How The West Was Won

By IAN WILSON

There are final outs and then there are final outs.

When Maverick centre fielder David Salgueiro caught a fly ball in the ninth inning of a game against the Regina Red Sox on Thursday, Aug. 16th at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat, it sealed an 8-2 win for the Mavs.

It was the final out of the deciding game of the series. It was also the final out of the last Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) game of 2018, marking the end of the league as we know it.

Next year, the WMBL will have a new name – the Western Canadian Baseball League – and a fresh look, as well as an expanded regular season, which will grow from 48 to 56 games for all 12 teams in the league. The playoff format will also change, with series downsizing from best-of-five to best-of-three. So, this was the last Game 5 in WMBL history.

Salgueiro’s catch also marked a return of the league championship to Medicine Hat and Alberta.

This is the third time the Mavericks have put their name on the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the top team in the WMBL. They won their first title in 2003 and they did it again in 2014.

The victory also wrested the trophy from Saskatchewan and returned it to Alberta for the first time since the Lethbridge Bulls won it all in 2015.

With this final out also came the start of a championship celebration that few baseball fans in The Gas City will soon forget.

TEAM FIRST

Team bonding. Team chemistry. Playing like a team.

Whatever team-based term you’d like to use, odds are it applies to the 2018 Medicine Hat Mavericks.

From the ownership, to the coaching staff, to the players, the Mavs were on the same page throughout the summer and it showed.

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The front page of the Aug. 17th edition of the Medicine Hat News, featuring a celebratory photo of the WMBL champion Mavericks, taken by sports editor Sean Rooney

“Medicine Hat had unreal hitting, no clear-cut star to pitch around, an extremely deep bullpen and way better defence than last year,” said Medicine Hat News sports editor Sean Rooney, who has covered the team since 2004.

“They also bonded early.”

After dropping the first two games of the season, Medicine Hat never really looked back. They posted a league-best 38-9 record in claiming top spot in the western division and their offence led the WMBL in runs (398), hits (522), runs batted in (344), walks (226), batting average (.311), and on-base percentage (.402).

Though not quite as dominant on the mound as at the plate, team stats also reflected a stable of strong arms. The Mavericks allowed the second fewest earned runs (172) and hits (397) in the league, while issuing just 153 free passes – only Okotoks and Edmonton walked fewer batters. Mav pitchers limited opposing hitters to a .243 batting average and put together a collective earned-run average (ERA) of 3.71. Only Weyburn outperformed the Hat in those statistical categories.

But the numbers only tell part of the story.

Rooney’s media colleague, Mitch Bach of CHAT TV, also noted the team’s cohesiveness early on in the campaign.

“Every championship team is different in their own special way. For the Mavericks, I could tell this was a group of individuals that gelled from the moment they arrived in Medicine Hat,” said the sports director and anchor.

“They enjoyed themselves on the field together, and away from the ball park … and it wasn’t just a small group, or even a group of ten players who got strung together all the time. It was EVERYONE.”

The bonds were so strong that two Mavericks – Barry Caine and Jordan Dray – passed up a trip to Japan to participate in the WMBL final.

PUT ME IN, COACH

The coaching staff was led by Andrew Murphy, who served as an assistant coach on the Mavs in 2017 before taking over as head coach this year.

While team dinners and road trips are often credited with bringing players together, Murphy implemented something much simpler and seemingly smaller that may have bonded everyone.

It took hold before anyone set foot in Athletic Park.

In a move that reflected the ever-changing ways that coaches and players communicate, Murphy set up an online group chat for the squad and Mavs catcher and team captain Colton Wright “made the most of it,” according to Rooney.

“It seemed like everyone knew Wright was the leader before the season even started. Roles were defined before they’d even met. That goes a long way,” said the journalist.

Kyle Swannack, the assistant general manager and pitching coach of the Mavs, said the coaching staff – which also included Fehlandt Lentini, a former Calgary Viper teammate of franchise owner Greg Morrison – was as unified as the players.

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Medicine Hat Mavericks’ skipper Andrew Murphy – the WMBL Coach of the Year in 2018 – at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson

“The coaching staff all worked very well together …. it was a very fun coaching staff to be a part of,” said Swannack, who has been a Mavs coach since 2014.

Their efforts were rewarded at the end of the regular season when Murphy was named the WMBL’s Coach of the Year.

THE WRIGHT STUFF

The man responsible for making sure coaching tactics and strategies played out on the field was Wright, a 22-year-old backstop from Surrey, B.C.

The right-handed batter, who appeared in 43 regular season games and 10 playoff games for the Mavs in 2017, was comfortable taking on a leadership role heading into this season.

“As a guy who had already been in the league and understood what it takes to win in this league, I thought I should speak up,” said the 5-foot-11 slugger, who is entering his senior year at Northeastern State University.

“Leadership is something that has always come naturally to me … I work with the coaching staff and try to make their job easier and make sure guys are ready to play every day.”

At the diamond, a leader’s voice is only as loud as his bat – and Wright’s bat was screaming this summer.

During the regular season, he finished second in the WMBL with 47 RBI; fourth in runs scored (45) and bases on balls (27); sixth in home runs (9) and eighth in hits (58).

When the playoffs rolled around, Wright continued to get the job done. In 14 games, he scored 12 runs and cashed in 15 RBI, while smacking four home runs – two of those dingers came in Game 5 victories, including the title-clinching win over Regina.

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Colton Wright (right) and his bat did some damage this season … photo by Ian Wilson

While coaching and leadership were vital to the Mavs success, they also had the depth that allowed them to put together regular season win streaks of 13 games and 10 games. Medicine Hat never lost three contests in a row this year.

That’s because they had the horses to prevail.

Or as outfielder Jaxson Hooge declared: “We were a team FULL of studs.”

The Calgarian, who wrapped up his collegiate baseball career with Tabor College before rejoining the Mavericks, said his squad had solid pitching and “position players that could whack.”

When you go around the horn, it’s hard to disagree with Hooge’s assesment.

Third baseman Louie Canjura scored 37 runs, posted 33 RBI and stole seven bases during 42 regular-season matchups, before belting out 19 hits and scoring 8 runs in 13 post-season games.

THE MVP

Shortstop Carson Johnson contributed six RBI in a Game 4  series clinching 17-4 win over Lethbridge in the opening round of the playoffs and then added two RBI in a winner-take-all Game 5 versus the Prospects in the western divisional final.

Throughout the regular season, the Arkansas native helped pace the offence by leading the league in runs (60), finishing second in walks (31), and pumping out the fifth most hits in the WMBL (62).

When his post-season batting average of .356 and team-leading 17 RBI earned him most-valuable player honours, Johnson didn’t seem to believe his ears upon hearing the announcement and hesitated in stepping forward for the recognition.

“I was not expecting that, but I am blessed and honoured to be named the MVP,” said Johnson, who will play his junior year at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte in 2019, along with Mavs’ pitchers Matt Brooks and Ryan Czanstkowski.

Rooney didn’t find Johnson’s MVP accolades surprising, although he said there were many candidates for the award.

“You could’ve named nine different guys the playoff MVP and nobody would’ve batted an eye,” said Rooney.

HOMETOWN HERO

One player familiar with the Mavs and Athletic Park is Nolan Rattai, who grew up in Medicine Hat.

The second baseman – who is also comfortable sliding over to play shortstop or third base – played for the Mavericks in 2016 before taking a break from the team last summer.

“It’s always great getting that local talent back in a Mavs jersey,” said Morrison, who described Rattai as a polished hitter and versatile infielder.

“Off the field, he is a quiet but focused leader, one of those lead-by-example kids.”

His return helped spark the club. After batting .313 and scoring 36 regular season runs, the Vauxhall Academy grad played even better in the postseason. During 13 playoff games, Rattai scored 13 runs and had a batting average of .392. He was clutch in Game 5 matchups against the Red Sox and Prospects, scoring a pair of runs in each of those contests.

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Medicine Hat product Nolan Rattai plays third base while Carson Johnson patrols shortstop in the background … photo by Ian Wilson

“Winning in front of our home fans was amazing,” said the 5-foot-11 infielder, who is entering his senior year at Columbia College in Missouri.

“Not only being in front of family and friends, but also all those other fans who supported us throughout the entire year. It was just nice to win a championship for all those who spent countless hours supporting us.”

THE FAN FAVOURITES

Completing our trip around the horn, we land on first base, where Sal Rodriguez and Zack Gray split time.

READ MORE: 1 Thru 9: Sal Rodriguez

Gray, who also played in the outfield, instantly endeared himself to the Medicine Hat faithful by driving 26 hours straight to join the team.

After settling in, the 6-foot-3 lefty bat from Ohio started driving the ball, too. His 40 regular season games saw him collect 39 runs, 42 RBI and a .321 batting average. Like many of his teammates, the sly-grinning Gray – who played for coach Murphy at Henderson State University – had a strong playoff run.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, was popular for his play on the field and for all the time he put in with fans. Away from the ballpark, the Minot State University senior was often participating in community events and making school appearances. At the diamond, you’d frequently find the 6-foot-2, 250-pound native of Crystal Lake, Illinois signing autographs or playing catch with kids in the stands. He even had a concession item named after him – if you ordered a “Sal Burger” at Athletic Park you’d get a double cheeseburger stuffed with mushrooms and onions.

“Every moment I spent in Medicine Hat with the Mavericks was something special,” said Rodriguez, who learned about the Mavs from Minot State teammate Zack Kunkel, a former Maverick player from the Hat.

“Obviously the baseball was awesome but the whole organization felt like family. That’s what made playing for the Mavericks so special – it’s easy to go to the park when you know and get along with everyone involved with the team. And the fans rallied around us all summer and without them this season wouldn’t have been as sweet.”

Rodriguez, who also served as designated hitter, rewarded those fans and the club with a reliable bat. He batted .326 while appearing in 52 playoff and regular season games for the Mavs. On three separate occasions Rodriguez had 3-RBI nights, including Game 3 of their opening series against Lethbridge; Game 1 of the western division final versus Edmonton; and Game 2 of the WMBL championship. All three of those postseason games were Maverick victories.

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First baseman/DH Sal Rodriguez warms up at Athletic Park … photo by Ian Wilson

ARMED FOR BATTLE

Generating runs is only one part of the equation – preventing them is the other.

The five-man rotation featured Jared Libke, Alex Dafoe, Jumpei Akanuma, Jaymon Cervantes and Matt Brooks.

Libke – a rubber-armed righty from Saskatoon, who pitched extremely well for the Mavs in the 2017 playoffs – had an excellent regular season, going 5-1 with a 3.73 ERA while striking out 42 batters during his 50-plus innings of work.

Between playoffs and the regular season, Dafoe picked up 8 wins, no losses and had an ERA of 3.42.

Brooks pitched 37 innings for the Mavs before appearing in the postseason, racking up 40 strikeouts, 4 wins and posting a 2.67 ERA. His first two playoff appearances were losses to the Bulls and Prospects, but the 6-foot-1 righthander from Pennsylvania saved his best stuff for last.

In Game 2 of the series against Regina, Brooks struck out six batters over six innings and allowed two earned runs during a 6-4 win for Medicine Hat.

“To come in as a first year Maverick and help win a championship for guys who have been there for three years means a lot to me. It’s always good to see graduated seniors win in their last game ever. Not many people can say their final game was a win,” said the junior at UNC Charlotte.

Brooks pointed to consistency as the main reason the Mavericks won a championship. For a team that didn’t lose more than two games in a row, that’s accurate, but there were  struggles along the way.

Akanuma, the lone WMBL all-star in the rotation, had a disastrous outing against Edmonton on July 7th. The native of Kyoto, Japan gave up eight earned runs and only lasted 2.1 innings during the 13-10 loss to the Prospects. The loss snapped a 13-game win streak for the Mavs.

“When you’re doing well you can be confident with what you do, but it’s tough to believe in it when you have an outing like that. But I had awesome coaches and teammates who talked to me and got me out of my head. I got some good feedback about the outing and I refreshed my mind and made a comeback after,” said Akanuma, who wrapped up his senior season at Lee University before joining the Mavs.

During 70.1 regular season and playoff innings, Akanuma went 8-2 with a 3.71 ERA.

“This is the first time ever for me winning a championship. It means a lot,” Akanuma added.

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WMBL all star Jumpei Akanuma delivers for the Mavs … photo by Ian Wilson

Another starting pitcher who faced adversity was Jaymon Cervantes. The Tucson, Arizona product only went 2-2 with a 5.53 ERA during the regular season. But Cervantes was outstanding in the postseason, picking up Game 5 wins against Edmonton and Regina. During the decisive championship game in Medicine Hat, Cervantes K’ed six Red Sox batters and allowed only one run over seven innings en route to an 8-2 victory.

“Best summer of my life,” said the 6-foot-2 righthander.

“It’s the best team I’ve played on. I wouldn’t want to pitch to our hitters and I definitely wouldn’t want to hit off our pitching staff – the guys are unreal. It also helps that the coaching staff was laid back and let us do our own thing that was a big part of our success. This championship is huge to me, and although it’s summer ball, it’s a big deal.”

CLOSING TIME

After the Mavericks won the first two games of the WMBL championship series over Regina, many fans left Athletic Park thinking they’d seen the last of their beloved team in 2018.

But the Red Sox answered with two straight victories at Currie Field and that set up an historic Game 5 contest back in Medicine Hat.

The ticket office opened at 10am on Aug. 16th that game day and the lineups continued through the morning and into the afternoon until the 2,000 bleacher and premium seats were sold out shortly after 3pm. Overflow seating was then offered up and another 200 spots along the first-base side were snapped up.

The fans kept coming to Athletic Park – it’s estimated another 300 people crowded along a river path beyond the outfield fences. A total crowd of 2,500 showed up, making it the largest audience in Maverick history.

After a scoreless first inning, the Mavs scored a run in the second frame and added four more in the third inning. When Wright hit a fourth-inning solo blast to put Medicine Hat up 6-0, he couldn’t help but look up at the adoring red-clad masses as he rounded the bases.

“It was pretty insane. After I hit my home run, I rounded second base and looked up at the crowd and kind of took it all in. It was amazing,” said Wright.

The Red Sox and Mavs traded runs in the fifth inning and by the time closer Tyler Shumpert got the ball in the top of the ninth, he had an 8-1 lead to work with.

“The emotions I had going into the game to finish it off were through the roof and it took me a second to get a hold of myself,” Shumpert told Alberta Dugout Stories.

After conceding two hits and a run, the 6-foot, 190-pound righty was able to get two outs before the sixth batter of the inning, right fielder Jahshua Jones, came to the plate.

“Closing in the regular season still brings out the adrenaline, but compared to playoffs it’s a different animal,” said Shumpert, who played for the Red Sox in 2014 and 2015.

“You have to be locked in every pitch when closing in the playoffs, because one mistake could cost your team not only the game, but the season … you also know that this is it, this is the do-or-die situation you dream about being in as a kid.”

Queue the pop up for the final out of the season.

“When I saw the fly ball go to centre field and David was camped under it, it was like a weight off my chest that we finally accomplished what we talked about from day one,” said Wright of Salgueiro’s catch.

The celebratory dogpile on top of Shumpert left the pitcher, who closed out Games 1 and 2 of the series, blissfully banged up.

“The dogpile is something you want to be at the bottom of until you’re actually at the bottom of it,” laughed Shumpert.

“It’s a great feeling and then it’s 20 seconds of panic … I do have some bruises on my shoulder and back and a nice gash above my eye, but other than that, it’s something I’ll always remember.”

The celebration kicked into another gear after the trophy ceremony at home plate.

“It meant everything in the world to me to win with this group of guys,” said Wright.

“Getting handed the trophy and being called the captain and being the first one to hold it up was the best moment of my life.”

The team continued a tradition started by the 2014 championship Mavs when they all sat on the left field wall under the scoreboard and sang the Canadian national anthem.

“Doing that, I feel was a mixture of the amazing experience we all had in this beautiful country and also showing appreciation to, not only the country, but the fans,” said Shumpert, who hails from Houston, Texas.

Few enjoyed the experience more than Morrison. The owner watched the team’s attendance rise from an average of 736 per game during the 2017 regular season, to 900 per home matchup over the 2018 campaign. It jumped again to an average of 1,360 during the postseason before ending with the biggest crowd the ballpark had seen in decades.

But the Mavs owner also had sentimental reasons to savour the win. His father, Ross Morrison, also won the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy in front of 2,500 fans. Ross did so as a member of the Unity Cardinals in 1966 and it was the largest crowd to watch a Northern Saskatchewan Baseball League game.

“There’s a storied history to this league,” said Greg Morrison.

The Mavs championship will serve as the final chapter for the Western Major Baseball League’s story.

But plenty of new stories await from the Western Canadian Baseball League next year.

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