By IAN WILSON
Thanks to the Medicine Hat Mavericks, the Lethbridge Bulls were seeing red at the end of the 2018 season.
That red came courtesy of the rose-coloured caps and uniforms of Medicine Hat, who eliminated Lethbridge 3-1 in a five-game playoff series that saw the Mavs outscore the Bulls by 18 runs over four games.
The unceremonious exit punctuated a somewhat lacklustre summer for Lethbridge, a squad that finished fourth in the Western Division of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) with a 19-29 record. The Bulls did enough to fend off Fort McMurray and Brooks in securing the final playoff spot in the division, but their postseason performance made it clear that a championship title was well out of reach.
Despite the frustrating finish, there were plenty of bright spots in the Lethbridge lineup, including two highly promising rookies. First baseman Kaleb Warden was named the 2018 WCBL Rookie of the Year and catcher Jaret Semeniuk was the league’s Canadian Rookie of the Year winner.
The Bulls enter the 2019 season looking to build around those promising stars, among others, and improve their status from bubble playoff team to a WCBL powerhouse.
BACK IN THE BRIDGE
As mentioned, Semeniuk and Warden are returning.
In Semeniuk, the team has a player who came in as a third-string catcher and ended up working his way into the lineup with some regularity, batting .371 in 30 games.
“I’m excited to be back,” said the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) product in a press release announcing the signing. “I got a feel for the league and now I’m ready to make a difference and help push this team to the next level.”
Warden put up solid numbers in his first WCBL season, as well. In 46 contests with the Bulls he hit .369 with 38 RBI and 42 runs. He continued to swing a hot bat for the University of Arkansas at Monticello this year, hitting 14 home runs, 52 RBI and scoring 41 runs in 50 games for the Weevils.
Joining Warden across the diamond is the familiar face of Dylan Borman, who is entering his third season with the Bulls and coming off a campaign with the Weevils that saw him smack 12 long balls and collect 48 RBI in 44 games. The third baseman hit .282 and drove in 35 runs during 174 regular-season at bats for Lethbridge in 2018.
Local product Nick Ankermann, another PBA grad, will also be tending the infield for the Bulls once again. The shortstop recently wrapped up a solid senior season with Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), where he batted .353 and was a perfect 20 for 20 in stolen base attempts.
The Bulls are welcoming back some key returnees to the bump, as well.
Ankermann’s ENMU teammate Liam Sabiston is one of them. The Calgary sophomore, who played for the Bulls over the previous two summers, picked up four saves for the Greyhounds in 2019.
Vauxhall Academy alumnus Jaden Griffin will look to build on the 31 innings he contributed to Lethbridge’s 2018 season, when he struck out 28 batters and posted a 3.18 ERA during five starts. The lefty is coming from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where he registered 27 Ks over 23.1 innings pitched.
Ben Erwin is also returning to Spitz Stadium. In 2017 and 2018, the right-hander pitched 52.2 regular season and playoff innings, going 4-4 with a 4.78 ERA while recording 46 strikeouts. More recently, the Spruce Grove native took the mound for the Niagara University Purple Eagles, going 0-3 while striking out 17 batters in 19.1 innings.
Supplementing the returning talent are some newcomers who have trained in southern Alberta or made a name for themselves playing college ball in the U.S.
Bulls fans will want to check out Adam Macko early on in the season. With the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft happening June 3-5, Macko – who has appeared on several prominent draft list rankings – could be selected and signed soon after the start of the WCBL season.
Macko, who hails from Stony Plain and trained at Vauxhall Academy, has one of the more interesting baseball backgrounds, and is a player to watch in 2019.
Another Vauxhall pupil to keep an eye on is Chase Florendine, who has a fastball that can touch 90 miles per hour. Florendine has committed to play with NCAA Division 1 school Cal State Northridge.
The Bulls recruited 11 NCAA Division 1 players this offseason, including eight pitchers. Griffin and his VCU teammate Evan Chenier are among those who will take the mound in Lethbridge. In 43 innings of work, Chenier went 6-0 while striking out 28 batters and posting a 3.56 ERA.
Not to be outdone, Erwin is bringing two pitching pals with him from the Purple Eagles. Jordan Parranto, whose hometown is Sherwood Park, played for the Edmonton Prospects in 2016, while Cal Theal hails from Ontario. Both pitchers are expected to work out of the bullpen.
Meanwhile, the Bulls also looked to the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) for talent. They landed the best hitter from that circuit in outfielder Riley Jepson, who hit .405 with six home runs, 30 runs and eight stolen bases in 24 games for the University of Fraser Valley Cascades this season.
Jesse Sawyer has been a presence in Alberta baseball dating back to his childhood playing days when he went to a Little League World Series in 2001.
He went on to play at South Dakota State University and for the Lethbridge Bulls, where he earned WCBL MVP honours in 2011. He has since found a home as a head coach at PBA and with the Bulls. Sawyer is very familiar with the baseball scene in the Lethbridge area and he knows the ups and downs of the WCBL season better than most people.
Joining Sawyer in the dugout is pitching coach Luc Hebert, who played for the Bulls in 2014 and 2015, and assistant coach Chance Wheatley, a former Yorkton Cardinal.
Spitz Stadium consistently draws around 1,000 fans per game when the Lethbridge Bulls take the field.
In the summer of 2016, a total of 24,281 baseball watchers showed up to take in the Bulls over 23 regular season dates in Lethbridge. That number dropped slightly to 23,797 over 24 contests in 2017 and it edged up to 24,525 during the same number of home dates last season.
On one hand, the Bulls can be pleased that they have the third-best attendance in the league, trailing only Okotoks and Edmonton. On the other hand, following $2.3 million in stadium renovations in 2018 and with a capacity to hold crowds of up to 3,000 people, there is still room for improvement.
The Medicine Hat Mavericks benefited at the gate during a successful season on the field last year. Can the Bulls experience a similar boost in fans if they rack up more wins?
The Lethbridge Bulls 2019 regular season opens on the road in Edmonton on May 25th when they take on the Prospects at RE/MAX Field.
The team will return to Lethbridge for a very special fundraising exhibition game in honour of Tanner Craswell and Mitch Maclean on May 29th, and their official home opener follows on May 30th when they face the Fort McMurray Giants at Spitz Stadium.
The rest of their 56-game schedule can be viewed here.
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