Northwoods League has left mark on MLB playoffs

The summer league for collegiate baseball players has developed many professionals

This year’s Major League Baseball Playoffs include many familiar faces to Mankato. There has been a total of 13 former Northwoods League (NWL) players in this year’s playoffs, including four who are currently in the World Series. There are also 10 players who are on the 40-man rosters for these teams, but not earning a spot on the playoff rosters.

When speaking with Dan Litzinger, General Manager of the Rochester Honkers, he informed me that the NWL has been a national leader in preparing players for success in the future. Litzinger also stated that the demand to play in the NWL is so high, that the league must turn players down. Litzinger has been the General Manager of the Honkers since their inaugural season in 1994. Litzinger knew there was something special about Andre Ethier, currently playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the moment he stepped into the clubhouse.

“When we had Ethier here, you could tell he was a bit special as he had the ‘it’ factor. His swing, approach, and attitude showed. I had a really strong feeling that he would make it to the big-leagues one day,” said Litzinger.

The Honkers have two former players who could receive a World Series ring, with Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers or Tony Kemp, who is on the 40-man roster of the Houston Astros.

“It exactly is what you want. It all starts here in the summer leagues training these guys to be the best, day in and day out looking for that prize of a World Championship,” Litzinger said. “Asking for anything less than that, is asking for failure, which is not an option.”

The Wild-Card games that started this post-season off saw four former NWL players take the field. Pat Neshek, pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, played for the Wisconsin Woodchucks of the NWL in the summer of 2000. The former Twins pitcher pitched just 1.1 innings this post-season, collecting two strikeouts while allowing two earned runs. In the opposing dugout sat Daniel Descalso, a second baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Descalso had played for the Wisconsin Woodchucks of the NWL in 2006, prior to becoming the starting second baseman for the D-Backs. Descalso hit a two-run home run against the Rockies.

The Minnesota Twins had multiple NWL players on their 2017 playoff roster against the New York Yankees. Mitch Garver is a back-up catcher on the Twins roster and had played a total of 23 games during his first season as a professional. Prior to playing for the Twins, Garver played for the St. Cloud Rox in the summers of 2010 and 2011. Dillon Gee was also included in the Twins’ playoff roster.

Gee had previously played with the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers of the NWL in the summer of 2005. In his first season with the Twins, Gee has appeared in 14 regular season games for the Twins as a relief pitcher. Gee also had three games this past season where he was a spot-starter. Zack Granite came into the Wild-Card game as a substitute for centerfielder Byron Buxton. Granite went 1-for-2 at the plate against the Yankees. Granite previously played for the Lakeshore Chinooks in the summer of 2012.

Tyler Olson is a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Before he was throwing for the Tribe, he was pitching for the Green Bay Bullfrogs in the summer of 2012. Olson would go on to face the Yankees three times over the course of the series, allowing only one hit over the total of two innings.

The matchup between the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals had two of the biggest stars to ever play for the NWL to date. World Series Champion Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs played for the Wisconsin Woodchucks in 2003. Zobrist helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years in 2016. Facing off against Zobrist was another NWL player by the name of Max Scherzer. Scherzer played for the La Crosse Loggers in 2004. In 2016, Scherzer tied the MLB record for most strikeouts in game, striking out 20 batters when he faced the Detroit Tigers.

The Boston Red Sox acquired one of the best arms in the game this off-season when they traded for Chris Sale. Sale played for the La Crosse Loggers in 2008. Sale has been known as one of the best pitchers in the game, although never having much post-season success as a member of the Chicago White Sox. This season was different for Sale. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, Sale led the league in strikeouts on the season, totaling 308.

We have finally arrived at the World Series, with the Houston Astros making it to their first World Series since moving from the National League to the American League, and the Los Angeles Dodgers making it for the first time since 1988, when they defeated the Oakland Athletics for their sixth World Series trophy.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have three former NWL players who made it onto their playoff roster this season. Curtis Granderson, outfielder, played for the Mankato Moondogs in 2001. Granderson was traded from the New York Mets earlier in the year, and had a great start to life in LA. Granderson has struggled as of late, striking out eight times in 15 at bats, and has been left off of the World Series roster. Andre Ethier, outfielder, played for the Rochester Honkers of the NWL in the summer of 2002. Ethier has seen the field in a limited role due to the rise of superstar Yasiel Puig, who also plays right field. Backup catcher Austin Barnes has also seen the field lately in the World Series for the Dodgers. Barnes, formerly of the St. Cloud Rox in 2010, had two hits, one of them being a double, an RBI, and a run scored for the Dodgers in Game 5.

As I mentioned, the Houston Astros have one of the most explosive offenses in baseball. Game 5 of the World Series was no exception. The Astros ended up winning Game 5, by a score of 13-12, to take a 3-2 series lead. The game winning run was scored by former NWL player, Derek Fisher. Fisher had played for the Madison Mallards in 2012. While Fisher has not yet recorded a plate appearance during the World Series, he has come on as a pinch runner. Fisher replaced the aging Brian McCann at second base in the bottom of the tenth inning. Alex Bregman then hit a single into left field and Fisher scored the winning run from second base.

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