By Dan Flaherty
The Oconomowoc Five-O's fought gallantly in a late-night game in the first round of the Southwest Athletic Baseball Association tournament (SWABA), but the task of overcoming a high-caliber opponent, an early deficit and a bad umpiring call resulted in an early exit, as they fell to Verona 7-5.
Verona came into the game as one of the top-ranked teams in the state, but for three innings they had no answer for Justin Mortensen, the Oconomowoc left hander who pounded the strike zone and changed speeds effectively, but Verona's pitching was equally effective and neither team mounted a threat as play entered the fourth inning.
The top of the fourth would be the killer inning, as Verona took advantage of two errors, two bloop hits and three legitimate hits to ring up six runs. With the game on a two-hour time limit and maximum of seven innings, fans across the country grabbed their remotes and switched over to Game 1 of the NBA Finals, giving ABC an unexpected ratings boost.
But the fans who gave up missed a game that would gradually get interesting. Two walks and a clutch two-out hit by Nate Osterndorf put the O's on the board in the bottom of the fourth. In the top of the fifth with one man out, Oconomowoc left fielder Derek Nelson charged a sinking line drive, completely stretched out, made the catch and came up clean. No call was made by either umpire in a delay long enough for fans to run out and get a pizza, come back and not miss anything. Finally the ball was ruled a hit in spite of the fact that it would have been almost physically impossible for Nelson to have stretched out and come up clean had the ball short-hopped him. Instead of two outs and no one on, it was a man on with one out and Verona brought that run across.
Oconomowoc came back with a strong fifth. A four-pitch walk to Bob Bolson was followed by a single by Jeff Rhoads and a walk to Derek Nelson. An error and another clutch hit by Osterndorf and the second straight hit for catcher Brett Marshall produced four runs. At 7-5, now it was a ball game.
Verona threatened to put the game away in the top of the sixth, by which point it was clear the time limit would pass in this inning. They put runners on second and third with no outs, but a snared line drive by a drawn in Josh Bouche at first base, a nice play by Steve Rhoads at third base to cut down the lead runner on a force at the plate and then a grounder helped reliever Kevin Kadunc escape the jam unscathed.
With one out, Jeff Rhoads bunted his way aboard and a subsequent error set the O's up with runners on second and third with one out. At this point, Josh Bouche lifted a fly ball into center field. It was moderately deep, but trailing by two runs there was no point in Rhoads attempting to tag. I think it is worth pointing out here that if the call on Nelson's spectacular catch is not blown, it's only a 6-5 game at this point and perhaps worth Rhoads' while to challenge on the tag or attempt to score on a wild pitch earlier in the inning. The last chance was Mike Mitchell, who'd been hitting the ball hard all night and ripped a rope into right field that had TIE GAME written all over it. But alas, it went at the outfielder and the game ended.
There was frustration from the O's at the near-miss, but given the quality of the opponent and how well this team has played against the best the LOL West has, it's further evidence of this week's earlier commentary that a serious championship run is possible. Get your partial-season tickets now and you can get preferential access for playoff seating come August.