By IAN WILSON
The Medicine Hat Mavericks proved they had the horses last season.
The Mavs were such a stable force all summer – going 38-9 in the regular season – that it ultimately wasn’t a big surprise to see them claim the 2018 Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) title.
Technically, they won the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) championship. With a new league name in 2019 and a different playoff format – best-of-five series have been replaced with best-of-three competitions – Medicine Hat goes into the history books as the last champions of the WMBL.
No matter what you call the league, the Mavericks have a crown to defend and they are champing at the bit to do just that.
The Mavs will have several trusted steeds available to help them reclaim their championship status.
One of the players that fans will recognize is returning local product Nolan Rattai, who most recently swung a bat for Columbia College, where he posted a batting average of .329 while scoring 36 runs and producing 26 runs batted in (RBI) in 41 games.
Rattai will be joined in the infield by familiar first baseman Sal Rodriguez, who leaves Minot State University (MSU) as the program’s all-time home run and RBI leader.
His MSU teammate, right-handed pitcher Jaymon Cervantes, is also returning in the hopes of winning back-to-back titles. Cervantes – the winning pitcher in Medicine Hat’s deciding 8-2 Game 5 victory over Regina in the WCBL championship – was fantastic with the Beavers, posting a 9-1 record, 78 strikeouts and a 3.28 earned-run average (ERA) over 71.1 innings pitched.
Cervantes will peer in at known signal callers behind the plate when he returns to Athletic Park. Both Reed Odland and Colton Wright were catchers for the Mavs last summer and they’re expected to be back again in 2019. Odland is a Vauxhall Academy product from Enchant, Alberta and Wright was a big part of the leadership group with the Mavs in 2018.
Also back to don the red and white is outfielder Jordan Dray. In 43 games with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds this season, the Vauxhall-trained slugger scored 25 runs and 29 RBI while belting seven home runs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Joining the crew of returnees are some intriguing players to keep an eye on, according to team owner and general manager Greg Morrison.
The reigning ERA leader of the league – Owen Steele – is coming over from the Yorkton Cardinals this season. Steele, who also pitched for the University of Calgary Dinos, posted a 1.46 ERA in the WCBL last summer. During 49 innings pitched, he struck out 46 batters while going 2-2 for Yorkton.
Austin Sojka will play third base in Medicine Hat after a pair of stellar campaigns at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, where he’s collected 144 runs, 26 home runs, 112 RBI, a .416 batting average and a .505 on base percentage (OBP) in 111 games played.
P.J. Garcia makes his way to The Gas City from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO). The senior shortstop batted .398, with 114 runs and 93 RBI for the Drovers over two seasons and 102 games for the Drovers.
“We’re going to have a nice dose of veteran guys, returning guys and young guys that we hope to go out and have an impact,” Morrison recently told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
The league’s top coach, Andrew Murphy, will not be back with the Mavs this season.
Tom Vessella, an associate head coach with Moorpark Community College who pitched for nine seasons in the San Francisco Giants system, is taking over as skipper.
“Nothing is more important than being a part of a good organization,” said Vessella in a press release announcing the coaching changes.
“The Mavericks have a reputation for being a fantastic organization from the top down and I am thrilled to be a part of it.”
Vessella will be joined by returning assistant coach Fehlandt Lentini – who will be working with hitters and outfielders – and Jared Libke, who is transitioning from Mavs player to pitching coach.
Kyle Swannack, who was the team’s assistant general manager and pitching coach last season, stepped down to open Swanny’s Baseball & Training facility in Medicine Hat.
PEANUTS & CRACKER JACK
Several ballpark staples – hot dogs, burgers, peanuts, sunflower seeds, popcorn, etc. – are available at the Athletic Park concession stands, but fans can now look forward to Swirls Ice Cream when they need a cold treat on a warm day.
Meanwhile, adults seeking other cold treats – ie, alcoholic beverages – will have plenty of options, including offerings from local brewers Hell’s Basement and Medicine Hat Brewing Company.
TAKE ME OUT WITH THE CROWD
The Mavericks final game of 2018, a Game 5 title matchup against the Regina Red Sox for all the marbles, tested the limits of Athletic Park, which was built in 1977. The facility, which was upgraded in 2016 and 2017, has an official seating capacity of 2,000 people but an estimated 2,500 squeezed around the diamond for the championship contest. That included 300 onlookers who lined a South Saskatchewan River path beyond the outfield fence.
In addition to the best on-field playoff performance in the league last year, the Mavs also drew more postseason fans than any other team. Over eight home dates, Athletic Park welcomed 10,880 baseball watchers, an average of 1,360 per game.
That was up from their regular season totals, which saw the team attract crowds of 21,610 over 24 games – an average of 900 fans for each home contest. Those figures represented an improvement in attendance over the last few years, when the typical home game brought in 706 fans in 2015, 888 in 2016, and 736 in 2017.
Compared to other summer collegiate squads in North America, the Mavericks ranked 79th in attendance by Ballpark Digest in 2018 (up from 90th the previous year).
The Medicine Hat Mavericks 2019 regular season schedule can be viewed here.
WEBSITE & SOCIAL MEDIA
BROADCAST INFO: Watch games live stream on YouTube