By Reece Hemmesch
Special to The Free Press
---- — MANKATO — The hits were on the side of the MoonDogs for the second consecutive night, but their ninth-inning rally came up just short as Mankato fell victim to Waterloo 9-8 in a Northwoods League baseball game at Franklin Rogers Park.
With the win, the Bucks clinched the North Division's first-half championship and will go to the postseason for the first time since 2002. Mankato totaled four errors in the loss, bringing their two-day total to nine. The pitching also struggled and failed to find the strike zone all night, something manager Mike Orchard credits to the loss late in the first half of the season. “It was the usual theme for us, not throwing enough strikes on the mound,” Orchard said. “Our pitchers have been working behind continuously the last eight games, and we can’t score 12 or 13 runs a night.” The Bucks played near-perfect baseball as they endlessly manufactured runs throughout the game. They scored in each of the first six innings to down the MoonDogs for the third time in four days. Waterloo starting pitcher Aaron Rhodes dismantled the MoonDogs' offense, scattering eight hits and letting up two earned runs to take the win. The University of Florida hurler’s fastball lived in the low to mid 90s throughout the night, helping him to eight strikeouts in seven innings. “He’s really good,” Orchard said. “He had all three pitches working for him, commanded the strike zone and worked quick. He is probably one of the top three pitchers we have seen.” Mankato starter Sam Clay surrendered two hits and three earned runs in his four innings of work to take the loss for the MoonDogs. It was his first loss of the year. After allowing the leadoff run to score on a passed ball in the first inning, the MoonDogs felt a slight case of the yips in the second. Clay and catcher Matt Jones each threw pickoff attempts into the outfield to bring in an unearned run and give the Bucks a 2-0 lead. Waterloo added three more runs in the following three innings, two on leadoff home runs from David Kerian and Pat MacKenzie to open the game up. Mankato got on the board in the fourth and fifth innings, getting RBI doubles from Jonathan Rodriguez and Tim Arakawa to make it 5-2. Two runs from the Bucks with two outs in the following inning off MoonDog relievers Mike Nowak and Brian Bonnell silenced the thought of a MoonDogs rally, however, as Waterloo would not let up in its quest for a spot in the playoffs. The Bucks scored two more runs in the eighth after an errant throw from Mankato third baseman Chase Simpson on a double play attempt with the bases loaded.
Though it seemed the air was let out of The Frank, as most of the 992 fans left early, the MoonDogs did not go down without a fight. In a two-out ninth-inning rally, Simpson launched a two-run home run to make the score to 9-4. John Michael Twichell then doubled, Woody Woodward walked and Jonathan Rodriguez delivered a single to set up Matt Wollenzin's grand slam off the scoreboard in right field to put the MoonDogs within one run.
Though it seemed destined, Waterloo reliever Adam Dian forced the final out of the game, striking out Quinnton Mack to end the game at 9-8. Heading into the final game of the first half in Waterloo, Orchard knows his team has the ability to compete for a playoff spot, but knows his pitching will need to step up in the second half in order to reach the postseason. “Tomorrow we are hoping to get some guys some rest before we head to Canada (Thunder Bay)," he said. "We have enough to win the second half, but the pitching has to be better.”