By IAN WILSON
Entering their fourth year of existence, the Fort McMurray Giants are in playoffs-or-bust mode.
Last season’s record of 17 wins and 31 losses may not look like much, but it left the Giants just two games back of the Edmonton Prospects and the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Division of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
In an attempt to bolster their postseason hopes, the Giants have raided Edmonton’s talent pool. More on that later, but consider Fort McMurray an up-and-coming team that is gunning for a playoff spot – we’ll see if they’ve got the talent to get there.
Despite a bevy of roster moves this off season, there will be some key players from the 2018 roster heading back to Fort Mac this summer.
Right-handed pitcher Tyler Hodder is one of the most recognizable returnees. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound hurler – whose hometown is Fort McMurray – is coming off a stellar campaign in the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) with the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack. In eight starts with the WolfPack, Hodder went 5-1 with a 2.30 earned run average (ERA) and 46 strikeouts over 54.2 innings.
Joining Hodder again are a couple of other local products, including outfielder Mark Chappelle, who recently trained at Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) and Quinn Tassie, who is coming off of his freshman season with Midland University, where he scored seven runs and posted five hits in just 13 at bats.
Hodder will also have Bonnyville buddy Nik Cardinal in the rotation with him. The PBA grad went 4-4, with a 2.99 ERA and 66 strikeouts over 78.1 innings for the Giants the last two summers. More recently, he chucked 18 innings out of the bullpen for Fresno State, racking up 19 Ks and a 2-0 record.
Tristin Richardson is coming back for his third season with the Giants, as well, and he is expected to take on a leadership role with the team. The outfielder from Michigan most recently appeared in 32 games for the Adrian College Bulldogs in 2019, scoring 22 runs and belting 14 runs batted in (RBI).
Meanwhile, B.J. Minarcin will also suit up in black and orange once again. The utility player from Naples, Florida was productive for the Giants last summer, scoring 29 runs and adding 20 RBI over 44 games.
Grambling State University catcher Richard Ortiz – who played for Fort McMurray in 2017 – will set up behind home plate at Shell Place once again. The senior from Ponce, Puerto Rico batted .351 in 74 at bats for the Tigers this season.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
The Giants made a big splash in February when it was announced that Rich Walker – a member of the Edmonton Prospects who pitched a perfect game at Shell Place last summer – was joining the squad.
Walker was a workhorse in his junior season with the College of Idaho Yotes this year. He pitched 89 innings, struck out 71 batters, posted a 4.35 ERA and put together a 4-7 record. After such a long and intense campaign, the Cave Creek, Arizona native opted to take the summer off and will no longer be joining the Giants.
The rotation will, however, be bolstered by the recruitment of Will Langford, who threw the first no-hitter in Queen’s University history, and right-hander Jordan Williams, who played with Richardson at Adrian College, where he went 7-1 with 51 Ks over 52.1 innings pitched in 2019.
Ryan Moroz, a graduate of Dawgs Academy in Okotoks, joins the team as a reliever. Moroz recently played for Minot State University, where he was teammates with Medicine Hat Mavericks first baseman Sal Rodriguez and pitcher Jaymon Cervantes. Those teammates will become instant rivals when Moroz toes the rubber for Fort McMurray.
Keith Manby will be a versatile player for the Giants. He joins the team from Miles Community College, where he pitched out of the bullpen and as a starter – striking out 102 batters over 75 innings. Manby put up a 4.56 ERA and registered a 10-1 record for the Pioneers. He also threw two complete games. As a hitter, the freshman from White Rock, B.C. posted a .356 batting average, a .424 on-base percentage and he produced 36 RBI in 104 at bats.
Handling the pitching staff is hard-hitting catcher Gunner Rainey, another student from Adrian College. In 46 games with the Bulldogs this year, the sophomore drove in 50 runs, and scored 42 runs while batting .411.
Another accomplished hitter to watch is Peyton Crispin, who hit .401 for Oklahoma City University. The sophomore also touched the plate 34 times and drove in 39 runs in 48 contests.
Cameron Fritz has been brought in from Dodge City Community College to play first base and help out the offence. He hit .329 with 25 runs and 36 RBI in 48 games for Dodge City in 2019.
The hot corner will be manned by Nick Carlini, who batted .315 while scoring 36 runs and posting 34 RBI at Keystone College. He also belted nine home runs in the Colonial States Athletic Conference.
Meanwhile, infielder Eric Meyer posted solid numbers at the plate for Spalding University. Meyer hit 10 home runs, scored 49 runs and hit 42 RBI in 43 games for the Eagles. He also stole 10 bases and put up a .380 batting average.
PUT ME IN COACH
The biggest change for the Giants heading into the season won’t be noticeable at the plate or on the mound – but the players will certainly notice it in the dugout.
Ray Brown, who left the Prospects along with Orv Franchuk following the 2018 season, is taking over from Pat Riley as manager of the ball club.
During five seasons with the Prospects, Brown helped turn around a struggling Edmonton squad and build up the fan base at RE/MAX Field. The team was never a regular-season powerhouse under Brown, but it was competitive and the Prospects made it to the WCBL finals in back-to-back seasons, losing in 2016 and 2017 to Swift Current.
Brown is known for emphasizing a strong work ethic and attention to detail. The skipper told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast recently that he thinks he can help the Giants make it to the postseason.
“I was really surprised last year that they weren’t in the playoffs,” Brown said of Fort McMurray.
“Hopefully I can come there with the players they’ve been recruiting and we’ll play the game a little bit differently and get to the playoffs. I think it’s a good fit.”
With Andrew Bradbury handling recruiting for the team, Brown is also being assisted by someone he knows well. Australian Michael Gahan joins the Giants as the pitching coach. Gahan was an infielder and pitcher for the Prospects in 2017 and 2018 – he batted .312 in 86 games for Edmonton. He also recorded four playoff saves for the team and proved to be a clutch performer with the game on the line.
Attendance at Shell Place – which opened in 2015 and can accommodate 1,700 people – has dipped in recent years, but the Giants still have the sixth best crowd figures in the WCBL.
Last year, the team welcomed 13,868 fans to the ballpark, averaging 578 people at 24 home dates. That was down from crowds of 14,207 – or 618 fans per game – in 2017, but the Giants only played one home game on a Saturday and one home date on a Sunday all season in 2018. The numbers were also down from the 2016 attendance figures, which showed 17,732 fans come out to Shell Place.
The downward trend further underscores the importance of making playoffs and providing a winning product for the fan base in Fort McMurray.
The Fort McMurray Giants 2019 regular season starts on the road on May 29th in Brooks. The first home game is on June 6th, when the Giants host the defending champion Medicine Hat Mavericks.
The full schedule can be viewed here.
WEBSITE & SOCIAL MEDIA
Home games are broadcast on Country 93.3 radio