Home Alaska Baseball League 49th State Hardball Report: Pennant Race Heats Up

49th State Hardball Report: Pennant Race Heats Up

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The 2013 Alaska Baseball League season is rounding third and headed toward home. With the All-Star game in the books, all eyes now turn to the league standings and the few remaining games on the schedule. Saturday, July 27 will mark the last day of the regular season, barring any games on the scheduled make-up day of the 28th. The league standings have been a bitter battle all season long and the struggle to determine who’s the top dog isn’t much clearer now than it has been all summer.
Sitting in first place are the surging Mat-Su Miners, who have rode into the top spot on the strength of a six-game winning streak and an 8-2 record over their last 10 games. The Miners — who had an off day on Tuesday — got some help from the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks, who may be out of the race but haven’t given up hope of putting a few more in the wins column. They did just that with an upset win over the Goldpanners to split their doubleheader and prevent the Fairbanks club from making up ground.
The Anchorage Bucs kept their season-title hopes alive, while the Peninsula Oilers saw theirs slip away in a doubleheader between the two clubs on Tuesday. The Bucs swept the Kenai team to improve to 19-13 on the year. The official standings were incorrect as of press time due to some technical difficulties, but by my calculations the Bucs have moved to 1 game back while the Oilers have sunk to 3, with as many remaining to play.
The league championship could very well be decided in Fairbanks, where the first-place Miners and second-place Goldpanners will close out their seasons with a four-game series. The Panners have the obvious advantage of playing at home, in front of a crowd that has been reportedly been bolstered during their team’s successful season. However, the Miners have a half-game advantage and a game in hand which will be played against the fifth-place Pilots.
The Pilots, who have been eliminated from the pennant race, have the chance to play spoilers for the Miners on Wednesday night. If the Miners win that contest and move to a full game advantage over the Goldpanners, they’ll go into Fairbanks knowing they can split the series and come out on top. Even if the Panners take three of four, it forces a tie. The Fairbanks club would have to sweep the series to come out cleanly on top. However, that all changes if the Miners lose to the Pilots, giving the Panners the momentum to add to their home field advantage.
But what about the Bucs? At only one game back, they’re still in the race, despite being in third place. Furthermore, they have a three-game series against the last-place Chinooks to finish out their year. Suppose the Bucs swept the Chinooks, and the two teams ahead of them split: the Bucs leapfrog into first. Or, the Bucs take 2 of 3 from the Chinooks. Then it’s a three-way tie.
POST-SEASON SCHEDULE
That being said, all of the grappling for first place may be of less consequence this season. Unlike recent years, the regular-season champion will not earn automatic bragging rights as the ABL has instituted a post-season tournament featuring the five top teams. The Peninsula Oilers have, unfortunately, bowed out of post-season play citing the prohibitive cost of extending their season. That leaves the playoff picture surprisingly clear despite all of the chaos in the top half of the standings: the Glacier Pilots, Goldpanners, Miners, Chinooks and Bucs have all punched their tickets to post-season play.
The league has an off-day for travel and/or makeup games on the 28th, and the playoff tournament is scheduled for the week of July 28th through August 4th. The format being floated around involves a round-robin play-in to determine two teams who will play for the championship (check out my blog post on the tournament schedule for complete details).
What’s unclear at this point is who, if anyone, will represent Alaska in this year’s National Baseball Congress World Series. The classic Wichita, Kansas tournament features “baseball around the clock” and has a history that is deeply intwined with that of the ABL. The Goldpanners have been participants in the NBCWS since before the founding of the Alaska League, and since its formal inception the champions of the ABL — which is sanctioned as a “premier league” by the NBC — have received an automatic bid for the tournament.
However, Alaskan teams have been generally unable or unwilling to attend the tournament in the past few years. Lately, top-ranked ABL teams have declined the invitation and the task has fallen to someone lower in the standings. In 2012, no one from Alaska opted to attend at all.
According to GMs and coaches, the number one problem with sending a team to represent the ABL seems to be the cost. The NBC has made moves to strengthen their product and whittle away costs, and has stated that one of their primary goals is to bring Alaska back to Wichita. I put the feelers out to some coaches and GMs around the league, and many of them were encouraged by the changes; however, they said, with the cost of airfare unchanged the price tag for a tournament bid is still staggering and if it wasn’t budgeted in at the beginning of the year, it might be too late to fit it in now.
Oilers GM James Clark confirmed via e-mail that the Oilers will not be going, and based on history and conversation I’d say it’s unlikely for the Bucs, Miners or Chinooks to attend. That leaves the Goldpanners and Glacier Pilots, who have traditionally been the most-likely candidates for the task.
ALL-STAR GAME
If anything was proven by the 2013 Alaska Baseball League All-Star Game, it was the degree of parity in this year’s league. The North and South teams fought to a stalemate in the annual exhibition of the league’s best. The Oilers’ Jake Alvarez, a junior out of Fresno State, took home game MVP honors. Gio Brusa of the Miners, a former Braves draft pick and freshman out of the University of the Pacific, flexed his muscles and took home the trophy for this year’s Home Run Derby.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Except for the Mulcahy, where the Glacier Pilots hosted the Miners, ballparks around the ABL were quiet Wednesday night. Starting today, all of the teams will embark on three or four-game series to close out the regular season Thursday through Saturday.
The Goldpanners will be hosting the Miners for four games in that period, with a Friday doubleheader. The Bucs will be visiting the Chinooks in Chugiak for a game apiece for the next three nights. The Oilers will finish their season with a three-game homestand against the Glacier Pilots.
Check back next week as we wrap up the regular season and get knee-deep into the ABL Playoffs. In the mean time, stay tuned to 49thStateHardball.com for all the latest news & views on the Alaska Baseball League.