The Oconomowoc Five-O's were up against it on Sunday afternoon at McCoy Field in Brookfield. They had taken three straight tough losses and a good Brookfield Blue Sox team awaited. Another defeat and that early-season talk of the playoffs would turn into a pipe dream.
Enter Luke Nelson.
Nelson, a Five-O's icon, was summoned away from coaching youth baseball to rescue the season and it's really not being overly dramatic to say it put LeBron's NBA Finals performance to shame. Nelson batted leadoff and ripped the first pitch of the game for a line drive single. He added a double as well at the plate before the day was done. He took the mound and pitched a complete game. And if you wanted to be home early for dinner? Luke took care of that too, dispatching the playoff-contending Blue Sox in under 2 hours with 93 pitches.
If Nelson played the role of LeBron, then Jeff Rhoads was his Kyrie Irving. Rhoads lashed three line drive hits of his own. Batting the 3-hole, Rhoads combined with Nelson, along with Josh Bouche to get Oconomowoc out of the gate quickly. All three batters ripped line drive hits and all three scored.
Brookfield's good lefthander John Arnold got settled in and for a lot of days in LOL that would have been enough. But this wasn't a lot of days. The zeroes kept going up on the scoreboard both ways and the game sped by. In the ninth inning, the Five-O's finally ended the day as they had begun�with a three-run outburst keyed by Chandler Ziemann's tailing line drive double that found the inside of the rightfield foul line.
The 6-0 win kept Oconomowoc alive in the playoff race. They still need to catch either Monches or Sussex, but those two teams play each other on the Fourth of July. The Five-O's are set to return home to Roosevelt Field for games against West Bend Lithia on Sunday and then a high-profile game with the first-place Brookfield Bulldogs on the Fourth.
Wisdom tells us gold cannot be formed unless it first passes through the heat of the crucible. The Oconomowoc Five-O's have spent the last two weeks passing through the heat, both literal and figurative. They now face a stretch of the season that will determine whether or not gold was formed in the midst of the flames.
Oconomowoc was on a 5-2 roll before three straight losses to Monches, Sussex and Pewaukee set back the playoff push, the final two defeats in the 90-plus degree humidity of last weekend. But as tough as those defeats were in the moment, a look at the standings shows the Five-O's still with opportunity. They're just a game out of the playoff structure right now and of five games against the league elite (Pewaukee, Sussex, Brookfield Bulldogs), four of those are in the rearview mirror.
The O's are still being paced offensively by Derek Nelson, who leads the team in hits with 15 and is batting a sizzling .536 as he makes a run at a batting title. Nelson is the best of an offense that remains a good blend of veteran savvy to quality young players. Jordan Murray is leading the pitching staff with a solid 3.34 ERA and a good track record against the middle of the league.
And it's that middle of the league that is going to define what the Five-O's ultimate fate will be. They have seven games left against what qualifies as the middle class of the Land O'Lakes Western Division. Winning five or six of those games will likely be enough to return postseason baseball to Oconomowoc.
The opportunity starts on Sunday with a road trip to the Brookfield Blue Sox and then with a doubleheader over the Fourth of July holiday against the West Bend 7-Up and the Brookfield Blue Sox.
It was the legendary Irish writer William Butler Yates who said "Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot, but rather make the iron hot by striking." The time to strike begins on Sunday.
"If you want to bury us, go ahead," a defiant manager Steve Rhoads last Sunday after the third straight loss. "We're going to bounce back. And you can print that."
The Oconomowoc Five-O's started fast and finished strong on Sunday in North Lake. In between, they got solid, mistake-free pitching and posted a 9-3 win.
Oconomowoc got two runs quickly. An error, a stolen base and a base hit by Chandler Ziemann set up a sacrifice fly from Jeff Rhoads for the game's first run. Chandler came around on a ground ball out to first base for a 2-0 lead.
The Five-O's added to the lead in the third. Jeff Rhoads bunted his way on, Aaron Benz drew a walk and Derek Nelson singled to left. Steve Rhoads singled to right to pick up one run. A double-play groundball quieted the threat, but another run still came in through the backdoor.
Jordan Murray then settled down and began pounding the strike zone. He only allowed one walk in seven innings of work and the Oconomowoc defense did not commit an error. North Lake got some hits, fourteen for the game, but they were scattered and with the Five-O's not giving anything away, they kept the lead.
The game stayed 4-0 until the seventh when Oconomowoc opened up one more time. Chandler singled to left, and then with two outs the knockout flurry began. Benz singled. Derek Nelson, who had a three-hit day and kept his average well over the .500 mark, did a masterful job of taking a base hit the other way for an RBI. Steve Rhoads crushed a line drive single back through the box. Nick Pierce drew a walk, Dominick Meyer singled and Derek Prust worked an RBI walk with the bases loaded.
By the time the inning was over it was 8-0. North Lake scratched out a couple runs in the seventh, but it never got close. Meyer came on to pitch the final two innings and continued the mistake-free pounding of the strike zone. The defense behind him continued to be flawless. Oconomowoc closed out the 9-3 win.
The Five-O's are now set up for a sequence of big divisional games over the next two weeks. They travel to Monches next Sunday, and then come home to Roosevelt Field to host Sussex and Pewaukee on the weekend of June 18-19. These four teams are highly likely to produce the three playoff teams from the Lake Country Division in the LOL West.
The last time the Oconomowoc Five-O's made the playoffs was in 2012. They've been close in recent years and have had some big wins. But at the end of the day the second term of Barack Obama's administration has not been a fruitful one for the O's. The early signs of 2016 indicates that the nation's political system might not be the only thing changing - the Five-O's are bearing all the marks of a playoff team.
There are three reasons for optimism - the veteran core showing they've still got it, an infusion of young talent and a restructuring of the league itself that may rebound to Oconomowoc's benefit.
Let's start with the vets. Josh Bouche has electrified the league with a .529 batting average and seven RBI as he prepares to build a case for MVP and challenge Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado for the title of "best player in baseball." Meanwhile, Derek Nelson is batting .500, while Jeff Rhoads is hitting .333.
And while it's a stretch to call 22-year-old Chandler Ziemann a veteran, the 22-year-old has been with the Five-O's for four years now and carries himself with experience beyond his years. Ziemann is another .300 hitter in the early going and capable of taking that number much higher.
No one wins without pitching and a hot topic during the summer was whether Jordan Murray could be the #1 starter for a playoff team. Critics ranging from Colin Cowherd to Skip Bayless insisted it could never happen. But Murray has two early wins under his belt and his 3.57 ERA continues a trend of improvement that began with his LOL debut in 2013.
What Oconomowoc needed most in its lineup was just a couple more young bodies and with Aaron Benz and Chris Trafton, appear to have found them. Trafton, a fine defensive centerfielder and leadoff man has an on-base percentage of .778 - yes, he's on base more than three times out of every four plate appearances. That's called table-setting. And table-clearing would be what Benz delivers in the middle of the order. He's slugging .765, including a towering home run deep off the pavilion at Roosevelt already to his credit.
The Land O'Lakes League itself moved into the modern era, going from an 11-team league to one with 14 teams and two divisions. They passed on the chance to add Rutgers and Nebraska and instead went for bigger game. A second team in West Bend was added. Menomonee Falls returned to the league after a temporary absence. And just like the NFL could no longer let Los Angeles stand vacant, the LOL brought baseball to Milwaukee, with the addition of the Beavers.
The result - beyond the lucrative TV contract from Fox that will put a doubleheader on FS1 every Sunday with a prime-time game coming next year - is a divisional structure that has put Oconomowoc in with other Lake Country teams. There will be three playoff teams from each division. If you concede two spots to three-time defending Grand Champion Pewaukee and another to playoff perennial Sussex, the door is wide open for the third spot.
Oconomowoc has already beaten two of its four rivals for that berth, Hartland and North Lake. And they have reason to be hopeful that prevailing over Monches and Merton will also happen.
That's what makes Memorial Day Weekend so exciting. Oconomowoc hosts Merton in a big game on Saturday, and then has an opportunity to make a major statement on Sunday when they visit Sussex.
Solid veterans, good young talent and a favorable alignment. Those are three good reasons to be hopeful in Oconomowoc. And lest we forget, the Five-O's are also doing this under-the-radar thing called winning baseball games, with a 3-1 record and the one loss arguably being the most impressive - a 3-2 loss in Pewaukee with the tying run reaching third in the ninth. It promises to be a sizzling summer at Roosevelt.
The Five O's are off to their best start since 2010 behind the right arm of Jordan Murray who tossed a complete game win against formed Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Don August and the Menomonee Falls Lakers on Sunday. Jordan spread out four runs (two earned) on eight hits while striking out six, walking six and hitting two batters. After an uprising by Pabst Blue Ribbon fans last week, they were elated to see Murray bring his pregame attempt back to the team huddle and he did not disappoint. Those PBR fans are quick to point out that the team is 3-0 this year when the Blue Ribbon is involved.
Oconomowoc took an early lead with a run in the top of the 1st and another in the 3rd. Falls came back to tie it with two runs in the bottom of the 5th. The Five O's answered with two more runs in the top of the 6th to make it 4-2 with hits by Derek Nelson and David Beluschak. Things remained that way until the bottom of the 8th when Falls was able to ding Murray for two more runs, tieing the game at 4-4. The Lakers threatened to take the lead but Murray stranded the go-ahead run on second base and that was as close as they would come to scoring the rest of the game. In the top of the 9th leadoff hitter Chris Trafton worked an incredible walk after starting down in the count 0-2 and then stole second base. Josh Bouche then stepped up with a scorching double to center field to give Oconomowoc a 5-4 lead. Menomonee Falls managed a single in the 9th but Murray made sure he did not advance past first base and sealed the win with his 6th strikeout.
Leading the offense for the Five O's was Josh Bouche who was 3 for 5 with 2 RBIs including the eventual game winning RBI in the top of the 9th. Jeff Rhoads contributed two hits as well.
The win improves Oconomowoc to 3-1 in the LOL - which ties them for second place in their division. They have a double dip Memorial Day weekend ahead of them with a game on Saturday at home against Merton and then traveling to Sussex on Sunday. Both games start at 1:00 pm.
It's a familiar sight at Roosevelt Field on a summer Sunday afternoon. Earl Eppler hitches up his suspenders, finds himself a good seat at or around home plate and settles in to watch the Oconomowoc Five-O's. Anyone who has been around the Five-O's, knows Earl - even if they don't know him by name, they know him by his presence. He's always there to support the O's, and when necessary, to work an umpire over a bit.
Nor is this restricted to Roosevelt Field. Earl is a familiar sight at road games, and fans around the Western Division, from Brookfield to Hartland would recognize him when Oconomowoc comes to town.
This is not something new to baseball in this area. Earl Eppler has spent the better part of his adult life competing in, and serving the amateur baseball community of Oconomowoc and the surrounding area.
It was 1958, with the Milwaukee Braves in the middle of two successive National League pennant runs, that Earl's career began in Ixonia. A talented young catcher, he played both behind the plate and in the outfield in a career that ran through 1973 in Ixonia and later included stints in North Lake, Stone Bank and right here in Oconomowoc.
Towards the end of his career in Ixonia, he took the managerial reins and ran the team for six seasons. Overall, he was a part of four division title winners and made five All-Star Games. His career batting average was a sparkling .370. For the record, that's four points higher than the career major league leader, Ty Cobb. In fairness, Cobb hit in the Dead Ball Era, something that comes out in baseball circles whenever those ferocious - "Would You Take Earl Eppler Or Ty Cobb?" debates break out.
Those of us who know Earl today know that he's not shy about letting Blue know his opinion, and he has a lot of experience to back him up. Once his playing career was done, Earl spent about a decade working behind the plate and on the bases before finally stepping away from the field in the early 1990s. In 1991, he received the Meritorious Award from the Land O'Lakes League.
He might have been away from the field, but Earl didn't stop supporting baseball. A successful businessman who handled the installation of Ray Allen's pinball machine and air hockey table when the great basketball star was in Milwaukee, Earl has shared the wealth, donating generously to the Five-O's. His legacy continued with his son Mike, who played for Five-O's championship teams in 1999 and 2007 (scoring the winning run in the 2007 victory over Lannon that clinched a division), and whose ability to take the ball the other way remains part of team legend.
Earl's career received its crowning achievement in 2000 when he was inducted into the Land O'Lakes Hall Of Fame. There is a plaque honoring him at the Roosevelt Field concession stand, reflecting the fact he is an institution in amateur baseball in this area. In the kingdom that is Oconomowoc baseball, we can say that this earl is truly royalty.
The Five O's are proud to announce that Earl has received the 2015 Fan of the Year award which will be presented at the Western Division Banquet.
The Oconomowoc Five-O's have been looking for that one missing ingredient all season long. Recent crushing losses to Sussex and the Brookfield Bulldogs, each by 5-4 counts and each with either the tying or winning run on base in the ninth inning, accentuated the frustration.
A systematic review was undertaken of the entire organization, and it seemed everything was essentially stable. Yes, there were reports of analytical data provided by the front office not being used in the dugout during games. Yes, there were the fried chicken and beer parties going on in the clubhouse during the game. And yes, there was a mild problem with various players being in hock to bookmakers and perhaps susceptible to throwing a game. But there was nothing anyone would call a serious problem.
Until that is, a review of the cloud patterns over Roosevelt Field at the key moments of each game, showed the angry face of former outfielder Bob Bolson hovering, and waving the wand of Voldemort, the evil wizard of Harry Potter infamy, at the field.
Speculation immediately began that the Curse of Bolson had descended upon the Five-O's. But what could have possibly caused this? Further review showed that it began on a recent Friday night in Lannon. A substitute player was permitted to wear Bolson's old #7 jersey. It's worth nothing that the clouds began rumbling during batting practice and as players on both teams gazed across the field and into the quarry, it seemed as though evil goblins dressed in black were scurrying about, as though preparing for something. That something would be a display of vindictive evil unlike any the world has seen.
The curse fell in the form of dropped flyballs, line drives landing just foul, opposing bloopers that fell in, potential game-tying home runs just dying at the fence and runners repeatedly left in scoring position. What's worse, simply preventing the Five-O's from winning was not enough - this diabolical display of vengeance first raises hopes and then pulls the rug out from under.
As a side note, Steve Rhoads appears to be completely immune to the Curse, continuing to get hits in every game and making a diving defensive stop against Brookfield on Saturday. However, the new revelations have led us to conclude that it's not hard work and dedication driving the Dream's big year, but the fact he appears to have cut an implicit deal with the devil, so to speak, taking personal immunity from Bolson's savagery at the expense of team success.
Five-O's management undertook consultation with experts, visiting with everyone from Dumbledore to the Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, to Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. It was concluded that only by taking Bolson's old #7 jersey, along with a pair of ruby slippers, to his castle and begging his forgiveness, could the curse be lifted.
It was immediately understood why the Wizard Bolson wanted his jersey back, but the slippers raised eyebrows. Apparently, they're to be added to his collection, since he wears a pair most nights while relaxing and watching the Brewers.
Time is running short, and three brave players - Derek Nelson, Josh Bouche and Chandler Ziemann have volunteered to walk the Yellow Brick Road to find Bolson's hideout and get this curse lifted. It's not just about 2015 anymore - which resumes on Sunday at 1 PM in Hartland - it's about future generations of Five-O's players.