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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Perhaps it was the 7½-hour bus ride. Or perhaps it was the task of facing a team with the best ERA in the league.

Whatever the reason, it took a while for the Madison Mallards to gain momentum. But once the league’s top-hitting offense got going, it nearly pulled off a comeback.

Madison pulled within one in the eighth inning but had the potential tying run thrown out at the plate in a 3-2 loss to the Traverse City Pit Spitters in the Northwoods League Great Lakes Division championship Wednesday night in front of 1,944 at Pit Spitters Park.

The defeat denied the Mallards an opportunity to play in Friday’s amateur baseball title game. Traverse City will host Eau Claire, a 2-0 victor over Willmar, for the championship.

Traverse City, which in its inaugural season in 2019 tied the NWL record for the most wins in a season with 52, grabbed a 1-0 lead on Michael Slaten’s first-inning single. The Pit Spitters increased the advantage to 3-0 when Riley Bertram’s single in the second inning scored two.

The scored stayed the same until the eighth inning.

EJ Ranel’s two-out single was followed by walks to Logan Michaels and Justice Bigbie to load the bases for Madison. Joe Pace relieved Luke Little and uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch while facing Austin Blazevic.

After Blazevic drew a walk to reload the bases. Jordan Stephens delivered a single up the middle, scoring Michaels to make it 3-2 but Bigbie was thrown out at the plate on a throw by center fielder Jake Wilson.

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Madison went down in order in the ninth.

The Mallards, who had a league-best .294 batting average, put the leadoff runner on base five times, including each of the first four innings against a pitching staff that had a 3.07 ERA in the regular season.

Madison stranded a runner on third in the fourth inning and Traverse City reliever Kevin Hahn snuffed out a two-on, two-out situation with a strikeout in the seventh inning.

Ranel and Bigbie each had two hits for Madison, which won the Great Lakes West first-half title to earn an automatic playoff berth. The Mallards were 42-30 in the regular season before sweeping Wisconsin Rapids in the first round of the playoffs.

Trevor Marreel took the loss, allowing three runs on four hits and three walks in one-plus innings. Deylen Miley, Leon Davidson and Theo Denlinger tossed seven innings of scoreless relief while striking out 10.

Reliever Pat Hohlfeld earned the victory for the Pit Spitters, who turned three 4-6-3 double plays.

Madison was making its 10th playoff appearance. The Mallards won NWL titles in 2004 and 2013.

Bucky!

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