The 2018 MVP of the Southeast Section went down with an injury and the best lead-off hitter in the league is batting a full 100 points below his average in the previous two years, but the Albion Tigers still find themselves atop their section of the Home Talent League.
When they travel to Fort Atkinson to take on the Generals at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, the Tigers will have already locked up the top spot in the four-team playoffs. Fort Atkinson will be attempting to sweep the regular season series in an attempt to best position themselves for a victory in a tiebreaker should the need arise.
More on that later, in the meantime: How has 13-1 Albion done it?
In 2016, the Albion Tigers won the Home Talent League title for the first time in team history.
Last year, they ended the year one spot away from playoff contention, but a slew of injuries and a pair of players gone for other reasons rendered the season a lost year.
The Generals took a 2-1 victory from Albion on Memorial Day. Dan Dean threw a three-hitter for Fort Atkinson and drove in Cam Wolter in the fifth inning to give the Generals the 2-1 lead. They held on for the win.
It was a grinder of a game, the type Albion has come away with most of the time this season. Entering their first-place-clinching, 10-0 victory over Waterloo on Sunday, July 21, the Tigers had won their previous three games by a total of four runs. Albion is 6-1 in games decided by two or fewer runs.
“They play great defense and don’t make any mental errors which helps keep them in close games,” Fort Atkinson manager Sam Hartwick said. “Albion also consistently comes up with a clutch hit late in games, so keeping runners out of scoring position in the later innings will be key for us.”
One of those close wins was an 8-6 victory against Cambridge on July 13 that resembled a seesaw battle.
“We got up and they came back. We got up again and they came back,” Cambridge manager Owen Johnson said. “You have to finish them off. You can’t let them hang around because they’ll steal a base or take an extra base. They’ll play small ball and then they also have guys who can mash. They’re such a solid team.”
Albion is doing without contributions that become customary from its two top batters over the last two seasons, too. Josh Eastman won the MVP award for the section following the 2018 season after he hit for an even .500 batting average. He has taken five at-bats for Albion this season.
Aaron Laskowski had 25 hits in both 2017 and 2018 finishing with a .362 average in the championship season and a .385 average in 2018. Laskowski is 11-for-46 this season.
The 2019 Tigers don’t have those luxuries and haven’t replaced the production. Instead, they’re likely going to finish the season with one player over the 20-hit milestone with seven or eight players over 10 hits for the season.
“When Josh got hurt, we were surprised to see them continuing to win and to win against good teams,” Hartwick said. “It really points to the depth that they have. It seems that a different Albion player has a great game each week and they’re all surrounded by consistent bats.”
All right, let’s try to break down these next two weekends in the Home Talent League Southeast Section.
First things first, Jefferson is in and either the second seed or the third seed depending upon how things shake out with Stoughton in the final two weekends.
Albion is the top seed in the four-team playoffs. They clinched that after bludgeoning Waterloo on Sunday.
Now, what about Fort Atkinson?
Fort Atkinson has two games left in the regular season: Saturday the Generals (9-5) play Albion (13-1) and the following Sunday they play Evansville, which sits at 8-5.
Evansville has three games remaining: Two games this weekend against McFarland (3-9) and the aforementioned date with the Generals.
If Fort Atkinson beats Albion and Evansville takes two from McFarland, the Generals will need to beat Evansville to secure the last spot in the playoffs based on having a better record. That scenario is the easiest and best result for Fort Atkinson.
If Fort Atkinson beats Albion and Evansville splits with McFarland, the Generals will need to beat Evansville in order to win the tiebreaker. Earlier in the season, Evansville beat Fort Atkinson, 4-0. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. Evansville would have it.
If Fort Atkinson beats Albion and Evansville gets swept by McFarland, the Generals are in.
Things get more complicated if Fort Atkinson can’t beat Albion.
Losing to Albion would mean the Generals have to beat Evansville and hope the Jays lose at least once to McFarland. If Evansville loses once, the tiebreaker would pass head-to-head and the next tiebreaker is strength of victories, which Fort Atkinson has the upper hand in with its victory over Albion on Memorial Day. All of Evansville’s losses have come against teams currently in the top four spots.
All that said, good luck.