Todd Labranche is still in the process of getting to know his players, but already the resiliency of the Red Deer Midget AAA Carstar Braves is jumping out at him.
Labranche took over the team from Cam Moon who stepped down at the end of last year.
After winning just one of three league games this weekend against the Fort McMurray Oil Giants, the Braves sit at 1-3 through two weekends.
The Braves won the opening game of Saturday’s double-header 6-3 but dropped the evening contest 13-7. On Sunday morning Red Deer fell 5-3 but they did rebound to win an exhibition game between the two teams, 18-17.
“We rallied and fought hard (in the first game) and showed some real spirit and ended up coming back to score six late runs to win that game,” said Labranche.
Labranche just moved out from the Vancouver area after coaching with the Coquitlam Reds of the B.C. Premier Baseball League — the highest level of minor baseball in B.C. — for the last six years. Though he came out for work, he jumped at the opportunity to keep working with a high level of baseball.
The club he has taken over in Red Deer is at the very beginning of a rebuild, and will be one of the youngest in the NorWest Baseball League this season. Teams are allowed three overage players, the Braves have none, then they have only three third-year players.
But Labranche is impressed with some of the potential at his disposal, including starting third baseman Austin Hammond and Zach Olson who both made the jump from bantam AAA this year.
“This will be a real learning year … I’ve set a goal for our team that we get better every time we come to the park,” he said, stressing working on the thought process of the players and the fundamentals.
The biggest issue early on is teaching the young players how to hit better pitching. They throw harder and smarter than they did at the bantam AAA level and there is a learning curve for the batters.
“I’m trying to instill in them to have a plan heading to the plate to make sure their thought process is front and centre,” said Labranche.
At the foundation of the team, however, is a strong group of defensive players that should limit extra opportunities by the opposition which will be key while a few more young arms develop over the course of the season.
Until then, he will be leaning on the few veterans he has for leadership on the field and to anchor their rotation, including southpaw Michael Ozga who also plays first base and righthander Ty Wagar who also plays short stop.
“They challenge the opposition hitters, they also make routine plays, you can trust them when the ball is on the ground to make a defensive play, as well as they’re good situational hitters, they’re two of our top hitters,” said Labranche. “They’ve been in the league for a number of years, they’ve seen the good pitching, they’re able to adjust to it. They bring all three of the aspects I want to bring to the team.”
In Saturday’s 6-3 win, Wagar threw a complete game four hitter, allowing three runs on four hits with three walks and two hit batsmen while striking out five. Jordan Muirhead lead their attack with a single and a double and two RBI, while Brett Stockwood had an RBI double and Griffin Moline and Zach Olson RBI singles.
In the loss on Saturday, the Braves were done in by two error-filled innings in which they allowed six runs each. Moline, Andrew MacCuaig and Stockwood combined for the loss on the mound. Darin Fodor had two RBIs, a double and a single, Muirhead had a two-RBI double and Brad Pope had an RBI double.
In their 5-3 loss on Sunday, Ozga picked up the loss, going 6 1/3 and allowing five runs on seven hits, four walks and two hit batters while striking out three. MacCuaig paced the offence with three singles, an RBI and a run while Moline had a triple and Benett Kary had a double and a run.
The Braves won the final game of the weekend on a passes ball in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Red Deer an 18-17 exhibition win. Hammond allowed 12 runs on 14 hits and a walk with one hit batter while Austin Sorokan picked up the win after allowing five runs on two hits and five walks and a hit batter over the final 1 1/3 innings. Olson went 4-for-5 with five RBIs, while MacCuaig had three singles and two RBI, and Wagar had two RBIs and scored five times.
Despite the rebuild, Labranche still has high expectations for the club this year.
“We just want to compete every single game and make sure we’re in contention,” he said. “Building towards the end of the year, our expectation is we will make a provincial tournament and the goal is to show well in that.”
Up next for the Braves is the Calgary Red Birds in Calgary on Wednesday at 6:30 and then they head to Grande Prairie for the weekend.