The Milwaukee Panthers finished their season in dominating fashion, winning their last four games heading into the Horizon League Tournament by a combined score of 28-6. Highlighting the hot finish was a 5-0 shutout of conference foe Oakland at Miller Park on Friday during the evening. That game followed a tailgate party in the stadium parking lot next to Helfaer Field.
The festivities for the annual Miller Park Tailgate, hosted by the UWM Varsity Club, began at 3:30pm. Bubbs BBQ, a division of All Occasions Catering, provided the food and the Varsity Club brought the drinks.
The event was free to every person who registered in advance. Guests included fans of the team, former players and coaches, the cheerleading team and families and friends of current players.
Activities included bean bag toss and a silent auction that included prizes such as a Miller Park suite for a future Brewers game. It lasted until 5:30pm and then everyone started heading into the stadium.
The prelude to the game was a tribute to baseball alumni, both players and coaches. Jim Burian, the head coach from the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, was the main focus. He was instrumental in helping bring baseball back to the university after a nine-year hiatus. In addition, not long after Burian’s short tenure as coach, Milwaukee became an NCAA Division I program.
After this and a short break, play began.
The Panthers dominated the game from start to finish behind
lights-out pitching from starter Justin Langley and relievers. The bats put together solid frames in the second and fifth innings, but the pitching and flawless defense gave the Grizzlies no chance.
Langley threw five no-hit innings, including a third inning in which he struck out the side. It took him until his final inning of work to give up a baserunner, in which he walked two batters. However, nothing came to fruition for the Oakland as third baseman Tyler Janish popped out to end the potential threat. Milwaukee coach Scott Doffek explained why he pulled Langley despite having a no-hitter going.
“We were on a pitch count, no matter what,” he said. “He actually was about five pitches over that limit already. I wanted to make sure we got the five innings so he could get the win but, moving into the tournament next week, he’s coming back on short rest so we wanted to give him a little bit more time to recover and we’re certainly going to need him in the tournament so we want him at 100%.”
The team no-hit outing ended in the seventh on a controversial safe call at first base that earned Grizzlies first baseman Zach Sterry a single. Janish would get one more hit for Oakland in the eighth, but those two hits were all they could muster off of the Panthers’ masterful pitching, as relievers Adam Reuss, Justin Jaquish, Gunnar Eastman and closer Cody Peterson finished the shutout.
Milwaukee struck for three runs in the second inning and two in the fifth.
Catcher Mitch Ghelfi singled, designated hitter Mike Porcaro walked, left fielder Daulton Varsho singled and third baseman Nick Unes was hit by a pitch to score the first run. Two batters later, shortstop Eric Solberg hit a deep sacrifice fly that scored Porcaro. Next, center fielder Luke Meeteer singled to score Varsho to conclude the scoring in the second.
In the fifth, first baseman Sam Koenig reached on a fielder’s choice. Subsequently, Ghelfi and Porcaro both singled, with Porcaro’s hit scoring Koenig. After Varsho walked, Unes got his second RBI on a single that scored Ghelfi. The Panthers led 5-0 after the fifth, and they cruised to victory.
Doffek was impressed with his pitching and defense, and while he thought the offense could have done better, he acknowledged his team’s timely hits.
“Offensively, it was a grind,” he said. “They walked a couple of guys and we did tack some hits together there in that one inning (second) to put up a three and we kept a little pressure on them with a couple stolen bases. But, all in all, we did not swing the bat great. Our pitchers picked us up and our defense picked us up.”
Langley spoke briefly on his masterful pitching.
“I just wanted to throw the ball well and give us a chance to win,” he said. “I did that, so can’t really ask for anything more.”
In addition, he talked about the team effort.
“I think we played pretty solid all around,” he said. “I mean, you’re gonna have a few plays here or there that kind of slip through the cracks but I think it was, all around, a good team win.”
Meeteer attributed the setting as extra motivation for the solid team play.
“I think it’s a lot easier to get up for this game, since it’s at Miller Park,” he said. “We have to treat it like any other game, but inside, everybody is really more hyped than any other game, so I think that is why we were so on our game today. This is my fourth time playing here. It’s always a special occasion and everyone’s really excited for it.”
Doffek also commented on playing at the Brewers’ stadium.
“We get to play here every year,” he said. “It’s a major league field. It’s our hometown, it’s the place that all of us turn on every night and watch and it’s just a first-class organization, first class facility. Our guys love it, I love it, everybody loves it. It’s great for our alumni and fans, just a great place.”
Doffek, Langley and Meeteer all spoke on the team’s chances of success in the upcoming Horizon League Tournament.
“I like the direction we’re headed,” said Doffek. “I think, for the most part, we’re healthy. We’re coming together a little bit more as a team. Our offense has really been, over the last ten days, swinging the bat really well. Today wasn’t great, but as a whole, up and down the lineup, you could see our at-bats have really improved. I feel really great going into the tournament. I think we got a chance.”
“I feel really good about our chances,” said Langley. “Whenever we gotta get up for a big game, we seem to come through in a big way so I think we’re in a really good position going in.”
“I like our chances, especially since we’re pretty hot here,” said Meeteer. “We’ve got some momentum going into the tournament. We’ve got a bunch of seniors, so we’ve been there. This is our fifth time there, fourth time there for some of these guys, so I think our experience is gonna help us out a lot.”
The other three games saw a blowout of Northern Illinois, another 5-0 win the day before the Miller Park game and a 7-4 win to close the season on Senior Day. Both games were at Henry Aaron field.
Every member of the Panthers’ lineup got a hit on Tuesday during a throttling of the Huskies. In addition, starter Austin Schulfer had a quality outing, giving up one earned run (two total).
NIU opened the scoring in the top of the first on an RBI single by shortstop Brian Sisler. Milwaukee would proceed to answer in the bottom of the frame on a groundout RBI by Koenig that scored Peake, who reached first on an error and second and third on wild pitches.
The Panthers struck again in the third on a Peake single that scored Meeteer, who doubled in the previous at-bat.
In the next two innings, Milwaukee broke the game open.
Ghelfi doubled to right center and Porcaro walked to begin the fourth. Two consecutive groundouts by Varsho and Unes, respectively, advanced both runners each time, with Ghelfi scoring on the latter. McShane singled and Solberg doubled to left to drive in two more runs for a three-run fourth inning.
After the Huskies scored a run on an RBI double by right fielder Stephen Letz in the top of the fifth, the Panthers responded. Peake fouled out to begin the inning following a Northern Illinois pitching change. Koenig doubled in the subsequent at-bat and Porcaro singled him in two at-bats later. Porcaro proceeded to steal second and Varsho reached on a fielding error that scored him.
The Panthers would tack on four more runs in the seventh and eighth. Varsho doubled in a run and Solberg hit a two-RBI single three at-bats and a Huskies pitching change later for three seventh-inning runs. The next inning, reserve catcher Aaron Buban hit a solo home run for Milwaukee’s final score.
“Everyone contributed,” said Doffek. “We pitched well early in the ball game and got some two-out hits. We created some space and you could see us relax a little bit. I really thought the key today was the defense. We made some really nice plays in the infield. We have been struggling with that a little bit and it was good to see everybody make some extra-effort plays.”
On Thursday, Milwaukee starter Joe Pavlovich threw seven shutout innings, and the offense spread the run production across four innings. Relievers Cal Haley and Jake Tuttle pitched the final two innings, respectively, helping the Panthers to their blanking of Oakland.
The offense got going early as Meeteer was hit by a pitch in the opening at-bat of the bottom of the first. Right fielder Derek Peake then singled to shortstop after Meeteer stole second to put runners on first and second. Both runners subsequently advanced to third on a wild pitch during a strikeout of Koenig by Grizzlies starter Chris Van Dyke. Ghelfi then hit a sac fly to score Meeteer for the 1-0 lead.
Milwaukee struck again in the fourth on back-to-back solo home runs by Varsho and Unes, both of them down the right field line. The team would add a run in each of the next two innings on RBIs by Koenig and second baseman Ryan McShane to finish the scoring.
“It starts with good pitching – Pav did a good job,” said Doffek. “And we found a way to grind out a run early in the game and the two home runs gave us a cushion. More than the shutout or any of that, it’s just about playing good, sound baseball. It starts with throwing strikes, playing defense and tacking together good at bats. Hopefully tomorrow we can come out and do the same.”
The final game of the regular season was much more dramatic than the previous three, but ended the same way.
The teams alternated runs in the first four innings, with the Panthers scoring in the first and third and Oakland in the second and fourth.
Koenig, the Horizon League home run leader, hit a solo home run in the first, his 14th of the season. Grizzlies designated hitter Connor Fannon answered with an RBI double in the next frame. In the third, Peake singled to score McShane, who reached on a fielding error two at-bats earlier. Oakland left fielder Brett Impemba countered the next inning with an RBI single.
Both teams then scored two runs in the sixth.
Sterry hit a solo shot to take the lead off of reliever Alex McIntosh, who came in for starter Brian Keller to start the inning. A double by catcher Ian Yetsko followed the dinger, and after a lineout, Fannon got his second RBI double that scored Yetsko and gave the road team a 4-2 lead going into the bottom of the stanza.
The Grizzlies made a pitching change to begin the bottom half. Ghelfi struck out, but the next four hitters all got hits. Porcaro and Varsho singled then first baseman Tell Taylor hit a double to score Porcaro. After that, third baseman Tyler Hermann hit an RBI single. The game was tied at the end of the sixth.
Milwaukee took control in the next two innings.
In the seventh, Peake singled, then advanced to second on a wild pitch, then scored on two passed balls. The next inning, Taylor singled to the pitcher to start the inning and after Hermann grounded out, McShane tripled to score Peake. Left fielder Sam Hammer subsequently singled to score McShane. That was the final run of a 7-4 Senior Day victory.
After the game, the 14 seniors and their parents were honored, and Doffek spoke about his graduating class and the clutch play of his team.
“It was a great way to close it out on Senior Day,” said Doffek. “The last half of the game, we had nothing but seniors out there. It was good to get those guys an opportunity – they have done such a great job of representing the University. As far as the game goes, it was different from the past two days. Oakland swung the bats really well and put some pressure on us. But we stayed with it and found ways to knock runs in late in the game. And then the bullpen did a nice job again.”
The Panthers finished the season 35-18, 16-13 in Horizon League play. Wright State swept Valparaiso, which allowed Milwaukee to catapult into the third seed in the Horizon League Tournament. They will meet the sixth-place Grizzlies Wednesday at Valparaiso in a one-and-done game. If the Panthers advance, it becomes a double-elimination format. The tournament winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.