MIDLAND, Mich. | When the regular season comes to an end, eight of the 16 teams in the Midwest League are sent packing to their Spring Training facilities with their dreams of collecting some hardware shelved for another year. For the ones like the Great Lakes Loons that remain in the hunt for the George Spelius Championship Trophy, the fun is just beginning.
After clinching their spot in the 2016 Midwest League Playoffs with an enthralling walk-off 1-0 victory over the West Michigan Whitecaps on Sunday afternoon, the Loons are brimming with confidence as the Eastern Division Semifinals are set to get underway Wednesday night at Dow Diamond. First pitch against the Bowling Green Hot Rods is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
It's the fifth time in the franchise's 10-year history that the team has qualified for the postseason.
In 2009, it was against the Whitecaps that the Loons won their first playoff game and series. In the second round, the Loons defeated the Fort Wayne TinCaps in one of the most memorable games in team history. The Loons rallied from behind to tie the score four times -- including once on a three-run, 9th-inning home run by Jaime Pedroza -- before taking their first lead on a game-winning, 11th-inning single by Jerry Sands. They were eventually eliminated by Fort Wayne two days later.
The following season in 2010, the Loons once again advanced to the postseason and made their way to the MWL Eastern Division Championship, but were eliminated by the Lake County Captains.
There have been two other appearances in the playoffs for the Loons (2013, 2015), but they have not won a game being swept each time.
Is No. 5 going to be the magical number that sees Great Lakes break through that second round glass ceiling? There is reason for optimism with the 2016 version of the Loons.
After the Loons were swept in a four-game series by the South Bend Cubs on August 6-9, they trailed the Lansing Lugnuts by 4.5 games for the MWL Eastern Division wild card spot. Following that tough stretch, the team went on a tear winning 18 of their final 26 games.
Entering the postseason, the Loons are on a modest three-game winning streak, they're winners of four out of their last five and eight of their last 12 games.
The run towards the wild card spot all began August 11 at Dow Diamond on a night when the Loons trailed the Lake County Captains 10-4 entering the bottom of the 9th inning. After the first two batters of the inning struck out, the next four batters walked to cut into the lead. It was then Omar Estevez who rocketed a ball out for a grand slam. Luke Raley was the next batter in the frame and he made it back-to-back home runs to tie the game. The Loons went on to win 11-10 in extra innings.
Five position players have spent the entire season with the Loons: infielder Estevez, infielder Brendon Davis, utility man Gage Green, infielder Matt Jones and outfielder Logan Landon. On the mound, starters Dennis Santana and Victor Gonzalez are the only hurlers to spend all of 2016 in Midland.
Still just 18 years old, the Cuban Estevez really found his swing in the 2nd half hitting .293 and smacking eight of his nine home runs after the all-star break. The month of July saw Omar tear the cover off the ball as he had a whopping .330 batting average.
Reinforcements are common at the Single-A level of the minors and the Loons received plenty of them throughout the season.
Pitcher Yadier Alvarez was signed as an international free agent by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason and received a $16 million signing bonus. Since being added to the roster on July 20, the righty already is 8th on the team in strikeouts with 55 in just 39.1 innings pitched.
The 24th round of this past June's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft saw the Dodgers select Saige Jenco out of Virginia Tech. And all the outfielder has done since joining the team is hit .288 with a .370 on-base percentage and steal 17 bases.
From just down the road at Central Michigan University, the Dodgers liked what they saw in Chippewa infielder Zach McKinstry picking him in the 33rd round. They did all of his teammates, coaches and friends a favor by placing him just 27 miles down M-20 in Midland with the Loons after being drafted. The 21-year-old has been a versatile and reliable infielder playing three of the four positions, and hit over .300 through his first 17 games with Great Lakes.
It's the Hot Rods that are in town to get the series underway this week. The playoff format in the Midwest League is 3-3-5, meaning each of the first two series are best-of-three, with the championship series a best-of-five. The first game this round will be played in Midland with the final two games shifting to Bowling Green, Ky.
You can listen to the entire playoff run on ESPN 100.9-FM, the flagship station for Loons baseball. Chris Vosters will be with the team for every game, while Brad Tunney will call home games in the booth with Chris and host the broadcast for all road games.
Fans can also follow along and be part of all the excitement liking the Loons Facebook page, along with following on Twitter and Instagram, and getting a full recap on Loons.com following every game.