By IAN WILSON
We spent a lot of time examining the Alberta teams of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) with 2019 season previews for each club. But the six Alberta squads only make up the Western Division of the league. There are another six teams competing in the Eastern Division of the WCBL – all of them from Saskatchewan.
Because our focus is baseball in Alberta, we aren’t doing full previews of each team in the East, but we have prepared a quick summary of all the Saskatchewan teams that will travel west throughout the summer. One of these teams will meet up with the best club from Alberta for the right to be crowned WCBL champion at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, we also decided to highlight Alberta players on the Eastern Division rosters.
Here’s a quick look at each Saskatchewan-based team in the WCBL:
REGINA RED SOX
The defending Eastern Division champs had a solid regular season in 2018, going 26-21 to finish third behind the Weyburn Beavers and the Swift Current 57’s in the standings. But the Red Sox caught fire in the playoffs, upsetting both those teams before ultimately losing to the Medicine Hat Mavericks in a winner-take-all Game 5 at Athletic Park.
Returning players from the 2018 squad include designated hitter Griffin Keller; stolen base and runs leader Wesley Moss; as well as the De La Cruz boys from the Bronx – Sam and Adam – who are both expected to be patrolling the infield again. Hometown pitcher Dylan Bells is also back. He went 3-1 with a 4.38 earned run average (ERA) and 32 strikeouts over 41 regular-season innings last year.
Branden Redfern, who pitched for the Brooks Bombers in 2016, also joins Regina following his senior season with Coppin State University, where he went 3-2 with a pair of saves and a 3.11 ERA in 46.1 innings.
The Beavers were the beasts of the East in the regular season last summer, going 37-11 and easily finishing atop the division standings before Regina knocked them out of contention in a second-round, five-game stunner.
Winnipeg infielder Drake Pilat – who had a .336 batting average last summer – will look for redemption alongside Vauxhall Academy grad and Calgarian Tyler Scott, who is now in his third season with Weyburn and has hit .323 in 69 games with the team.
Joining Pilat and Scott in the infield is Ryan Gaab, a Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) student entering his third season with his hometown team.
Another Calgary product, Shaun Logan, is in his first WCBL season. The right-handed reliever, who trained with the Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds, will try to keep opposing batters from doing damage.
SWIFT CURRENT 57’s
The back-to-back league champions in 2016 and 2017 were unable to succeed in their quest for a three-peat last year, but it would be unfair to brand the season as a failure.
Swift Current went 28-20 in the 2018 regular season before Regina eliminated the 57’s in four games in the first round.
They’ll look to regain their championship form with the help of several newcomers and a few familiar faces, including outfielder Jared Binsfield, who suited up for the 57’s last season but was not a part of the title-winning teams. In 28 games with Swift Current in 2018, Binsfield posted a batting average of .282 and scored 17 runs.
On the bump, 6-foot-5 Edmonton southpaw Finnegan Duffield is expected to work out of the bullpen this summer, while Vauxhall Academy grad Garrett Hawkins returns after going 4-0 with 38 Ks in 37.1 innings for the 57’s last year. The native of Biggar, Saskatchewan also had a 3.13 ERA in his eight appearances for Swift Current. The right-handed Hawkins is fresh off a highly successful rookie campaign with the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds that saw him strike out 69 batters over 77 innings, while registering a 3.62 ERA.
Connor Sparks is another pitcher to watch. The 6-foot-6 righty from Saskatoon is a former Canadian Junior National Team (JNT) member and he was a 26th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.
MOOSE JAW MILLER EXPRESS
A middle-of-the-pack team that went 23-25 and claimed the last playoff spot in the Eastern Division last summer, Moose Jaw will look to elevate their stock in 2019.
To do that, they’ll lean on Blake Gallagher, another Vauxhall Academy product, who can win games from the mound and the batter’s box. The Fredericton, New Brunswick dual threat is back after being named the Miller Express team MVP in 2018. At the plate last summer, he batted .296 in 34 regular-season games while scoring 20 runs and stealing six bases. During 15 innings of relief work, Gallagher struck out 20 batters and picked up a win and a save. The right-handed batter and thrower recently wrapped up an excellent season with the Colby Community College Trojans, where he hit 10 home runs and produced 43 RBI in 173 at bats, while striking out 30 opponents and collecting three saves in 22.1 innings pitched.
Fresno, California hurler Nick Falco has also returned to Moose Jaw for another season of summer college ball in the WCBL. Falco sat down 39 batters via strikeout in 35.2 innings for the Miller Express in 2018, while recording a 4.29 ERA in 18 appearances.
Outfielder Eric Marriott of Niagara Falls, Ontario is back for more with the Miller Express, as well. The Mitchell College senior led the team in runs (33), hits (51) and stolen bases (18) last summer.
Tracking down fly balls with the speedy Marriott is Okotoks Dawgs Academy product Tucker Zdunich, a slugger from High River who played with Gallagher and another Moose Jaw outfielder – Alex Orenczuk – at Colby College. In 53 games with the Trojans this season, the freshman batted .335 with eight long balls, 37 RBI and 30 runs.
It was a rough season for the Cardinals last summer, as they finished with just 14 wins and 33 losses, putting them well out of postseason contention.
The Cards will look to a number of players with Alberta ties as they try to claw their way out of the basement.
Pitchers Jake Anderson and Tanner Huber both trained in Alberta. Anderson is a 6-foot-3 righthander from Calgary who recently played junior varsity ball at PBA in Lethbridge.
Huber, who also plays the infield, went to high school at Badlands Baseball Academy in Oyen before moving onto Bismarck State to suit up for the Mystics. In his freshman season at Bismarck State College Huber went 2-0 with 20 Ks in 23.1 innings. The Unity, Saskatchewan native had a 4.24 ERA in 13 appearances.
Framing pitches for Huber, Anderson and the other arms on the Cardinals is catcher Matthew Korman, who can also be found playing in the outfield … or strumming along with his band Humbabe. Korman recently wrapped up play with the University of Calgary Dinos of the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC). During 29 games, he scored 13 runs, produced 16 RBI and smacked two homers, while batting .288.
Korman’s teammate with the Dinos, shortstop Logan MacDougall, is back with the Cardinals for a second straight season. In 2018, MacDougall – who also logs time on the bump for Yorkton – went 0-2 over 20.2 innings and batted .289 in 38 trips to the plate.
Gage Buck, a graduate of PBA, is reuniting with MacDougall in Saskatchewan. Last summer, the pitcher/infielder struck out 11 batters in 10.1 innings and posted a 4.35 ERA. At the dish, Buck scored 11 runs and batted .200 in 55 at bats.
Nick Hoyt is another PBA product. The sophomore infielder attending Oklahoma Panhandle State University is originally from Fredericton.
Meanwhile, Phil Whelan, a former Okotoks Dawgs Academy pupil from Canmore, will pace the outfield for the Cards. During his 2019 season with Vancouver Island University of the CCBC, Whelan hit six home runs, manufactured 19 RBI and scored 14 runs in 28 games.
The Millionaires couldn’t buy a win in 2018.
While their 12-36 record put them only slightly behind Yorkton in the Eastern Division standings, Melville was still nowhere near the playoff hunt and they finished dead last in the WCBL.
The Millionaires, like the Cardinals, added a couple of University of Calgary players to their roster in 2019.
Reliever Brendan Makay, of Trail, B.C., pitched 22 innings for the Dinos, going 1-2 with 17 strikeouts and a 5.32 ERA in the regular season and the playoffs.
Makay doesn’t have to look far to find a player he’s taken the field with before. At first base is fellow Dino and Baseball Alberta’s 2017 junior umpire of the year Mike Ozga. In 25 CCBC games this year, Ozga hit one long ball and contributed 12 RBI and 13 runs to the Dinos’ offence.
On a team with little in the way of returning players, some of the new guys will be counted on to step up, including starting pitcher Tanner Solomon, who logged 64.2 innings at Wayland Baptist University. The righthander from Phoenix went 6-4 with 60 Ks and a 5.01 ERA during the 2019 school year. Cal State Northridge commit Chris Paruleski, of San Diego, will also be looked to for quality innings.
Outfielder Evan Moore, who stole 23 bases and batted .287 in 38 games at Belhaven University, could be another player to keep an eye on.