(GAME DATE — Sep. 9, 2019) — The Milwaukee Hops are hoping to land their first ever playoff spot in a frantic “down to the wire” wild card race as the season enters the final weeks of play.
Like the Arizona Cowboys, who also came into being in the 2012 expansion, the Hops are on track to have their first finish above .500 this season, and are currently 74-70 (.514). Their previous best finish was in 2017, when they ended up 45-55 (.450).
The club was founded as the Battle Creek Attack and had struggled to find success during its early years, as have all the other teams added in the expansion year, despite having some impressive talent on the roster at times. After their first year, they had Niek Rodriguez anchoring their rotation. Rodriguez came out of the Ohio Oxen organization, where he had accumulated a 72-42 record as one of their best all-time starters, amassing 1,374 strikeouts in 1,153 innings, tallying a 36.1 WAR there.
Aside from the 3-time Bull Cup champion and 9-time all-star, the club picked up closer Everett “Wisey” Weisensel, claiming him off waivers from Dallas after that team had picked him up from free agency, having already been released by Battle Creek in 2013. In his second round with Battle Creek, Wisey proved his worth, eventually winning the Lake League’s Woodchuck Trophy in 2017 after crafting a 1.33 ERA and a record of 6-1, with 25 saves and 80 K’s in 47.1 innings.
The team was moved to Louisville for the 2018 season, becoming the Sluggers, and many of the faces changed under former GM Josh Hicks. One thing that Hicks can be credited for, however, is picking up Les “The General” Groves in the 2017 draft. Considered a controversial coup d’etat, Groves was a former catcher in the Bull Oceanic League where he played for the Newcastle Nuclears, managed by the Ohio Oxen GM, Dylan Maccarone. That year the BOL was folded and the marquee players were supposed to remain out of the draft, but an administrative mix up placed Groves into the list and Hicks selected him in the 2nd round, 52nd overall.
Understandably, Ohio’s GM was publicly upset calling the draft a “sham” and threatening legal action. The following season, in 2018, however, Ohio’s own slugging catcher, Tyrone O’Saurus, exploded with 29 home runs and a .330 average over 82 games, and Maccarone moderated his protests.
After the departure of Hicks, the team relocated to Milwaukee, and was renamed to the Hops, but many of those seeds planted during the Hicks years are now bearing fruit.
Now, as the 2019 season winds to a close, the Hops have a chance to make a run at a wild card spot and the Oxen are the team standing in the way. The Hops have some of the offense they need, and one of the best bullpens in the Lake League, having gone 8-3 in extra innings games. The Oxen arguably have a better offense, but have struggled on the mound all year, suffering injuries to key pitchers and fielding a worst-in-league defense.
The Oxen stand at 76-66 (.535), just 3 games ahead of Milwaukee for the 2nd wild card. Ohio is expected to have an easy time of things through some of the remaining games, facing Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit, whom they can expect to come out winners against over the 9 accumulated games. But they will end the year against division leaders Minneapolis, then close out the year in Milwaukee, where a nasty wild card battle is expected, and on their home turf where the Hops have an advantage.
For the Hops, whether the final 4 games matter or not depends on how well they can weather the storm of an early Minneapolis series, followed by Detroit and then New York, all on the road. They have been eviscerated by Minneapolis all year, going 5-12 against them so far. Detroit they have only marginally managed to best, at 9-8, and New York has been a challenge to beat as well, they have gone 6-5 against the Dragons.
Ohio and Milwaukee at an even 8-8 this year against each other.