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2009: Season remembered for fast start, close finish, & offense in-between

First Half (19-15)

After beginning the season on a four-game road trip to northern Minnesota–Alexandria and Brainerd to be exact–the Madison Mallards returned home with a 2-2 record and a favorable schedule that had the team playing its next 10 of 12 games at the friendly confines of the “Duck Pond.”

And what a home opener it was. After the Mallards surrendered a 5-4 lead in the top half of the ninth inning, and the visiting Rochester Honkers were now ahead 6-5, redshirt freshman Adam McClain (Memphis) drew a walk off reliever Arik Sikula (Marshall) to set the stage. Up came the much-hyped, 270 lb freshman first-baseman from NC State, by the name of Harold Riggins, and he didn’t disappoint, in driving a 1-1 pitch over the centerfield wall for a 7-6 victory to send 5,221 fans in a frenzy back to their original destinations.

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Riggins (second from the left), is greeted emphatically by his teammates after hitting a walk-off two-run shot to defeat the Honkers on June 1, 2009.

After Riggins’ dramatic walk-off two-run shot, the Mallards would win five more games to move their winning streak to seven and push their record to 8-2. Among those wins included another walk-off home run, this time a grand slam off the bat of McClain to give the Mallards a June 5th 9-5 victory over the St. Cloud River Bats in front of 6,252 fans.

After the game McClain stated, “I was trying to make good contact, and possibly hit a sacrifice fly, but the ball just kept going and going.”

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McClain (#21) shows his impressive leaping ability after hitting the team’s second walk-off home run, this time a grand slam, in five days.

The seven-game winning streak ended on June 8th after an 8-0 road loss to the Battle Creek Bombers but the resilient Mallards returned to their winnings ways by adding four straight victories to push its mark to an impressive 12-3.

Eleven days later that mark improved to 16-6, but a tough finish to the first half (the Northwoods League splits each half into 34 games) saw the team lose its next 9 of 12 games to conclude with a 19-15 record and four games back of the NWL First Half Champion Eau Claire Express (21-9).

All-Star Break

Four Mallards were named NWL Mid-Season All-Stars for the game held above the border in Thunder Bay, Ontario including Sun Prairie-native Kurtis Muller (Iowa), smooth-swinging Jerrud Sabourin (Indiana), right-handed pitcher and Union Grove-native Cody Winiarski (MATC), and the before-mentioned Riggins.

The trip was a huge success as: 1) All four players saw action in the game and contributed, 2) Muller was named the game’s MVP for a 3-for-5, two stolen base performance, 3) Riggins defeated Rochester’s Corey Jones 3-to-1 in the Home Run Derby hours earlier to become the league’s top long ball hitter, and 4) the South Division defeated the North 4-2 with Mallards Manager C.J. Thieleke being part of the coaching staff having earned the honor by leading his team to an appearance in the NWL Championship Series in 2008.

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Riggins hit this ball off the left-field scoreboard in Thunder Bay, Ontario during the 2009 NWL Home Run Derby, some 330 feet away.

As the four players and Thieleke crossed the Canada/United States border in returning home, and were waiting for their passports to be cleared, C.J. made small talk with the U.S. Marshal and told him the team had swept the major awards during the day’s events, to which the Marshal said, “Well, let’s roll down the windows to this van so I can see the future of baseball.”

Second Half (19-14)

The Mallards opened the second half of the season much like the first, in winning six of their first eight games to stand atop the South Division standings. However, while the offense continued to keep the team in most ballgames, inconsistency in the bullpen provided a rather up-and-down finish over the last 26 contests.

The team only had one losing streak over two games during the second half—a three-game blemish from July 29 to July 31, but it didn’t win more than three games in a row either, allowing other South Division foes in the La Crosse Loggers and Bombers to stay within striking distance.

Playoff Race Tightens

The race for a playoff spot and the chance to battle the First Half Champion Express in the first round was between two teams for the most part during August—Madison and La Crosse—and saw the Mallards regain the divisional lead by a half-game on August 3rd when they defeated the River Bats 7-4 and the Loggers lost to the Bombers.

The flip-flopping between the two teams for first place continued as La Crosse regained a half-game lead on August 6th after the Loggers defeated the Express 11-2 and the Mallards were swept by the eventual North Division Second Half Champion and NWL Champion Rochester Honkers. Now, with four games remaining in the regular season, Madison knew it had to take care of business first each night before checking the out-of-town scoreboard.

The Mallards did just that in the first two games of a season-ending four-game homestand, in sweeping the Express by scores of 12-9 and 3-1. However, the Loggers kept pace with Madison by sweeping their opponent as well, the Waterloo Bucks, to keep a half-game lead. La Crosse’s game-two victory was especially painful to Mallards’ fans as the Bucks came back from a three-run deficit in the top of the ninth inning to post a seven-spot and take the 10-6 lead. The Loggers would then storm back with five runs, including a three-run walk-off homer by Chris Engell to win the game and remain in first place.

La Crosse’s magic number remained at two with two games remaining in the 2009 season.

On Sunday, the Mallards’ playoff hopes were officially extinguished as the team couldn’t must a single run against Green Bay starting pitcher Dixon Anderson (California) and lost 5-0 in front of 7,205 fans, while the Loggers took care of business in defeating the Mankato MoonDogs 4-3 to clinch the fourth and final spot in the NWL postseason.

True to form, Mallards fans came out in full support the following day for “Fan Appreciation Night” to post the fourth highest single-game attendance in the franchise’s nine year history of 7,494. The team rewarded the season-high crowd with a 9-7 victory over the Bullfrogs to finish the second half 19-14 and 38-29 overall.

Prior to the game, Muller was honored as the team’s Most Valuable Player after hitting a team-high .335 with 8 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs, and 24 RBI. Unfortunately, his season was cut short on July 26th after getting hit by a pitch in his leg.

Individual Records Set

Riggins’ home run trot turned out to be a familiar sight for Mallards fans as the youngster hit nine long balls in total to eclipse the previous record of eight set a year earlier by left-handed hitting Luke Stewart (UAB). Interestingly, both Stewart and Riggins hail from Normal, Illinois.

Riggins’ NWL-leading 48 RBI also tied the team’s single-season record set in 2008 by Rob Lyerly (Charlotte).

On the mound two pitchers tied a rather impressive single-season record as both left-hander Matt Jansen (Purdue) and All-Star right-hander Winiarski (MATC) made 12 starts on the hill to share a mark already held by four others including, Justin Fuller (North Florida, 2001), Rene Recio (Oral Roberts, 2001), Robbie Van (UNLV, 2001), and Phillip Martinez (NW Louisianna, 2002).

Team Records Fall

As great a season as Riggins had for the Mallards, his teammates played equally as large a role in giving the team the most potent offense since the franchise was founded in 2001. When it was all said and done, Madison’s bats had set five new franchise records including batting average (.269), hits (614), doubles (123), home runs (52), and slugging percentage (.397). In fact, the old home run mark of 24 set in 2003 was eclipsed by the team by July—on June 27th, to be exact—when Oklahoma State freshman Mark Ginther hit two homers and Riggins’ added another to bring the season total to 26 only 29 games into the season.

MLB Draft Notes

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Mallards shortstop Brandon Wikoff (Illinois), the team’s only three-year player in 2009, was selected in the fifth round (161st overall) of the MLB Draft by the Houston Astros.

The strong-armed prospect finished his junior season with the Illini with a .373 batting average, 17 doubles, 41 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. In 2008 for the Mallards he posted a .310 average with 24 RBI and 15 stolen bases and in the postseason Wikoff was even more effective, leading all Northwoods League hitters with eight base-hits, good for a .444 average over 5 games. In 2007 he was named a post-season All-Star after hitting .323 with 14 RBI that included an impressive hitting streak of 16 games.

For his career in a Mallards uniform Wikoff accumulated a .315 batting average with 130 hits, 39 RBI, and 23 stolen bases in 115 games.  

Six other former Mallards were selected in the first 30 rounds of the draft:

Rob Lyerly (Charlotte), 6th round (195th overall), NY Yankees. Lyerly played for the Mallards last summer and won the Silver Slugger Award as the NWL’s top hitter with a .342 average while setting franchise records in single-season RBI (48) and doubles (19).

Neil Medchill (Okla. State), 11th round (345th overall), NY Yankees. Medchill was a Mallard in 2007 and appeared in 32 games while posting a batting average of .257 with five doubles and 14 RBI.

Nick Kirk (Iowa), 19th round (575th overall), Cleveland Indians. Kirk came to Madison in 2007 and posted a 1-2 record and 1.13 ERA in 24 innings pitched. The left-hander started four games and struck out 24 batters.

Jake Sullivan (Arkansas-Little Rock), 22nd round (679th overall), Tampa Bay Rays. Sullivan played for two seasons (2006-07) and accumulated a 6-4 record and 2.05 ERA in 70.2 innings on the mound.

Aaron Bray (Charlotte), 27th round (821st overall), Houston Astros. Bray appeared in a Mallards uniform last season and went on to hit .273 with four doubles, three triples, and 18 RBI over 54 games.

Brandon Haveman (Purdue), 29th round (863rd overall), Seattle Mariners. Haveman only appeared in 10 games last summer for the Mallards and hit .214 with eight RBI.