By: Kyle Tooley
The Mallards 2016 season came to an end on Monday, August 15th, with their first round playoff loss to the Battle Creek Bombers. The game, a 9-8 loss at the Duck Pond, embodied this team in every way: home runs, a fiery attitude and a never-say-die mentality. Madison rallied late against Battle Creek, as they seemed to do in every close game, showing the heart and drive from the players and coaches. The squad finished with a final record of 43-30.
Madison was the hottest team in the Northwoods League to start the summer, jumping out to a 6-0 record fueled by long home runs and strong road performances. Led early by players like Matt Vierling (Notre Dame) and Lucas Halstead (Pacific), the Mallards offense looked to be one of the most potent in recent memory. Proving to be true, the Mallards eventually finished with the highest home run total of the league, proving that the early success was not a fluke, but rather sustainable success.
As players came and left in the middle of June, the Mallards started to take shape and establish a pitching staff that would bring much prominence for a good portion of 2016. To go along with established starters Mike Reitcheck (Penn), Frank German (North Florida) Heath Renz (UW-Whitewater) and Colin Brockhouse (Ball State), who had all been with the team since the first day, Mitchell Kilkenny (Texas A&M) and Mike Byrne (Florida) were added to the mix. Kilkenny, who had an unprecedented freshmen season at Texas A&M, acting as their top reliever, instantly became the best pitcher in the Northwoods League. The right-hander took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in a home start against Kenosha, posting a 0.28 ERA and 0.69 WHIP during his time in Madison. Byrne, who made appearances out of the bullpen as well as starts for Madison, established himself as a strikeout pitcher to say the least. Byrne struck out 14 in a home start against the Kingfish, a Mallards single-game record.
The bullpen was firmly established at this time too, with the Mallards coaching staff finding niches for each reliever. The closer role was firmly grasped by Troy Bacon (Santa Fe College), the electric right-hander who could touch 96 MPH on the gun and work his way out of the stickiest of situations. His emphatic reactions after working out of a two-on, one out jam always fired up both the crowd and his teammates. His set-up man was Luke Shilling (Illinois) the big 6’4,” 260-pound freshman who matched Bacon’s velocity and then some. Shilling was valuable because he could give the team five innings or one out, always proving reliable. The right-hander owned a 2.76 ERA on the year.
July brought more hot bats to the Madison lineup, as the arrival of Nelson Maldonado (Florida) gave Donnie Scott another middle-of-the-order bat that took the Mallards from dangerous to deadly. A three-four-five of Maldonado, Zach Jarrett (UNC-Charlotte) and Nate Palace (Valparaiso) was always bad news for the opposition, with Maldonado always delivering a big hit, Jarrett leading the team in home runs and RBIs, and Palace putting together some of the most beautiful displays of hitting in the Northwoods League. Palace hit four of his seven home runs in a six-day period, earning Northwoods League Player of the Night honors hitting 4-for-5, two home runs, six RBIs and three runs scored against Lakeshore on July 26. The top of the order did a fantastic job setting the table for those power hitters, with Nico Hoerner (Stanford), Matt McCann (Fairleigh Dickinson) and Josh Stowers (Louisville) always finding a way to get on base. When it was all said and done, Stowers’ .311 batting average led the Mallards, and his 4-for-4, two home run performance in the playoff game was a big reason why Madison was able to keep pace in the contest.
Though it may have been shaky at times, Madison’s defense solidified down the stretch when it mattered. Led by Mallards returnee and 2015 Rawlings “Finest in the Field” award winner Cameron Frost (Washington State) in centerfield and Hoerner at shortstop, the Mallards were able to support their pitchers and limit the mistakes. Frost, who may have made the catch of the 2016 season with a diving grab against the Willmar Stingers, seemed to be good for a highlight every time he took the field. Hoerner, who turned into Mr. Reliable with his flawless double plays and off-balance throws, was able to stun the crowd with his miraculous catches as well. Behind the dish, Joe Stefanki (San Jose State) commanded the pitching staff as well as anyone, with Mike Byrne crediting his record-breaking performance to Stefanki’s ability to call the right pitches. The backstop also led the team in fielding percentage, at a .994 mark.
The Mallards put together a nine-game win streak at the beginning of August, with all of the bats coming together at the right time. After missing out on a first-half South division championship by a single game, the streak helped secure a home playoff game for the Mallards. And though the outcome isn’t what this team or fan base had hoped for, the players made the 2016 campaign a memorable one. The team looked more like a family than a roster, and their play on the field as well as their interactions with the fans will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Mallards All-Stars – Troy Bacon and Zach Jarrett represented the Mallards in Kenosha for the 2016 All-Star Game, with Bacon striking out two in two-thirds of an inning and Jarrett playing right field as well as recording a few at-bats. Zach Jarrett also represented the Mallards in the Home Run Derby at the Harbor.
Major League Dreams Showcase – Madison hosted the 2016 Northwoods League Major League Dreams Showcase, and the Mallards led the league with eight players chosen to participate. The teams, which were handpicked by Major League scouts, included Heath Renz, Mike Reitcheck, Luke Shilling, Troy Bacon, Nico Hoerner, Josh Stowers, Cam Comer (Virginia) and Bryce Carter (Stanford).
Postseason All-Stars – Bacon would be named an All-Star yet again, this time for his work across the entire summer, joined by shortstop Nico Hoerner. Bacon led the team in strikeouts and saves with Hoerner leading Madison in triples and runs scored.
Northwoods League Player/Pitcher of the Night – Madison saw 12 different players named either the Northwoods League Player or Pitcher of the Night during the 2016 season, including twice from Bryce Carter and three times from Mitchell Kilkenny.
Walk-Off Excitement – Madison was treated to three walk-off wins over the year, with each one proving more exciting than the last. Joe Stefanki delivered a long walk-off single against the Green Bay Bullfrogs on June 18th, celebrating the win in style. He was topped by Zach Jarrett’s walk-off grand slam against the Rockford Rivets on June 29th in the tenth inning, leading the team to a 5-1 victory. Then, on the first pitch of the home half of the tenth inning against the Bullfrogs on July 29th, Nelson Maldonado sent a no-doubter over the wall in left field, abruptly ending the game.
Home Run Parade – The Mallards led the Northwoods League in home runs for the second year in a row, launching 56 balls over the fence. Zach Jarrett paced the team with nine long balls, followed by Nate Palace and Sam Armstrong (Jacksonville) with seven and Bryce Carter with six. Their total was two more than the team launched in 2015.
Statistical Leaders (Hitting) — AVG: J. Stowers (.311) || HR: Z. Jarrett (9) || RBI: Z. Jarrett (57) || SB: M. McCann (26) || Hits: C. frost (79) || Runs: N. Hoerner (45) || Doubles: Z. Jarrett, C. Frost (14) || Triples: N. Hoerner, Z. Jarrett (3) || BB: M. McCann (43) || HBP: Z. Jarrett (7) || OBP: N. Maldonado (.444) || SLG%: N. Maldonado (.517) || OPS: N. Maldonado (.961) ||
Statistical Leaders (Pitching) — Wins: M. Reitcheck (7) || IP: M. Reitcheck (53.2) || ERA: M. Kilkenny (0.28) || SO: T. Bacon (53) || SV: T. Bacon (6) || WHIP: M. Kilkenny (0.69) || Quality Starts: A. Beckwith (5) || BAA: M. Kilkenny (.170) || K/9: T. Bacon (13.76) || BB/9: M. Kilkenny (0.844) ||
The Madison Mallards are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. Playing its 23rd 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 150 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 portal. For more information, visit www.mallardsbaseball.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store and set the Mallards as your favorite team.