The Brandon Cloverleafs got hot at the right time last season to win the Manitoba Senior Baseball League championship, but it will be difficult to repeat this year.
Not only are there four other teams targeting the Cloverleafs, but the defending champions will have to fill some big holes left by three key departures. Former Winnipeg Goldeyes shortstop Max Poulin has opted not to return to Brandon. Kevin McNeill, who led the league with 22 runs scored last season and was second with 16 RBIs while posting a .366 batting average, also won’t be back, and neither will Zach Mayo, who had a 3-1 record on the mound with a 2.32 earned-run average.
Cloverleafs manager Ryan Potter, however, isn’t too concerned. He plans to move Garrett Popplestone back to shortstop, and he has brought in an import player — Casey Clark — for the first time in years to hopefully fill the hole McNeill leaves in the batting lineup and he’s brought in a new left-handed pitcher in Anthony Friesen.
He also has a fully healthy Matt Gunning back for this season, after Gunning posted an impressive .395 batting average despite being hobbled by a bad leg last year.
"We’re hoping (Clark) will be able to produce for us offensively," Potter said. "Having Matt Gunning for a full year is going to help us. Matt’s going to drive a lot of runs in. He hits the ball with authority and we’re hoping some of those guys can pick up some of the offence."
Once again, the Cloverleafs will have a strong pitching staff to lean on with Sean Dryden, Ryan Johnson and Friesen as the starting rotation. Justin Funk and Matt Mutcheson will be ready to come out of the bullpen and close out games.
With a title to defend and the Cloverleafs preparing to be the Manitoba representatives at the Canadian senior baseball championship in Windsor, Ont., in August, Potter wants to field the best team he can, and he expects the squad to get better as the season goes on and as they prepare for nationals.
"We’re going to go out and play some games and hopefully we’re going to peak five or six games into the season and then we’ll start looking at nationals and adding guys we want to add for that," he said. "Right now we’re just looking at getting going and we’ll worry about nationals halfway through the season when we start looking at putting that team together."
The Cloverleafs open the season on Friday night at Andrews Field against the Neepawa Farmers, who Brandon beat in the league final.
Neepawa was the surprise team of the league last season as it jumped from posting the worst record and falling in the first round of the 2011 playoffs to becoming the regular season champions in 2012, before getting beat in five games by the Cloverleafs.
Manager Mike Levandosky is hoping that there won’t be a letdown this season, but Neepawa lost two big bats this season in imports Vince Lujan, who had a .318 batting average and 12 RBIs last season, and Eddie Malone, who had a .300 batting average. Without them, Levandosky will be looking at some of his core players like Bryan White, Ian Hockin, Kevin Levandosky and Cam Tibbett as well as last year’s co-rookie of the year Torey Scott to step up.
Neepawa’s pitchers might also have to be that much better to make up for those losses.
"I think our pitching will be pretty good," said Levandosky, who has added import pitcher Elliot Desilets to the roster as well as University of Winnipeg Wesmen pitcher Bryan Evans. "We have Greg Hockin returning. We have Josh Loewen. We have five or six real good pitchers, so pitching will be fine for us. We’ll have to do a little bit of work with our offence, but that will come and we’ll see how it goes."
The Reston Rockets are also expecting to be very competitive this season. The Rockets came into last season as the defending champs and weren’t far off from repeating. They finished two games back of the Farmers in the regular season and one back of the Cloverleafs, but were swept by Brandon in the semifinals.
Reston represented Manitoba well at nationals, posting a 2-1 record in the preliminary round before falling 8-3 to Ontario in the quarter-finals.
Rockets manager Ross Tycoles has a lot of confidence in his pitching staff this season, and believes that will be the key to getting back on top of the league and challenging for the team’s second championship.
Cole Stober, who started nine games last season and posted a 2.81 ERA, is back along with Zane Sawyer, Des Koop and Brody Pinkerton. Reston also picked up Tyler Reiner from the Farmers this season and import pitcher Jake Cabral from California.
Reston looks good offensively with league batting champion Buddy Mayert returning, along with Rory Tycoles, who tied for the league lead with three home runs last season.
"Our core guys in the middle are there," Ross Tycoles said. "We’re going to lose a couple guys like Andrew Lochhead and Chris Young, who have been pretty strong hitters for us, but I think we’ve replaced (them). I don’t think our lineup is going to be that bad, but I think if we play good defence then defence will be our strength."
The Rockets will open up the season at home on Friday night against a Brandon Marlins team that doesn’t have the swagger of last year’s top three teams.
The Marlins, who struggled to a last-place finish last season before upsetting the Oak River Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, lost only two players this season in Luke Whelpton, who made two appearances on the mound, and Mitch Stephens, who posted a .292 batting average in his six games but would have been the Marlins’ cleanup hitter. Newcomer Jesse Bartle, an import shortstop from Toronto, is expected to fill in at the No.4 spot in the batting order.
Even though there’s a lot of returning players from last season, Marlins manager Jeff Wiebe admits a full team effort is going to be needed to be competitive this season.
"I think we’re a team that has to be good in all facets of the game because I don’t think we excel in one aspect," he said. "We’re not a really great hitting team. We’re not a really great defensive team. We’re not a really great pitching team. But if we can be above average in all those spots, I think just being a well-rounded team gives us that ability to win."
Patrick Vandoorne was the Marlins’ top batter last season with a .385 batting average. Paul Thompson, Cody Nevins and Eric Zamrykut are expected to lead the pitching rotation.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers believe they’re a team to watch out for this season despite being the first team to have its season end last year.
For the last few years, the Dodgers have fielded a young squad, but manager Gord Paddock refuses to use that excuse this season. Although most of his players are under 21 years old, they’re heading into at least their third years with the Dodgers and Paddock believes that should result in some more consistent efforts at the plate, where he expects his team to excel this season.
"I don’t want to put too much pressure on (new import catcher) Kevin Reimer, but from the reports I’ve had he’s going to be one of the most consistent hitters for us," Paddock said. "Colin Bates has been here for two years and he’s been leading our team in average. Nat Howard had a bit of an off-year last year and we expect him to rebound. Marc Simard has had some good first halves and then tailed off a bit. If everyone can contribute and be constant throughout the year, (that) is the key."
Reimer will be replacing Alexis Hernandez, who isn’t returning, at catcher. Pitcher Dana McNish won’t be back either as he has retired after approximately a decade of playing in the MSBL.
Paddock will be counting on his batters because he’s not too sure how strong his pitching staff will be.
Rogilio Ortiz, who posted a 3-2 record with a 3.11 ERA last season, is expected to be the Dodgers’ ace, with Scott Beever, Ty Paddock and new import Thanasi Lycou rounding out the starters.
The biggest thing Paddock is looking for out of his players, however, is consistency and a belief that they can win.
"You have to go out there expecting to win and do your best to make sure that happens," said Paddock, whose team opens the season on Sunday in Neepawa.
MSBL team breakdowns
An in-depth look at the lineups for the five Manitoba Senior Baseball League teams for 2013:
Manager: Ryan Potter
2012 record: 13-7, won league final.
Out: Max Poulin, Zach Mayo, and Kevin McNeill.
In: Casey Clark, Anthony Friesen.
Projected lineup: C Bryan Swaenepoel, C Brady Potter, 1B Matt Gunning, 2B Curtis Brolund, 2B Mason Hodgson, 3B Casey Clark, SS Garrett Popplestone, OF Jason Rae, OF Daniel Perron, OF Derek Chapman, OF Ryan Johnson, DH Justin Funk.
Pitching staff: Sean Dryden, Ryan Johnson, Anthony Friesen, Justin Funk, Matt Mutcheson.
Manager: Jeff Wiebe
2012 record: 5-15, lost in semifinal round.
Out: Mitch Stephens, Luke Whelpton.
In: Jesse Bartle, Jeff White.
Projected lineup: C Bret Heselwood, 1B Matt DeGagne, 2B Pat Vandoorne, 3B Eric Zamrykut, SS Jesse Bartle, LF Tanner Jago, CF Nolan Jago, RF Ryan Boguski, DH Nate Andrews, IF Dustin Asham, IF Clark Whelpton.
Pitching staff: Paul Thompson, Cody Nevins, Eric Zamrykut, Jeff White, Matt DeGagne, Marshal Burgess, Shayne MacGranachan, Mitch Lyall, Bret Heselwood, Jeff Wiebe.
Manager: Mike Levandosky
2012 record: 14-6, pennant winners, lost in league final.
Out: Vince Lujan, Eddie Malone, Tyler Reiner.
In: Bryan Evans, Elliot Desilets, Fernando Rodriguez, Rob Wilson.
Projected lineup: C/3B Ian Hockin, C/3B Rob Wilson, 1B/OF Kevin Levandosky, 1B/OF Cam Tibbett, 2B Bryan White, 2B/OF Shane Levandosky, OF Shayne Henton, OF Matt Lowry, OF Torey Scott, OF Jason Vinnell, OF Rodney White, OF Garett Rempel, IF Elliot Desilets, IF Fernando Rodriguez, IF Isaac Rodriguez, IF Daylon Creasy.
Pitching staff: Bryan Evans, Greg Hockin, Josh Loewen, Fernando Rodriguez, Isaac Rodriguez, Garett Rempel, Elliot Desilets, Daylon Creasy.
OAK RIVER DODGERS
Manager: Gord Paddock
2012 record: 6-14, lost in first round of playoffs.
Out: Michael Baca, Alexis Hernandez, Ryan Shaw, Dana McNish.
In: Thanasi Lycou, Trevor Whitmire, Kevin Reimer.
Projected lineup: C Kevin Reimer, C Scott Beever, 1B/DH Nat Howard, 1B/DH Marc Simard, 2B Colin Bates, SS Trevor Whitmire, 3B Duncan Paddock, OF Al Martin, OF Ty Paddock, OF Josh McInnes, OF John Lawrence.
Pitching staff: Thanasi Lycou, Rogelio Ortiz, Scott Beever, Ty Paddock, Nat Howard.
Manager: Ross Tycoles
2012 record: 12-8, lost in the semifinal round.
Out: Chris Young, Andrew Lochhead, Cole Buchy.
In: Andy Moore, Jed Brockbrader, Tyler Reiner, Jake Cabral, Josh Martin, Shaun Kemp.
Projected lineup: C Jed Brockbrader, C Drew Haight, IF Mitch Olson, IF Rory Tycoles, IF Andy Moore, IF Drew Haight, IF Josh Martin, OF Buddy Mayert, OF Sheldon Moore, OF Eric Truscott, OF Cole Olson, DH Aaron Tycoles.
Pitching staff: Cole Stober, Jake Cabral, Zane Sawyer, Des Koop, Tyler Reiner, Brody Pinkerton, Shaun Kemp, Austin Brereton.