The Madison Mallards have already made their mark in 2018 with the team’s best regular-season record in 18 years of play.
They don’t want that to be the lasting memory of the season, however, and they have a few days to try to compose a suiting finish.
“I think the icing on the cake for this season would be to win the championship,” Mallards outfielder Jake Randa said. “I think we have all the right parts for it.”
In that pursuit, there’s little margin for error. The Northwoods League playoffs start tonight with single-elimination games, including the Mallards hosting the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders at Warner Park at 7:05. It’ll be the third straight game between the teams — the Mallards swept games Saturday and Sunday.
With a first-round victory, the Mallards would get another one-off game at home on Tuesday, against either Kenosha or Kalamazoo for the South Division title.
The South champion meets the North Division’s victor in the best-of-three Summer Collegiate World Series starting Wednesday.
At 49-23, the Mallards posted the league’s best record this season and beat the 2004 championship team for the best winning percentage (.681) in team history.
So what made this team better than any of the first five manager Donnie Scott had with the Mallards?
“You’re going to have your lulls,” he said. “But for the most part, they’ve kept their intensity and they don’t panic.
“The game’s crazy, man,” added Scott, who on Sunday was named the Northwoods League Manager of the Year. “It’ll knock you on your rear end and then great things happen. You’ve got to keep even keeled, and I think that’s probably the biggest thing about these guys.”
First baseman David Vinsky offered another perspective. He was with the Mallards for the second half of the 2017 season — the only one in the previous four that didn’t end with a playoff berth — and said the feeling with the team then and now is like night and day.
Last season, the team had its cliques, he said. He offered an example to show how that has changed: On a night out of the lineup last week, Vinsky sat with the pitchers in the bullpen because they get along so well even though they don’t ordinarily spend much time together during games.
“Last year, we had all the talent, just didn’t really click,” Vinsky said. “This year, we might not have as much top-end talent but, top to bottom, we all can do it.”
Still, a league-high five Mallards players were named to the postseason All-Star team: Vinsky, Randa, second baseman Trevor Schwecke, third baseman Tyler Plantier and closer Trace Norkus.
A season that has been highlighted by two long winning streaks — 12 games that helped win the first-half division title and nine games in the second half — also has been memorable for comebacks.
Last Monday, the Mallards trailed Kalamazoo 7-0 after 4½ innings but scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, where they won 8-7 in the 11th. Two days later, they again rallied in the ninth with two runs to beat the Growlers.
“We’re never out of a game,” Vinsky said. “We’ll get down 4-0, 5-0 and, especially in summer ball, most teams just kind of shut down. But here, we all just keep playing ball. We don’t really care about the score. We know what we can do. So once it all comes together, we’re tough to beat.”
There also have been challenging times where Scott has wanted to take out some frustrations on his team. But he has mostly held back, only to watch the group right the ship with good play and a good attitude.
“It’s a joy to watch, man, because they’re playing like a team — the way you’re supposed to play,” Scott said. “That’s pretty cool.”