The National Baseball Congress World Series begins Friday with perhaps more possibilities for how it could end than in recent years.
With past champions such as Prairie Gravel (Ill.) and the Fairbanks (Alaska) Goldpanners added to the field after multi-year absences, along with the formation of a team of top junior-college players, the 2014 tournament plays well in unpredictability.
Those three teams, and 24 others, will probably have to get past one of three more recent powerhouses. Seattle, Santa Barbara (Calif.) and Wellington – formerly the Haysville and Havasu (Ariz.) Heat – have combined for six of the last eight championships, with Santa Barbara winning three and Seattle taking the crown last year after three second-place finishes.
They all seem prepared for more success, combining for more than 100 wins this summer with an .811 winning percentage in their leagues. All three teams are playing in the second week of the tournament, reserved for league champions and last year’s top finishers. The Heat lost to Seattle in last year’s championship.
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“When you start having Prairie Gravel come back, and the Goldpanners, and Santa Barbara and Seattle, it’s going to be a grind,” Wellington manager Rick Twyman said. “It’s going to be one heck of a championship round.”
Santa Barbara appears particularly dangerous because the Foresters have added offense to what has been probably the tournament’s best pitching staff since they won their first title in 2006. Sam Odom, Cody Van Aken, Jon Duplantier and Jon Woodcock are all in the California Collegiate League’s top 10 in ERA, but those pitchers are fighting for headlines.
The Foresters feature nine .300 hitters, including Rice University’s Ford Stainback, who has hit .411 this summer. Granger Stoddard is batting .358 with four home runs and 29 RBIs, tied for the team lead in homers with Jaylin Davis and Dillon Dobson. Colt Atwood, a draft pick of the Oakland Athletics last month out of Sam Houston State, is batting .349.
“We have one of our better hitting clubs that we’ve had in a while,” Foresters manager Bill Pintard said. “Usually we’re very strong pitching and defense, like last year we had 27 shutout innings to start the tournament. But our pitchers are good. Our pitchers throw strikes for the most part. We have three really strong starters.”
Wellington has built a similarly balanced team that features a heavy crop of returners from the 2013 runner-up. Derek Fischer, a right-hander from the University of Sioux Falls, has emerged as the ace, going 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA this summer, walking four and striking out 48 in 50 innings.
Fischer and the rest of the Heat’s starters are aided by a dynamic bullpen duo. Robbie Romero and Brandon McMillan have combined for 49 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings. They’re assigned to protect leads built by an offense led by Luke Doyle, batting .327 with four home runs and 15 RBIs.
The Heat are 28-5 in the Jayhawk League.
“The biggest key is … we have a lot of returners, I want to say 12 or 13 from last year’s club,” Twyman said. “That helps, getting those kids back in here. The grind of the Jayhawk, and having those returners, it helped. Those guys went to the national final, and a lot of those kids wanted to come back, and they’ve done a good job.”
Seattle has been successful combining veterans – some with professional experience – with college players. Their approach seems to have worked again this year as the Studs won the Pacific International League.
Nolan Watson, Ross Humes and Scott Kuzminsky combined for 15 wins while Bobby LeCount, Max Whitt, Nate Backes and Eric Peterson guided an offense adept in speed and power.
“We’re winning a lot of (close) games,” Seattle manager Barry Aden said. “It’s that combination of having adequate offense, and I build my team on pitching and defense. Down there, on that (Lawrence-Dumont Stadium turf), it’s all about pitching and defense.”
The Studs have learned how difficult it is to break the string of predictability to become a first-time champion, breaking through last year after three second-place finishes since 2008. Santa Barbara was runner-up twice before its first championship.
“Seattle is a steady ballclub, and there will be someone from the Jayhawk League who will get hot,” Pintard said. “It’s kind of based on who gets hot.”