By Dan Flaherty
It was the busiest weekend of the year for the Oconomowoc Five-O's with games Friday night, and both Saturday & Sunday afternoon, and when it was all over, the O's had netted three victories and locked up a playoff berth in the Land O'Lakes League Western Division with two weeks to go in the regular season.
After opening the weekend on Friday with a run-rule blowout of Lebanon to conclude Tri-County Night League regular season play (stay tuned for playoff scheduling information. ESPN2 is still working that out with the league office), the O's got down to LOL business where they had control of their postseason destiny, but considerable work to do.
Sussex came to Roosevelt Field on Saturday and while starting pitcher Chris Fischer would note afterward that he had some uncharacteristic spurts of losing control, it was never all that serious and he worked into the eighth inning, while giving up only three runs. Oconomowoc had opened up a cushion, adding three runs to what was a 4-2 lead when the Cardinals committed three errors. The game ended 7-3. And perhaps the most noteworthy item occurred with one out in the eighth. Luke Nelson, the infielder/pitcher whose game-closing ability has made Oconomowoc such a tough team to beat in the late innings, took the ball for his first save chance since Opening Day. Nelson has dealt with back and hamstring issues this year, but when he got the ball on Saturday he nailed the last five outs, including two double-play balls. If this is a sign of things to come, Oconomowoc will have a potent weapon in its bullpen. Nelson's return to health was noted in New York, where Yankee medical staff has consulted Nelson's personal trainer about help for Mariano Rivera.
Hartland has had a tough go of it in 2012, coming into Sunday's game with a 2-13 record, but one of those wins came against first-place Pewaukee just two weeks ago, so this was clearly not a team that was just going to pack it in. And buoyed by an enthusiastic traveling fan base, they let Oconomowoc know that Sunday was not going to be an easy day for the home favorites. The Oilers struck with five runs in the second inning, aided by two infield hits and an error. O's starting pitcher Steve Rhoads was able to settle down and worked into the seventh, keeping Hartland from doing further damage while the offense clawed its way back.
Nelson started the comeback in the third when he hit a two-run homer. For the record, though the box score shows Nelson, who played third base, as 1-for-5, four of the balls were positively smoked. The ratio of miles-per-hour off the bat to hits was the highest recorded in baseball on Sunday. Jeff Rhoads came up next and was committed to playing small-ball, attempting to drop a bunt down the third-base line. The first two attempts rolled foul. Tired of the small-ball, Rhoads took the next pitch and deposited it over the right field fence and the score was 5-3.
Oconomowoc eventually moved out to an 8-5 lead, with a big defensive moment coming in the sixth. With a man on first and nobody out, a base hit to right-center had centerfielder Nate Osterndorf come up throwing and gun the runner at third. And when the hitter took too wide a turn at first, Nelson rifled the ball back across the diamond to complete a huge, albeit unorthodox double play. The teams traded runs in the seventh and Andrew Bauer, who pitched the final three innings closed the eighth and ninth without incident.
As word flowed in that results elsewhere in the league clinched a playoff berth, Five'Os players were seen celebrating in town. "You can tell all the media types who thought we were a dying dynasty at the start of the season to kiss my ass," a defiant Steve Rhoads told the press. "And you can quote me on that."
Oconomowoc closes the regular season with a road trip to Hartland next Sunday and then a home date with Menomonee Falls. All signs point to an O's-Falls showdown in the first playoff game on August 11, though it's not assured and home field would be up for grabs. The race at the top for first placeŚwith the reward being a huge assurance of at least a one-game showdown with the tournament winner if you lose is now up in the air. Pewaukee, with recent losses to Hartland and again Sunday to Merton, has put itself a game behind West Bend and the Brookfield Bulldogs for first place. At the other end of the spectrum, the sixth and final berth is currently held by Merton, where veteran player-manager Joe Johnson has considerable respect around the league and many would love to see him get his just due by taking the Amvets to the postseason. But Merton has little margin for error, with only a game and a half lead over the Brookfield Blue Sox and two game lead over Sussex and the toughest schedule remaining (Pewaukee, West Bend and Lannon). Merton loses the tie breaker with Sussex and is still up in the air in a tie breaker with the Blue Sox. In the case of a three way tie between Merton, Sussex and the Blue Sox, Sussex would get the final playoff spot.
Oconomowoc may be comfortable, but the rest of the league is in batten-down-the-hatches mode the final two weeks.