Merchants grab second place on home turf
The Innisfail Merchants revved into high gear after a slow start to grab second place on their hometown diamond at this year’s Western Canada Baseball Association Junior AAA championships.
Coach Desmond Bouteiller says that while it’s the second consecutive year the team fell just short of the top spot, he’s proud with how much more robust their showing was at this year’s final.
“Last year it really wasn’t that close,” he said, adding this year they managed to force their all-star Team Alberta opponents into extra innings. “It’s never fun to lose but a couple people said that’s the best game that’s probably ever been played on that field.”
And though traditionally strong in pitching and defence, the Merchants’ first two outings both netted disappointing 2-0 losses, against Team Alberta and the Carillon Sultans.
“We couldn’t find our offence,” said Bouteiller. “The guys were feeling a lot of pressure. Especially being at home this year.”
In fact, the local squad went 19 straight innings without scoring. But with a hearty crowd in the stands behind them and strategic lineup shifts, the Merchants finally found their footing in the top of the sixth inning against the St. Boniface Legionaires.
With runners on second and third, pitcher Matt Whitehead banged out a two-run single that would stand as the only scoreboard movement of the game.
“Once we finally got that one run it got the guys feeling a little bit better,” said Bouteiller. “We started to play the kind of baseball we knew we could.”
These runs would prove to be critical for the Merchants. They hammered the Moose Jaw Eagles 4-2 in the morning and smacked the Weyburn Beavers 6-2 in the evening, leaving them tied with St. Boniface by the end of the round robin. But because they had beaten the Legionaires, they were able to move on to the finals based on tournament rules.
The final may have been heartbreaking, but it was a riveting game to watch.
Down 2-0 once again after the first inning, the team couldn’t help but take it as a bad omen.
Then in the second, starting centre fielder Blair Mulder tacked on a three-run homer, before the Merchants grabbed some insurance by tacking on another run.
But Team Alberta made good on its reputation as a hard-hitting team, and tied it up before all could have been said and done after the regular seven innings.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Merchant pitching had forced two strikes before Team Alberta squeezed in an outfield single, which brought one of the on-base players home for the sudden death win.
And while the Merchants didn’t take it all, the competition proved a big win for Innisfail.
“We were quite excited when we heard our little town was going to host the event,” Bouteiller said. “Our community and our volunteers really stepped up.
“Having that hometown crowd was something else.”