It wasn’t a typical 23rd birthday party, but Bryce Oriold-Fraser wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Just five days after twirling a masterful complete game five-hitter to open up the Western Canadian Baseball League semi-finals against the Sylvan Lake Gulls, the Lethbridge Bulls righthander found himself back on the mound in game two of the league final.
With the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy on the line, Oriold-Fraser allowed just five hits and two runs in five-plus innings of relief as the Bulls beat the Edmonton Prospects 16-5 to complete the two-game sweep.
“I just tried to go out and pitch like it was a tie ballgame,” the Lethbridge native told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.. “Everyone else was kind of letting it all sink in, but I still had to focus. It was awesome, though.”
It was the Bulls’ second WCBL championship, with the first coming in 2015. Oriold-Fraser remembers watching the team as a young player, then battling through adversity with the Bulls in 2018.
“It’s crazy,” he laughed. “It’s still hard to believe. I can’t believe it happened.”
For his efforts, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound hurler was named the WCBL Playoff MVP.
“I can’t even believe that one – it’s crazy,” Oriold-Fraser continued. “Going from being on the team that got smacked around in the first round of the playoffs in 2018 to win it all this year, it’s just great.”
ROLLER-COASTER REGULAR SEASON
“Crazy” might be one way of describing the Bulls’ ascent to the championship.
The club limped into the playoffs, finishing third out of five teams, and was mired in a six-game losing streak to finish the regular season. The last four of those losses came at the hands of the Gulls, including a no-hitter in the season finale on August 15th.
“Our message was to just clear everything heading into playoffs,” head coach Chance Wheatley said. “It’s a new, fresh start and to come ready to compete, which they did a great job of all playoffs.”
Catcher Noah Or, who led the WCBL with a .400 batting average and was near the top in a few other offensive categories, believes the regular season took a toll on his team.
“A lot of guys knew that we had to flip the switch come playoffs,” the UBC Thunderbirds product said. “So taking those last few games to kind of rest up but still try to compete out there was a little tough at the end, especially as a lot of our guys hadn’t played in 18 months.”
While some players around the league had been able to play college baseball this past spring, Or and his UBC teammates like Ty Penner and Mike Fitzsimmons were relegated to practice games against teammates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
FLIPPING THE SWITCH
The Bulls didn’t have a lot of time to regroup after the season-ending thumping at the hands of the Gulls.
One day later, Oriold-Fraser was on the mound for his game one gem – a 4-2 win.
“It was tough for us to go 1-9 against them (the Gulls) on the year, and to lose four-straight against them, then to come in and be like, ‘Okay we’re going to beat you guys,’” Or admitted. “Especially after winning that first game, we knew that both of those series would be ours.”
That sense of belief continued into game two, as utilityman Brad Goodwin took to the mound to shut down the potent Gulls offense. He allowed just seven hits in eight innings of work, while Arden Berg closed out a 3-2 victory at home, completing the two-game sweep.
Oriold-Fraser says, win or lose, the message in the clubhouse remained the same.
“Just flush it, because it didn’t matter what happened before that,” the Southeastern University product said. “We just needed to play our game and be focused.”
Next up was the Edmonton Prospects, who had also swept their semi-final foe in the top-ranked Okotoks Dawgs Black.
Jake Anderson was the next man up in the Bulls’ rotation, and he continued the work-horse trend by tossing a complete game three-hitter in a 2-0 triumph.
“Our offense had really carried us all season – that was kind of what we were known for,” Wheatley said of the Bulls’ WCBL-leading 436 hits and 317 runs. “But our pitchers really stepped up and carried us to victory in those first few games.”
Having a front-row seat to those performances, Or was impressed with what he saw from his pitchers.
“It was great to see the switch they turned on for the playoffs,” the Richmond, BC native told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It was just a different mentality from them, and their execution was at another level that I hadn’t seen during the season.”
The championship series shifted to Sherwood Park for game two, with the Bulls turning to veteran Kyle Poapst on the mound.
The team leader in starts left the game with a 4-2 lead, allowing just three hits in a little more than three innings of work.
As a veteran, Oriold-Fraser knew he might be summoned at some point, at first expecting to pitch in game three, if it was necessary.
“(Pitching coach) Luc (Hebert) came up to me and asked if I would be good,” he said before having a good chuckle about his performance. “We wanted to win, so I had to go out and pitch and I did not too bad, I guess.”
The Bulls’ offense took the pressure off their pitcher, exploding for eight runs in the sixth inning in cruising to the 16-5 win.
“The leadership group on the team did a great job of refocusing the guys,” Wheatley said. “The guys were looking forward and focused on the playoffs. They flipped that switch and showed up when they needed them the most.”
Oriold-Fraser admits the final out was a bit of a blur.
After working Prospects rightfielder Jonny McGill to a 1-2 count, his fourth pitch came without a swing and a called strike three.
“I knew it happened, but I still didn’t believe it, so I was just kind of dazed,” Oriold-Fraser said. “Then as soon as I saw Noah come out, I realized what happened and it was just crazy.”
Pandemonium broke out as the Bulls players came from the field and out of the dugout to dogpile their pitcher.
“I can’t even explain it,” Oriold-Fraser smiled. “Honestly, the greatest moment of my life.”
Or was impressed with his batterymate’s performance.
“Amazing – I don’t know if there’s much else to say,” he said. “He clutched out for us.”
Before the team received the championship trophy, WCBL President Kevin Kvame declared Oriold-Fraser as the league’s playoff MVP, putting a cherry on top of the righty’s day.
“Definitely the best birthday I’ve ever had,” Oriold-Fraser proclaimed.
The 2021 season will certainly be remembered for different reasons, not the least of which being the WCBL’s decision to go ahead with five teams made up of Canadian players.
It was viewed as an opportunity to showcase the talent coming through the Canadian pipeline, while giving fans a chance to gather and celebrate the game.
Winning the championship and having the season come to an end gave players and coaches a chance to reflect on all that had transpired in the last few months.
Oriold-Fraser is grateful to have been a part of it all.
“Just the fact that we go from losing however many games in a row, getting no hit, then going 4-0 in playoffs,” he said. “With a flip of the switch, we went from a very average team to the best team in the WCBL.”
Or appreciated being able to play with some UBC teammates and others he grew up with.
“We were a team that came from all over Canada to come play together and win a championship,” he said. “I’ll cherish all the memories here in Lethbridge.”
Having done the recruiting and then the coaching, Wheatley finally took a deep breath a couple of days later to soak in what his team had accomplished.
“I am going to remember this team as a resilient, tight-knit group,” he said. “No matter the score, they were going to stay engage and try to claw their way to victory.”
That, they did.
(Main photo credit: Lethbridge Sports, which you can find on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)
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