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Different waters: Fish seek stability in playoffs

River Falls Fighting Fish player-manager Josh Eidem, center, breaks the team's post-game huddle after the Fish defeated the Ellsworth Hubbers, 4-3, in their final home game of the season Friday night, Aug. 4, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. The Fish will open the Wisconsin Baseball Association Playoffs in Stanley this Saturday, Aug. 12, at noon against the Medford Moon Dogs. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
River Falls Fighting Fish players Brandon Walczak (29) and Andy Kemper (28) greet a stream of kids as they head for home plate after running the bases for the last time this season following the Fish's final home game of the season Friday night, Aug. 4, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
Forty-one year-old River Falls Fighting Fish designated hitter Joel Schaffer strokes an RBI double to score Clint Kempf from second base and give the Fish a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning Friday night, Aug. 4, against Ellsworth. The run turned out to be a big one as the Fish held on for a 4-3 win. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

If the regular season is any indication, it's hard to predict how the River Falls Fighting Fish will fare in the Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs beginning this weekend in Stanley.

The third-seeded Fish will play the No. 2 Medford Moon Dogs in a first round game Saturday, Aug. 12, at noon at Stanley's Chapman Park. River Falls finished in fifth place in the St. Croix Valley Baseball League with a record of 10-6 (22-11 overall), while Medford tied for second in the Dairyland League with a record of 9-3.

The Fish are making their tenth straight appearance in the WBA playoffs with their last state title coming in 2011. Player-manager Josh Eidem said, like every year, the team's playoff aspirations are high but are hard to predict this season.

"We've had an up and down year and that will carry through to the WBA playoffs," he said. "We could just as easily win the whole thing as lose in the first round and go home for the rest of the summer."

That up and down year included a four-game losing streak in mid-June, the longest in franchise history that included their first-ever loss to the Bay City Bombers. They're longest winning streak of the season was also four games in early June. Twenty-one of the Fish's 34 total games this season have been decided by three runs or less, with the Fish going 11-10 in those contests.

After playing so many close games, Eidem said pitching and defense will need to carry the team in the playoffs.

"There is no better one-two punch in the state than James Witt and TJ Wink," he said about the top of the Fish's rotation. "With the addition of Brandon Walczak from Spring Valley, a healthy Lucas Luedtke, Jeremiah Bonde, Matt Doornink, and Andy 'Cardiac' Kemper, that's probably the best stable in the tournament."

The biggest question mark entering the postseason is offense.

"We just haven't scored a ton of runs this summer and mostly because we aren't hitting home runs," Eidem noted. "What we've been doing really well lately, and we won four of our last five, is manufacture runs. Early in June when we saw where things were going we really started emphasizing good at bats, productive outs, and knowing the situation.

"The other issue we've had this summer is just getting our best nine guys to a game," Eidem added. "When everyone is there, we are very good. And everyone should be there next weekend."

Other teams have won state titles in similar situations as the Fish. Brill was a fundamental team in 2013 that moved runners over, pitched well and didn't hit a lot of home runs while Menomonie was a low seed in 2012 who finally had all their players available for the playoffs and won it all.

"We've believed since day one that we have a team that can go deep into the playoffs," Eidem said. "But we knew it was just going to look a little different than some previous teams we've had."

If the Fish beat Medford in the first round they will face either host Stanley or defending WBA champion Sparta in a second round game in Stanley Sunday, Aug. 13, at noon. Sparta defeated River Falls, 1-0, in a state semifinal game last year, and are arguably a tournament favorite again this season along with fellow top seeds Osseo, Haugen and Prescott.

"We feel good about having hung with both Haugen and Prescott earlier in the season. Osseo just won the CRBL and they were state runner-up last year and Sparta is the defending champ, so if we're able to win in round one we'll get a chance at a revenge game in our second round."

But first the Fish have to get past Medford, a team Eidem said he knows little about.

"Out of the Dairyland League we just don't get a lot of info," he said. "But we won't worry about their game, we just need to play our best game. That will be the difference for us; if we can play five of our best games in a row, we have a chance to come home with some hardware."

River Falls is one of six SCVBL teams competing in the 32-team WBA postseason tournament this weekend and one of two teams in Stanley. The Hudson River Rats will also be in Stanley to take on the Everest Merchants Saturday, Aug. 12, at 6 p.m.

The Osceola Braves and Menomonie Eagle are both in Hallie with the Braves opening play Friday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 p.m. against the La Crescent Cardinals and the Eagles facing the Eau Claire Bears Saturday at 6 p.m.

The Prescott Pirates will be in Rib Lake to take on the Interwald Woodticks Saturday, Aug. 12, at 6 p.m. while the Plum City Blues will play the Chaseburg-Coon Valley Blues at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 in Haugen.

The eight-team WBA championship weekend will take place Aug. 18-20 in Viroqua.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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