik and Beck, who was charged with an error.
A double by Kyle Bohm and a single by Mike Pankratz gave Wisconsin an early edge.
Madison got one run back in the fourth when Mike Rozema doubled and scored on Yates’ sacrifice fly. Rozema and Yates each had a pair of hits, and Yates knocked in both of Madison’s runs.