Last season was a wild ride for the Reston Rockets.
The team struggled for most of the Manitoba Senior Baseball League regular season and talked about leaving the league. Then the Rockets got hot and went on to win the championship series in seven games over the Neepawa Farmers.
After some discussion, Reston decided to come back and defend its title.
"We’re good," said manager Ross Tycoles, whose team opens the campaign on Friday when it hosts the Brandon Cloverleafs. "They decided they wanted to play and I think it’s a year-to-year expectation now."
Like last season, the Rockets aren’t expecting a quick start but are planning on peaking at the right time. And it may take a little time for the players to bond.
Andy Moore, who posted a .405 batting average and led the team with 21 runs scored, has left along with Jake Brockbrader, who was fourth on the team with nine RBIs. However, a familiar face is back in Andrew Lochhead, along with four American imports in catcher Ryan Risse, right-handed pitcher Brendan Hardaway, left-handed pitcher Austin Bernston and second baseman Jordan Tescher.
The Rockets will return Mitch Olson, who was second on Reston with a .354 batting average and 16 runs scored, and led the team with 17 RBIs, as well as Rory Tycoles, who was second on the team with 15 RBIs last season.
Ross Tycoles, however, believes the key to his team having success will be solid defence, not thinking about going to nationals later in the year and not peaking too early.
"You can put pressure on yourselves early, but there’s no use doing that," he said. "It’s how you finish. And that’s how we were last year. We didn’t seem to be affected by the last games of the series. We were good in those and that’s what you want to do."
While the defending champions are optimistic about the upcoming season, the Farmers are in a rebuilding mode.
Neepawa, which visits the Oak River Dodgers today at 7 p.m., has reached the league final in each of the past two seasons, but this year the Farmers lost all of their imports and aren’t bringing any in.
The three imports played a huge role for Neepawa last season as Fernando Rodriguez led the team with three wins and was second in innings. Ryan Cooper, meanwhile, led the Farmers in runs scored while sporting a .265 average.
This season, Neepawa has opted to go with young and local talent, like Daylon Creasy, who had a .382 batting average, seven runs and four RBIs last season, Matt Lowry and Garett Rempel.
With so much youth, the biggest issue manager Mike Levandosky believes his team will face is confidence.
"We’re going to have to play confident baseball if we can and when you have a young team, you see lots of errors and stuff and sometimes you struggle at the plate because of inexperience," he said. "It is a tough league, but you have to bring these guys along some times as well."
Meanwhile, the Cloverleafs and Brandon Marlins have their eyes set on the league title after both lost out in the semifinals last season.
The Marlins surprised a lot of people by going from having the worst record in 2012 to the best in 2013, but they lost a pair of one-run games in the semifinals, including a 1-0 decision in the final game of the best-of-five series, to fall to the Rockets.
Manager Jeff Wiebe feels his team has the bats to compete for a championship with the likes of Nolan Jago and Pat Vandoorne returning, but he felt an upgrade in pitching was needed. Infielder Dustin Asham helped solve that problem by bringing a pair of pitchers — left-hander Ryan Duncan and right-hander Sam McNiece — from Australia, where Asham played professionally in the winter.
Wiebe now likes the depth on the hill for the Marlins so that they won’t need to rely as much on Paul Thompson, who had a 2.32 earned-run average in 50 1/3 innings. Steinbach’s Jesse Goertzen will round out the Marlins’ starting rotation.
The Marlins open their season on Friday in Oak River and Wiebe believes his team will be very hard to beat.
"It’s been a long time since we’ve been there (league champions), but … we were a couple runs away from playing in the finals last year," he said. "The expectation is to win it all. When you’re a young team like we are, sometimes you have to take small steps."
The Cloverleafs also felt they were close last year, finishing only a game and a half behind the Marlins in the regular season before getting upset by the Farmers in four games in the semifinals.
They lose shortstop Garrett Popplestone, who’s focusing on his training for his professional volleyball career in Europe, which manager Ryan Potter felt left a huge hole in the middle infield.
However, the Cloverleafs greatly benefited from a positive reputation making its way around the United States with four imports approaching him about playing this season. All of them have signed on.
Mason Schiff, from North Dakota, will replace Popplestone at shortstop, while Travis Jean will start behind the plate and Jason Shaul will be in left field. Meanwhile, Zach Steckler joins a strong pitching staff that will be led by Anthony Friesen, who had four wins, 88 strikeouts and a 1.62 ERA last season, Sean Dryden, who also recorded four wins, and Zach Mayo, who returns after a one-year absence.
Potter admits it’s different to have five imports, including Casey Clark, on the roster, but believes the Cloverleafs can be in the final if the pitching staff lives up to its billing.
"We’re excited about our pitching staff," he said. "We feel we have the best pitching staff in the league. We kind of always try to build that way because if you can keep other teams’ offences at bay, it gives you that much more chance of winning every night."
The Dodgers, who fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Rockets, lost a large number of key players in the off-season. Roy Ortiz, who started nine games, is gone, along with catcher Kevin Reimer and pitcher Scott Beever, while Ty Paddock is recovering from a broken leg. Colin Bates, who sported a team-high .379 batting average and 11 RBIs last season, will see limited action as well.
The team has brought in a lot of new faces and a familiar one in Ryan Shaw, who spent last season in the Western Major Baseball League.
The biggest problem the team could face is having a consistent lineup. Manager Gord Paddock believes he has found some guys to fill holes on the roster, but whether they’ll be available for every game is up in the air, which could force players into different positions during the year.
Despite the challenge, Paddock hopes the Dodgers can stay in the middle of pack. To do that, he knows they need to cut down on their errors.
"I think last year the one thing that let us down was our defence," he said. "We had to cram a lot of games in and use a lot of pitching, and that was good for us, but quite often we would make errors early in the game and that would be our downfall when we lost close games. That’s one thing we’re going to stress is make sure everybody is ready mentally and take some of those errors away."
AROUND THE HORN
A look at the lineups for the five MSBL teams this season:
Manager: Ryan Potter
2013 record: 13-7, lost in semifinal round.
Out: Curtis Brolund, Garrett Popplestone, Kyle Williams.
In: Travis Jean, Zach Mayo, Kevin McNeill, Mason Schiff, Zach Steckler, Jason Shaul, Pearce McDonald.
Projected lineup: C Travis Jean, 1B Matt Gunning, 2B Casey Clark, 3B Kevin McNeill, SS Mason Schiff, LF Jason Shaul, CF Derek Chapman, RF Jason Rae.
Pitching staff: Anthony Friesen, Zach Mayo, Sean Dryden, Justin Funk, Zach Steckler, Pearce McDonald.
Manager: Jeff Wiebe
2013 record: 14-5-1, pennant winners, lost in semifinal round.
Out: Jesse Bartle, Jeff White.
In: Ryan Duncan, Sam McNiece, Jesse Goertzen, Ty Webber.
Projected lineup: C Bret Heselwood, C Ty Webber, 1B Matt DeGagne, 2B Pat Vandoorne, 3B Eric Zamrykut, SS Jesse Goertzen, IF Dustin Asham, LF Tanner Jago, CF Nolan Jago, RF Ryan Boguski.
Pitching staff: Ryan Duncan, Sam McNiece, Jesse Goertzen, Paul Thompson.
Manager: Mike Levandosky
2013 record: 8-11-1, lost in league final.
Out: Fernando Rodriguez, Roberto Rodriguez, Ryan Cooper.
In: Jason Kirkland.
Projected lineup: C/OF Robbie Wilson, 1B Cam Tibbett, IF Matt Sneesby, IF Bryce Stephenson, 3B Daylon Creasy, UT Shane Levandosky, OF Matt Lowry, OF Garett Rempel, OF Torey Scott, OF Jason Vinell, OF Kevin Levandosky.
Pitching staff: Jason Kirkland, Josh Loewen, Daylon Creasy, Garett Rempel.
OAK RIVER DODGERS
Manager: Gord Paddock
2013 record: 6-14, lost in first round of playoffs.
Out: Kevin Reimer, Scott Beever, Ty Paddock, Marc Simard, Roy Ortiz, Thanasi Lycou.
In: Riley Acra, Taw Fredrickson, Ryan Shaw, Kyle Kosteci, Drew Birss, Riley Shamray, Morgan Geekie.
Projected lineup: C/SS Duncan Paddock, C Kyle Kostesky, 1B Nat Howard, IF Colin Bates, IF Riley Acra, IF Layne Anderson, UT Mike McFadden, OF Al Martin, OF Miguel Letain, OF Josh McInnes, OF Drew Birss.
Pitching staff: Taw Fredrickson, Miguel Letain, Brody Burnett, Ryan Shaw, Nat Howard.
Manager: Ross Tycoles
2013 record: 8-12, won league final.
Out: Andy Moore, Shaun Kemp, Jake Cabral, Jake Brockbrader, Tyler Reiner.
In: Andrew Lochhead, Ryan Risse, Brendan Hardaway, Austin Bernston, Jordan Tescher.
Projected lineup: C Ryan Risse, 1B Mitch Olson, 2B Jordan Tescher, SS Andrew Lochhead, 3B Rory Tycoles, 3B Zane Sawyer, LF Eric Truscott, CF Buddy Mayert, RF Tramer Ray, DH Aaron Tycoles, UT Josh Martin.
Pitching staff: Cole Stober, Zane Sawyer, Brendan Hardaway, Des Koop, Austin Bernston, Brody Pinkerton, Austin Brereton.