A shortened, socially distant season might as well come down to a rematch of one of the most exciting senior AA baseball championship series in recent history.
Heavily favoured to return to the Andrew Agencies league final, the GW Vacuum Truck Service Young Guns and RFNOW Cardinals wasted no time with their best-of-three semifinals.
The Young Guns dispatched the Sisson Auto Cubs 10-0 in five innings last Tuesday, then earned another mercy-rule victory, 12-2 in five at Sumner Field Monday afternoon.
A few hours later, the Cardinals dropped the Simard Industrial Giants 8-4 Monday night, sweeping the series after a 10-0 win Thursday.
Less than six weeks after Opening Day on June 24, the league is down to two teams. Without any Baseball Manitoba provincials due to COVID-19, this is the big prize.
"Kind of a goofy year. Guys didn’t think they were going to play ball and all of a sudden it pretty much seems like we’re in the final. It went by really, really fast," said Cardinals second baseman Chris Kennedy.
Game 1 of the best-of-five final goes tonight at Sumner Field at 6:45 p.m. The Cards look to defend their crown after a dramatic 3-2 series win a year ago while the Young Guns chase their first league title since 2016.
"We’re very excited. It’ll be nice chance to get some redemption from last year," said Young Guns catcher/pitcher Jordan Robertson.
"We’ve kind of had some trouble in the playoffs. We lost out in the first round one year and it came down to the wire last year so it’ll be exciting to get a chance to redeem ourselves for once."
Jordan Old earned the complete-game win, allowing two runs on four hits with four strikeouts. Carter Loewen, who had a pair of hits for the Cubs, took the loss after allowing seven runs in two innings.
Mitch Lyall racked up five RBI and two runs on two hits for the Young Guns.
In the late game, the Cardinals came out on top of a back-and-forth battle over the Giants.
Jeff Neufeld earned the win, allowing four runs on seven hits in five innings. Kennedy went 2-for-3 with two RBI, two runs and four stolen bases while Reece Wilson went 3-for-4 with two RBI.
Ian Barr took the loss, allowing six runs on nine hits in six innings. Jared Bridges had two hits and one RBI for the Giants.
"The bottom two teams have made themselves better over the summer," Kennedy said.
"They keep showing up with more and more guys, trying to recruit and get better every year, so it makes our league better."
Both sides rallied in a big way in 2019. After the Cards raced ahead 2-0, the Young Guns stayed alive when Robertson recorded his second RBI of the game in walk-off fashion to snag a 2-1 triumph.
Game 4 was suspended due to darkness, then the Young Guns snagged two unearned runs in the 11th inning the next day for a 7-5 win to force a deciding fifth game.
The Young Guns led 3-1 with two outs in the seventh inning when the Cardinals exploded for seven runs to take their sixth league championship in eight seasons 8-3.
But this time the Young Guns enter as the lone undefeated squad after a 9-0 regular season. Robertson likes his group’s chances.
"It feels good. We got lucky this year," he said. "We picked up a few good guys and have one of the best problems you can have with too much depth. If someone’s not here there’s always someone to back us up. It’s going to be exciting, we don’t get to play many games this year."
Brandon Lockerby was a key addition for the Young Guns, moving over from the South West Baseball League’s Virden Oilers. The second baseman has been slated at atop the team’s batting order most of the season.
The series could be over as early as Friday, with Game 2 going Thursday. The tight schedule means pitching depth is key and the Young Guns certainly have it. Sean Dryden, Robertson, Jordan Old and Lyall are likely to see time on the mound, with Dylan Haney serving as another solid option. Thus far, the Cards have only seen Robertson and Old.
"It makes it a little more difficult but it’s kind of nice to stay in a rhythm," Robertson said. "If you get hot, you don’t have a long break."
The Cardinals went 6-3 in the regular season, suffering all three losses at the hands of the Young Guns. However, two were one-run contests and the other was a 3-0 defensive battle, and Kennedy expects more of the same with Adam Hartman expected to get the start tonight and Joel Krentz to follow on Thursday.
"We just got to hit better. Our pitching’s always there. We got to plate some runs," Kennedy said.
"Both teams know each other really, really well over the last seven years. Both sides know what the strengths and weaknesses are. The right two teams are in the final and it’s going to be a good series."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen