Riggers fall just shy of provincial title

It was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar season for the Red Deer Riggers, as their hopes of locking up a Provincial Senior AAA baseball championship were dashed last weekend.

After finishing the Sunburst Baseball League regular season in first place and summarily sweeping the St. Albert Tigers in the first round of the playoffs, the Riggers finally met their match, last week, as they fell to the Sherwood Park Athletics in the best of five provincial final.

“It was just a tough finish there,” said Riggers’ Head Coach and second baseman Jason Chatwood following the fifth and final game of the series at Great Chief Park on Sunday night, which the Riggers lost 5-3 in extra innings.

It was a dramatic end to an already tense series that saw the two powerhouse teams trade wins back and forth before battling it out in game five on Sunday night.

“Literally it was just back and forth the whole time,” said Chatwood of the series, which the Athletics ended up winning three games to two.

The series got off to kind of a rocky start for the Riggers at home on Monday night, as they dropped a close one 6-5 to the visiting A’s.

But Red Deer showed their resiliency, bouncing back to take the next two matchups in a row, first earning a 7-6 victory in a drama-filled game two at Great Chief Park, Tuesday, before spoiling the A’s homecoming in game three by picking up a 12-10 victory in Edmonton on Thursday.

“We’ve played them in the finals the last seven or eight years and I think the majority of those series went to five games. We knew it was going to be a battle going in,” Chatwood said of the Athletics, who were by far the Riggers’ toughest competition through regular season play this year.

The two straight victories gave Red Deer an opportunity to put an early end to the close series with a win on Friday night, but it was not to be, as the resilient Athletics rebounded to beat up on Riggers’ starter Josh Edwards in a big way, knocking the veteran pitcher around for five runs in the bottom of the first inning.

From there Athletics’ pitcher James Fischer quickly asserted his dominance over the Riggers’ lineup, pitching all nine innings and striking out seven batters to seal the deal. Final score: 6-1 Athletics. This series was going the distance.

“I felt there was a couple of games that we left runners on. We had chances to score and we just couldn’t really capitalize. There’s times early in the games where you don’t do that, it kind of keeps the game closer; closer, maybe, than it should be,” said Chatwood.

In fact, the Riggers left a total of 39 runners on base over the first four games of the series, not exactly a stellar statistic.

That lack of consistency with runners on base would end up being the difference maker in the tight series, and specifically in the final game on Sunday.

“I thought we had a couple of chances even earlier in the series and, you know, even a couple of chances (Sunday) night where we had runners on and we needed to capitalize and we just couldn’t find a way to do it.”

The winner of the game would become the provincial champion and go on to represent Alberta at the Baseball Canada Senior Men’s National Championships in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The final showdown was a hard fought battle that saw both sides struggle to put numbers on the scoreboard as starting pitchers Drew Boyer of the Riggers and Ryan MacDonald of the A’s battled it out on the mound.

By the time the bottom of the fourth inning rolled around, the score was deadlocked at one run apiece. That would change, however, when the Riggers knocked in a pair of runs with just one out to chase MacDonald from the game. The A’s starter retired after 4.1 innings, conceding three earned runs and leaving two runners on base for the bullpen to deal with.

That set the scene for Athletics reliever Adam Paulencu, who not only slammed the door on the Riggers in the fourth inning — he didn’t concede a single run for the remainder of the game, surrendering only five hits in 6.2 innings and tallying 10 strike outs.

Paulencu’s performance allowed the Athletics to charge back and tie the game at three, sending it into extra innings where, with two out in the top of the 10th, Sherwood Park slugger Greg Wallace took Riggers’ pitcher Josh Edwards deep for a two-run homer to seal the deal. Final score: 5-3 Athletics.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to them, they got the big hits when they needed them,” said Chatwood, who along with his brother Jaret Chatwood and teammate Aaron Dunsmore will join the A’s and represent Alberta at nationals later this month.

Despite the tough loss in the final, Chatwood said the Riggers are happy with how this season turned out.

“It was a great year. We had some guys that had some big years and we had a lot of team victories and we had a great group of guys that worked hard and put a lot of time and effort in. So, yeah, it was an awesome year,” he said, adding he couldn’t be more proud of his team’s play throughout the season.

“I’m super proud of the guys and how they handled themselves. We battled right to the very last out and just came up a little bit short, which is hard to swallow but it happens sometimes.”

zcormier@reddeerexpress.com

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