The difference between a trip to the Maritimes or Spruce Grove for the St. Albert Cardinals was four runs in their last at-bat in Monday’s final at the Baseball Alberta bantam AAA Tier I championship.
The Cardinals booked their flights to the U15 nationals, Aug. 25 to 29 in Summerside, P.E.I., in the come-from-behind 8-6 heart-stopper over Okotoks Dawgs Black.
The consolation prize for Okotoks is westerns next weekend in Spruce Grove.
“Winning provincials was the goal we set out since day one so obviously there is a sense of pride in the work we did to achieve it,” head coach Sean Erickson told the Gazette at the team’s post-game celebration. “The way we did it obviously makes it that little more special, just coming back late to win it.”
The Cardinals led 4-1 with the pitching/catcher tandem of Brady Kobitowich and Evan Bourassa leading the way, before Okotoks scored once in the fourth and pushed four runs across in the fifth to lead by two.
In the top of the seventh, the Cardinals rallied to regain the lead and in the bottom of the inning pulled off a clutch double play with the bases loaded to end the suspense.
“It was really nerve-wracking and an exciting game. Lots of ups and down. It was crazy,” said centrefielder Logan McKinley.
In the sixth, reliever Ryan Marples shut Okotoks down one-two-three and in the seventh against the meat of the order with one out worked a full count before delivering a grounder for shortstop Mike Brisson to turn the twin killing with Ryan Telenko and Liam Froment.
“A double play like that to end the game, especially against a team that we battled all year, that was big,” said Marples, who was engulfed by teammates on the mound after the final out.
The Cardinals cued the comeback with McKinley’s diving catch with two out in the bottom of the sixth.
“That was huge for us. It turned the momentum right around,” said Marples, 15, who plays at third or first base when he isn’t throwing strikes.
In the seventh, Brisson led off with a single and with one out stole second, setting the stage for the late-game heroics.
“We had to get a hit to keep us alive. It was really a game changer,” McKinley said.
Down by one after a fielding error allowed Brisson to score from third, McKinley’s team-high third hit of the final, a push bunt towards third base on the first pitch with runners on the corners, knotted the score.
With two out and two on, pinch-hitter Max Kahler stroked a two-run single to put the Cardinals on top.
“We had some very clutch at-bats,” said Marples, a Grade 11 Bellerose Composite High School student who batted 2-for-3 with one RBI in the final.
It wasn’t the first time this season Cardinals roughed up the opposition’s bullpen.
“With the pitch count rules it’s very tough for guys to finish games so it’s been one of our mottos all year to get to the bullpen and get guys deeper into games and we’ve came back and won a few games in our last at-bats. We’ve done a lot of damage to the other teams’ bullpens at the end of games and so in the seventh inning that was kind of the message for the boys: do what we did all year as far as battling for all 21 outs and just keep having good at-bats,” Erickson said. “We got a guy on base, Mike Brisson, who’s been our best player all year, a dynamic player, and we were down two runs so we took a little risk and had him steal second and it created a little momentum for us and we’ve played aggressive all year like that.”
The Cardinals, seeded first in the eight-team draw with a 21-6 record, expected to play Okotoks (19-4), last year’s provincial champion, in the final.
“We knew we had to go through them. Obviously you have to make it (to the final) but it was in their minds the whole year that we’re going to have to beat them in the championship game so we had to go climb that mountain,” Erickson said.
The last game for the Cardinals in pool A was the 7-0 loss to Okotoks. Both teams were guaranteed spots in the semifinals with 2-0 records prior to the contest.
The Cardinals posted wins of 5-1 against Okotoks Dawgs Red and 12-1 against the South Jasper Place Jays and in Sunday’s semifinal downed the Spruce Grove-based Parkland Twins, the first-place pool B team, 11-3.
“We’ve handled (Parkland) pretty well this year so we were really confident if we ended up in the semifinal matchup with them and if we played our game we would take it, which happened, which set up that matchup with Okotoks (who beat Red Deer Braves in the semifinals),” Erickson said.
In the final, the Cardinals out-hit Okotoks 10-8 and committed three errors, compared to four for the runners-up.
“We knew we could beat them and brought that into the final and just played aggressive and got a lot of hits and produced,” said McKinley who scored three times in the deciding match.
The Cardinals were the host team for provincials, but the wet weather shut-down the Legion Memorial Park bantam diamond Sunday and Monday and the tournament was shifted to Henry Singer Field in Spruce Grove, where some games were already scheduled before the rain.
“We would’ve liked to have played at home but we can’t control it. We had a lot of rain so we were playing in Spruce and it didn’t change how we were going to play,” said McKinley, one of five returnees from last year’s Tier II provincial championship team.
“Mother Nature didn’t deal us a good hand this weekend,” Erickson added. “Spruce Grove, as our co-hosts, was absolutory phenomenal. They worked their butts off to accommodate us. Their diamond does really well (with the rain).
“I told our guys just roll with it. There is nothing we can do about it. We go out and play our game and it doesn’t matter where we play it on and that turned out to be true I guess.”
The Cardinals will now gear up for nationals and several players have previous experience against the best of the best with the 2014 peewee AAA Cardinals, fourth-place finishers at the U13 competition in London, Ont.
“It’s nice to be back there,” said McKinley, a Grade 12 student at St. Albert Catholic High School. “It’s obviously a big stage and we want to go in there and win it but we’re just going to play it out and see how it goes.”