WILLMAR - With 11 games to play and a spot in the Northwoods League postseason very much in play, the final stretch of the season is setting up to come down to the wire.
Yes, the Willmar Stingers plan on being a large part of that.
St. Cloud, which fell in walk-off fashion to the Stingers on Monday night, is the only team assured a playoff spot at this point after winning the first half. Following the Rox, four teams—the Mankato MoonDogs, Eau Claire Express, Waterloo Bucks and Willmar—are in the hunt for the three remaining North Division postseason spots.
With the best overall record in the division and a one-game lead in the division's second half standings, Mankato appears to be the next-safest bet to reach the postseason (barring a late collapse.) With a run differential of plus-125, the MoonDogs have outscored their opponents by the most runs this season and are now a game clear of Eau Claire at the top.
The Stingers had a two-game lead in the division as recently as Wednesday, but have gone j3-4 since then to fall one game back of Mankato.
If the season were to end today, though, Willmar would still hold a spot in the postseason. The first-round matchups would feature top-seed Mankato against the Stingers, while St. Cloud would take on the wild card with the best overall record, Waterloo.
The Bucks are nowhere near contention for the second half championship, but a 24-12 first half record still has them tied with the Stingers for the top wild card spot.
With a recent surge to join the contenders, the Express are also right in the thick of things. They finished with the third-worst record over the first half, but rattled off a nine-game winning streak that ended last week and are just one game back of the MoonDogs for first place in the second half.
Because of that, Eau Claire could be the team that creates chaos for the rest of the division.
If the Express comes away with the second half title, it could have a trickle-down effect on the Stingers—and the rest of the division.
That would leave Mankato, Waterloo and Willmar vying for two spots, which are determined by best overall record. Through Monday's games, the MoonDogs, at 36-23, sit three games ahead of the Bucks and Stingers.
Additionally, Eau Claire's overall record is three games back of Willmar's.
Without much room between contenders in the races for both the second-half champion and wild card spots, the tiebreak scenarios are where things could get complicated.
The first tiebreak criterion is head-to-head winning percentage between the teams tied, according to the league site.
Eau Claire clinched the head-to-head advantage over Willmar by winning five of the eight games between the sides. The Stingers have won three of four games against the Bucks but still have four pivotal games left in Waterloo this season, and split their eight games with Mankato.
Next up is the teams' winning percentage against the next-highest placed team in the division standings.
After that? A coin flip.
Buckle up, the playoff chase has arrived.