The Madison Mallards stumbled to a sub-.500 record in the second half of the Northwoods League regular season but maintained that they had the makings of a team that could make waves in the playoffs.
Judging from the starting pitching performances they received in sweeping the Great Lakes West Sub-Division series against the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, they might have been onto something.
Eliot Turnquist allowed only one hit over five innings, and the Mallards’ offense got going early in a 6-0 victory over the Rafters in front of an announced crowd of 1,585 on Tuesday at Warner Park.
The Mallards won the best-of-three series in two games after Quinn Gudaitis held Wisconsin Rapids to one run and six hits over seven innings on Monday.
“I was just attacking with fastballs and I was really pinpointing my spots,” Turnquist said. “And when they hit it, it was usually a ground ball or somebody behind me made a play.”
Up next for the Mallards is a 7½-hour bus ride early Wednesday morning for a 6:05 p.m. matchup against the Traverse City Pit Spitters, who completed a two-game sweep of Kalamazoo on Tuesday in the Great Lakes East series.
Wednesday’s winner goes up against the Great Plains champion — Willmar or Eau Claire — in a single game Friday, for the Northwoods League championship.
Turnquist, an East Bristol native who played last season at Madison College, struck out four and needed to throw only 69 pitches over five innings.
The Mallards coaching staff decided to put Turnquist, a 2017 first-team all-Capitol North Conference selection at Columbus, on the mound only earlier Tuesday after Turnquist had arm fatigue in his last start on Thursday.
“He threw the ball great,” Mallards manager Donnie Scott said. “But he got tired. After five innings, he was cooked.”
Madison relievers John Sakowski, Leon Davidson and Theo Denlinger held the Rafters to three hits in the final four innings for a four-hit shutout, the team’s fifth of the season.
Wisconsin Rapids was blanked for the first time since June 23 and only the third time this season.
Mallards first baseman Austin Blazevic was 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs, the second of which came on a seventh-inning home run.
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He also contributed one of four straight one-out singles — the first two of which didn’t leave the infield — off Rafters left-hander Gareth Stroh that put the Mallards ahead 2-0 in the first.
Blazevic knocked home Logan Michaels with a shot through the hole between first and second. Jordan Stevens followed with a smash to left that plated Justice Bigbie.
“It was huge to get the runs in the first to ease the pressure off us,” Blazevic said.
After singling with one out in the second, Timo Schau stole second with two outs and scored on Michaels’ second single in as many innings, giving the Mallards a 3-0 lead.
Wisconsin Rapids threatened in the third, with a wild pitch by Turnquist advancing runners to second and third with two outs. But Turnquist got Anthony Galason to strike out swinging to end the inning.
“It feels good to make a big pitch in a big situation,” Turnquist said.
Madison added a run in the fifth with a pair of two-out walks and a Ryne Stanley single to left that scored Blazevic.
Solo home runs added to the advantage. Nicholas Figus made it 5-0 in the sixth with a first-pitch home run to left center, his first shot of the season.
Blazevic jumped on a first-pitch fastball in the seventh for a 6-0 advantage.
Eight of nine Madison hitters had at least one hit in a 12-hit barrage. On Monday, the Mallards also had 12 hits — five of them in an eight-run seventh inning — in a 9-2 victory in Wisconsin Rapids.
The Mallards were just 17-19 in the second half of the regular season, finishing six games behind Great Lakes West Division champion Wisconsin Rapids. But Scott said he thought the players he had left in the clubhouse this week were focused on a championship chase.
“We feel like we have the talent and the guys that we need to win this thing,” Turnquist said. “It’s a long season. It’s a grind, and everyone’s pretty tired. But I think we realize this is the last leg of the season, and we’re going to give it our all.”