By Dan Flaherty
It was must-win weekend for the Oconomowoc Five-O's on Saturday and Sunday as they faced North Lake and Lannon and the O's got what they needed, sweeping both games and putting themselves back in control of their Land O'Lakes playoff destiny, thanks in no small part of the arm and bat of the 42-year-old Steve Rhoads, some timely work on the mound and at the plate from Andrew Bauer, as well as big performance from the team's usual suspects in the middle of the order.
Oconomowoc got a stiff challenge from North Lake on Saturday, and the Lakers led 5-3 as late as the sixth inning before the Five-O's opened up offensively and pulled away to a 13-6 win behind some quality relief work from Bauer and home runs from Jeff Rhoads, Derek Nelson and Josh Bouche. For North Lake, they took the momentum of a better-than-expected game and carried it into a win over Monches on Sunday. For Oconomowoc, they were now set for a Sunday battle in Lannon.
The Five-O's and Stonemen have staged some great battles over the years, most of them with championships hanging in the balance. This one was a midlevel playoff fight on a brutally hot day and both teams brought all their effort and pride with them. Lannon's veteran catcher Dean Haase caught an entire game on a knee hurting so badly he limped around the bases after hitting a home run and single off the wall. Other Stonemen vets, from Dan Wnuk, to Ron Koslowski, who were around when I first started covering LOL ball in the early 1990s had key contributions. But the day ultimately belonged to the Five-O's in general and Steve Rhoads in particular.
Rhoads got the ball to start the game-with regular starting pitcher Chris Fischer nursing a sore arm and the schedule having games still ahead on Wednesday and Thursday, Oconomowoc needed not just quality from its starter, but also quantity of innings. They got both.
The teams traded blows back and forth and it was 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh. Koslowski stood in the box against Rhoads with a man on second and two outs, as league historians (well, me anyway), pondered how many career at-bats were involved in this showdown. Koslowski hit a hard ground ball through the right side, but rightfielder Derek Nelson came up throwing and rifled a strike to catcher Chandler Ziemann. The tag was applied and the ball beat the runner there decisively, but the umpire ruled the tag came high and the foot got to the plate first. We don't have instant replay, and I'm not an unbiased source, but it certainly looked to all close to the play that Nelson had been robbed of a brilliant defensive play for the third time this season (a diving catch had been overturned in SWABA), and all stood to be enormously consequential, as this one gave Lannon a 5-4 lead.
Oconomowoc had a man on second with two outs in the eighth when Jeff Rhoads hit a line drive to left. The outfielder turned, looked to have a play on the ball, but it glanced off the glove and tied the game. And with the third out not recorded, the play opened the door to much more. Nelson drove in Rhoads to make it 6-5 Oconomowoc, and Bouche drove in Nelson. The bases were then loaded for Steve Rhoads, who looked to give himself some cushion. He laced the ball into the right-center gap. The bases were cleared, and Rhoads rounded second and did a graceful, head-first dive into third. The dive really was graceful. I swear it. That's our story and we're sticking to it.
Lannon didn't go quietly, but a rally in the eighth was quelled when Rhoads, having had enough of hitting and pitching, decided to turn into a hockey goalie and stopped a no-doubt single up the middle with his foot to record a key out and maintain the lead. He limped off the mound and in the postgame press conference his toe was bruising substantially, but he returned for the ninth. Again, Lannon didn't go quietly, but with the tying run on-deck Rhoads put the finishing touches on his complete game 10-6 win. He'd gone the distance, delivered the hit that broke it open and pitched the ninth inning hurt. Between his dive into third and work on the injured foot, I'd say he paid tribute to Pete Rose and Curt Schilling, but one could misconstrue that and assume he'd bet heavily on the game and blown millions on a failed business venture.
In the postgame, the Lannon team sent Rhoads a bottle of Schlitz as a compliment, with the word he'd been voted the Schlitz Player of the Game. It was a high-class gesture from a team who's shown over the years that class and quality baseball are not mutually exclusive. Although it's unfortunate for Rhoads they don't have Kia as their sponsor like the NBA does. Because as it turned out, the day's hero was schlepping for a ride by day's end.
And as we pay tribute to Rhoads' Sunday and the class of Lannon, we also have to give the kind of salute no one likes doing. Bob Bolson, the team's leftfielder, defensive guru and general team consigliere, got official word that he'd torn his ACL and fractured a bone in the epic win over West Bend ten days ago. Bolson will be out for the balance of the year, but we're hopeful that he can make it back in 2013.
Oconomowoc is now 7-5 and in good position for the Land O'Lakes playoff race. It sets the stage for a good game on Wednesday when first-place Pewaukee visits Roosevelt Field for a 1 PM start time. ESPN will have the Gameday crew on hand two hours prior.