St. John’s, N.Lbrin., brings a lot of pleasant memories for Curtis Bailey.
The Red Deer Riggers outfielder and head coach is the lone member of the Riggers team that won the club’s only national championship in 1997. That tournament was also held in St. John’s, and Bailey played the role of hero.
Trailing 4-3 in the top of the seventh inning with one out. With a runner on third base, Bailey homered to left field and Red Deer won 5-4.
He is hoping for a similar story line as the Riggers head back for the 2014 Baseball Canada Senior AAA Championships this week.
“Looking back, it was pretty amazing,” said Bailey, who has been a Rigger since 1994. “I can seen the potential with some of our players, we’ve had the walk-off home runs … we’ve got a great team, we can do it again.”
Bailey has also won rings in 1999 and 2002 with St. Albert.
They will not be going as also rans or just for the experience. They legitimately should be contending for the national title after putting up a 19-0 Sunburst Baseball League regular season then only dropping one game in the six playoff games, securing the league and provincial title with a 6-1 win over the Fort Saskatchewan Athletics on Thursday.
The Riggers have a solid pitching staff from top to bottom, including the additions of James Fischer from the A’s and Craig Tomas from the St. Albert Tigers.
They also have one of the best defences in the country and their offence average 8.6 runs per game during the regular season.
“As a pick up or as a player on the team that’s going, this is hands down the funnest, the best team I’ve ever gone with to nationals,” said veteran right-hander Davin Gulbransen, 41, now the oldest player in the Sunburst Baseball League.
Gulbransen is no stranger to the national championships.
Being one of the best pitchers in the league over the last two decades, he has always been high on the recruitment list for any team representing Alberta at the championship.
Problem is, he has never managed to win a Canadian title.
It is a distinction he is hoping to remedy this week in Newfoundland with the Red Deer Riggers.
“This is my 10th or 11th (championship tournament),” he said. “I have zero rings. I want that to change this year”
This is Gulbransen’s second stint with the Riggers. He played with the club from 1994-96 and did not play in 1997 and 1999. He then suited up for the now defunct Red Deer Stags from 2000-11 and returned to the team he started with two years ago.
The crafty veteran has played a big role in getting the Riggers to the championship, including pitching a complete game to win the provincial championship over the A’s.
“It was about the sixth or seventh inning I could smell blood in the water, not just from a personal stand point, but a team stand point,” he said. “We were making defensive plays, I was able to locate some pitches and I just had a feeling it was going to be our night to clinch.”
That win also clinched a spot in the 2015 national championship.
While a pitching rotation is not set yet for St. John’s, Gulbransen getting at least one start is a safe bet.
The Riggers have several solid options for starting pitchers including Matt Davis, Josh Edwards and Dustin Northcott.
With potentially seven games in five days, they will lean on all of them.
Offensively they are loaded with guys like Jason and Jaret Chatwood, Jason Louis and Kevin Curran. Adding outfielder Aaron Dunsmore from the Parkland White Sox only adds to that offence.
This will be Louis’ first time at a national championship tournament since the 31-year-old was playing bantam and midget ball.
He has shown plenty of pop in his first year with the Riggers and will be counted on to come through in St. John’s.
“You’ve got to try and not do too much. It’s a natural instinct to want to swing harder,” said Louis, adding the quality of the Riggers is a big reason he chose to play with them this year. “Guys are throwing harder so you want to swing the bat harder and that’s not always the secret to being successful. But go in, be aggressive and hopefully we can win some ball games.”
Containing nerves and managing the unknown will be key to succeeding in St. John’s. For inspiration, all they have to do is look back on their one rough patch of the season to know they can handle adversity, the Kamloops International Tournament.
They they lost three out of five games and finished out of the medal standings. One of those losses was 1-0 to the tournament’s eventual champ and one of the best senior AAA teams in the U.S., and they beat the tournament’s second place team.
“The teams out there are every bit as good, if not better, than the teams we will see at nationals,” said Gulbransen, who has no plans yet to hang up the cleats. “If I was to tell (the younger players) something it would be, ‘It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Don’t be intimidated. These guys have 9-5 jobs just like we do, they’re no different. It’s who’s going to compete and who wants it more.”
They open on Thursday against New Brunswick at noon.