The Panthers season came to a close on Saturday afternoon in Whiting, Ind. on a 17-4 drubbing at the hands of Wright State in a winner-take-all game for the Horizon League Tournament championship and an automatic bid to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Milwaukee needed to win two games against the Raiders, who came into Saturday undefeated in tournament play. This was the Panthers’ third game vs. the Raiders in the double-elimination tournament.
The Panthers, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, were able to get the first game, but came nowhere close to winning the second.
Wright State exploded in its first turn at bat. Milwaukee starter Alex McIntosh allowed five consecutive runners to reach safely and he was pulled for Brian Keller, a normal starter, before even getting one out. Designated hitter Mark Fowler hit a two-run home run during this stretch, and center fielder Ryan Fucci gave Keller a rude welcome with a two-RBI single. The Raiders would tack on two more RBI singles later in the inning for an early 6-0 lead.
The Panthers would get most of their meager offensive production in the third on four straight hits. Consecutive RBI doubles by outfielders Luke Meeteer and Derek Peake cut the lead to four, and then first baseman Sam Koenig and catcher Mitch Ghelfi hit two consecutive singles, the latter of which scored a run to complete a three-run inning.
Wright State would respond with eight total runs in the fifth and sixth innings. Left fielder Matt Morrow singled and Fucci hit a line out that scored a run from third in the fifth. Morrow and Fucci would draw walks in the sixth (the former was hit by a pitch) with the bases loaded to add two more runs. Then, after the Panthers brought in reliever Cody Peterson, first baseman Gabe Snyder cleared the bases with a grand slam that put the Raiders up 14-3 after the frame.
The momentum continued in the eighth for Wright State as they scored three runs on an error, sacrifice fly, and RBI single in consecutive at-bats. Milwaukee would score one run in the ninth on a solo shot from shortstop Ryan McShane.
“The guys really fought all week,” Panthers’ head coach Scott Doffek said. “You get in that loser’s bracket and it is just tough. And we were a couple of pitchers short with injury already and we just ran out of gas. But, they fought the whole time. I am very proud of them.”
The first game of the day saw the Panthers win a nail-biter.
In the second inning, the Raiders struck first on a Morrow groundout. Then, in the third, Fowler hit a two-run homer to put Wright State up, 3-0.
The Panthers would answer in the fourth with two runs. Designated hitter Mike Porcaro and third baseman Nick Unes collected an RBI single and double, respectively, to cut the deficit to one. That lead would double in the bottom of the frame on a groundout by third baseman John Brodner.
After two scoreless innings, Milwaukee did its damage. Koenig hit a two-RBI single in the seventh to tie the game and, one inning later, second baseman Tell Taylor hit a solo blast to break the tie. This would be enough as starter Joe Pavlovich, who was pitching in relief (Adam Reuss, normally a reliever, started), finished his win with four scoreless frames.
“We have had different people step up each and every game and that is what it is going to take at this point in the tournament,” Doffek said. “That’s guts. There is no recipe for that. It’s tough – you are going to have to grind everything out and we did it. We only gave up four runs to that offense, which is pretty good. We came up with some big hits – Sammy with the big hit to drive in two and Tell with the home run to give us the lead.”
Getting to Saturday’s action was an odyssey in itself, with Friday’s game against Illinois-Chicago needing extra stages.
The Flames would begin the scoring in the second on a wild pitch by Panther starter Austin Schulfer that scored first baseman Alex Lee. However, two innings later, Milwaukee would respond on a two-RBI double by left fielder Daulton Varsho. UIC would retake the lead in the bottom of the fourth when right fielder Conor Philbin hit a two-RBI base hit of his own, his being a single.
In the seventh inning, Ghelfi drew a walk with the bases loaded to tie the game, and then, with each scoreless inning, drama built up and finally reached its peak in the 12th.
Milwaukee was able to push across two runs in their half of the inning despite not getting a hit. Ghelfi reached on a throwing error by second baseman David Cronin and then Porcaro was hit by a pitch. Shortstop Eric Solberg subsequently grounded out to advance both runners. Taylor walked to load the bases and then Varsho reached on a fielder’s choice bunt that got no one out as the Flames tried unsuccessfully to nail Ghelfi at home. McShane would hit a groundout to score one more run and the Panthers took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the frame.
In reliever Cody Peterson’s final inning of work, UIC presented a scare. Lee doubled to lead off the inning and eventually scored following two groundouts, but Cronin struck out to end the game and preserve a 5-4 Milwaukee victory.
“We found a way to win again and it starts with our starting pitcher,” Doffek said. “Austin did not get a weekend start all year, but pitched some good quality innings midweek. You get a little taxed at this time in the tournament and he stepped up and threw the ball great. We left a small army of people on base all day and their (UIC’s) defense is really, really good. They make you beat them and we hit into a couple of critical double plays. But, Schulf did a great job.”
The Panthers roared on offense in their losing bracket matchup against Valparaiso, the host school.
Both teams scored in the first inning. Valparaiso opened the game with a bases-loaded walk from Milwaukee starter Brian Keller and Ghelfi evened the score in the bottom of the frame with an RBI double.
The Crusaders would answer with an RBI single from second baseman Jeff Edwards in the top of the second, but Milwaukee would again tie the game in the bottom of the next inning on another RBI double, this one by Peake.
That Edwards hit would be Valparaiso’s last score and the Panthers would break the game open in the 5th-7th innings.
Meeteer hit a two-run homer to begin the scoring in the fifth. Three at-bats later, after a walk and hit-by-pitch, Porcaro hit a sac fly to score Peake, who hit a ground-rule double following the Meeteer blast. This was part of four straight run-scoring at-bats, as Unes singled, Taylor doubled and Varsho hit another sac fly to complete a six-run stanza.
The momentum continued in the sixth on a double steal from Ghelfi and Meeteer, plus another RBI single from Unes. Milwaukee would complete its tear in the seventh with four runs coming off of four consecutive hits. Meeteer began the streak with a one-out single, Peake and Ghelfi came through with RBI singles and Koenig had a two-RBI double as part of this stretch. Neither team scored again as the Panthers easily took care of the Crusaders, 14-2.
“Good team win,” Doffek said. “I think once we got the lead, you could see everybody relax. Not that you relax like the game is over, but just relax in the box a bit and slow everything down. It was just one good at bat after another and that’s how you put together big runs like we did. At this point, it doesn’t matter who you are playing. You have to win one pitch at a time and figure out how to get through the first one.”
The first game against the Raiders was a rocky one for the Panthers as starter Justin Langley, who was hot coming in, could not find any rhythm.
Wright State got going in the second inning with five runs. Fucci began the scoring with an RBI double and, in the next at-bat, right fielder Andrew McCafferty hit a ground out that scored another run. The Raiders got the long ball working in the next two at-bats, as Brodner and Murphy hit back-to-back home runs (the former being a two-run shot) to conclude the frame.
Milwaukee would narrow that deficit in the next half of the inning. McShane and Solberg led off with two consecutive singles and advanced to second and third on a wild pitch during the next at-bat in which Meeteer was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Peake then drew a bases-loaded walk to score. After Koenig fouled out, another wild pitch advanced all the runners and diminished the gap to three. Ghelfi then hit a two-RBI double to conclude a four-run third.
That would be the Panthers only run production of the game, but Wright State would push the lead back to five with a four-run inning of its own in the fifth, and would tack on another in the second to eventually win, 10-4.
“You hate to give up that five-spot in the second inning, but then you have to love the way the guys responded,” Doffek said. “You had a 5-4 game in the fifth and we just didn’t pitch well enough – and you can’t do that against a good team like that. You have to give them credit. They beat us in all three phases of the game today.”
Milwaukee opened the tournament with their fourth consecutive meeting with Oakland. The first two games were Panthers shutouts, but the third was a close game that saw Milwaukee pull away. The Panthers would control the tournament game throughout, but it was a high scoring affair for both teams.
Both teams got started right away. The Grizzlies got RBIs from first baseman Zach Sterry and catcher Ian Yetsko on a single and double, respectively. Milwaukee came back in the bottom of the first with a huge frame. Porcaro and Taylor both hit two-RBI singles and a wild pitch and a sac fly from McShane allowed six runs to cross.
The Panthers kept it going in the next two innings. Koenig hit a solo homer in the second and after Oakland scored in the top of the third on Yetsko’s second RBI (this one a groundout), Milwaukee struck for two more on an RBI double from Meeteer and another wild pitch to take a 9-3 lead.
That lead would be cut in half in the fourth. The first three batters reached on a single, an error by Taylor and a double from third baseman Tyler Janish that pushed across the first of three runs. The Grizzlies would get the other two on a sac fly and a bunt single.
In the fifth and sixth, the Panthers took full control. Four runs would cross in the former as Peake and Ghelfi came through with RBI singles, the latter of which scored two runs and Porcaro grounded out to conclude that frame. Peake would come through again in the sixth with another single that netted his team’s final two runs.
Oakland did get four runs in the seventh on a three-run blast from right fielder Tyler Pagano and a bases-loaded walk. The Grizzlies would add an additional run in the ninth, but this production was moot as Milwaukee won by a final of 15-11.
“It was do-or-die in this game, so any way you can find a way to win,” Doffek said. “If you don’t, you’re going home. We found a way. I thought our offense did a great job of picking us up – in that phase I thought we did really well. That (Oakland) is a dangerous offense as they have shown at times throughout the year. But we found a way.”
The Panthers concluded their season with a record of 39-20, 16-13 in league play (20-15 including tournament games). Koenig, Taylor, Unes and Meeteer earned All-Horizon League Tournament honors.