By Dan Flaherty
Imagine if you will, the last day of the 2011 major league baseball regular season (when Tampa Bay & St. Louis had wild finishes to get improbable playoff berths). Imagine Game 6 of the ensuing World Series. Then imagine the 49ers-Saints playoff game in January. Even if you've got all those epic games uppermost in your mind, I can still say without hyperbole that West Bend's 12-11 win over Oconomowoc in Sunday's LOL West first-round game was a million times better than all three of them put together.
The game was part of the LOL's Brunch Special, with an 11:00 AM start time, since the winner would have to play a semi-final game immediately after, as noted in the reports below. West Bend looked like they might turn it into a buffet feast, scoring four runs in the top of the first. When Oconomowoc lost three runners on the bases in the ensuing three innings there was nothing to suggest a remarkable game, and even less to suggest Oconomowoc would feel regrets afterward.
But Five-O's starting pitcher Chris Fischer settled in quickly and it wasn't until the sixth inning that West Bend got another hit. And on Oconomowoc's second time through the order, they began to make some headway at the plate. Luke Nelson doubled and Derek Nelson doubled him home. A.J. Ramirez doubled to center and Nate Osterndorf tripled to right. Josh Bouche had a hard grounder to first that was misplayed into an error, but would have brought Osterndorf home in either case. By the time the dust settled it was 4-4, and it stayed that way until the seventh when West Bend scraped over a run to take a 5-4 lead.
Oconomowoc fought back in the eighth. Jeff Rhoads worked a walk and then Ramirez and Osterndorf hit consecutive doubles. The game went to the ninth with Oconomowoc up 6-5. West Bend was able to tie it up and then loaded the bases with two out. At this point a weak grounder was hit past the mound, one that seemed a lock to be an infield hit that would end the game. Bouche, at first base, and Luke Nelson off the mound, executed the play perfectly to get the out by a half-step and the O's were still alive.
With two outs and a man aboard, Steve Rhoads came to the plate. Some of us have been around long enough to remember 1991 when he hit a dead-red home run to win a tournament game in extra innings. He connected on one here that looked like it might do the same, as the ball rocketed towards the centerfield fence. It came just short of getting out, but brought home the lead run and more importantly ended Steve's 21-year wait for a hit with runners in scoring position. Then Brett Marshall delivered an opposite-field single that made the score 8-6, the same score by which Oconomowoc had won another epic game here back in June.
The 10th wouldn't end the game though, as West Bend got down to its last strike with runners on first and second. A beautiful breaking pitch by Nelson looked to all the world like a called third strike that should have ended the game. To all but the one opinion that mattered, behind home plate. Given a second chance, West Bend delivered a base hit. On a full count, both runners were going with the pitch and were able to tie the game. Once again, the 7-Up were in position to not only rally, but win and again Oconomowoc was able to get the third out and push the game along.
Ramirez bounced a single through the middle in the top of the eleventh to bring a run home. West Bend countered with one in the bottom of the eleventh when a flair to right found open space. Normally this inning alone would be a source of major drama. In light of everything else that happened Sunday, the 11th almost seems like a footnote.
One more time, the O's came to the plate and loaded the bases with two outs. Derek Nelson and Ramirez worked walks to make the score 11-9. West Bend came back. Luke Nelson, battling to the end, went over 110 pitches in what was his third appearance of a year marred by hamstring problems, appeared to have the leadoff man struck out not once, but twice. Both times the pitch was called a ball. Two runners were aboard with two outs. The cleanup hitter for West Bend ended the drama with a two-out, opposite-field home run to left-center and after four hours, the drama was finally over, 12-11.
I know it sounds trite, but it truly was a baseball game that was a credit to all who played it on both sides. While I've made note of some questionable calls that hurt Oconomowoc, including one that should have ended the game, I'm sure a partisan West Bend writer could come up with a few examples of their own. Both teams had numerous chances to fold their tent and call it a day. Neither did.
In retrospect the first batter of the day was a sign of things to come. Chandler Ziemann's leadoff at-bat was a 10-pitch battle, neither hitter nor pitcher willing to give in. If ever a baseball game had a keynote speech, this was it.
Congratulations to West Bend, as well as the other semi-finalists, Brookfield, Pewaukee and Menomonee Falls, who all began play sometime after the Brunch Special turned Early Dinner Marquee finished. And congratulations to the Five-O's on the 2012 season. When they visited West Bend on June 22, the season was on the verge of slipping away after a series of blowout losses. They won that night, turned the season around and then played a playoff game for the ages back at the scene where the turnaround began.