The 2016 American Legion Baseball season came to an end on a winning note for the Cranbrook Bandits this past Sunday in Calgary.
Playing one final tournament, the Bandits knocked off the Calgary Redbirds in a back-and-forth 10-9 thriller to defeat the hosts in the final game of their own tourney and claimed third place.
The victory brought the Bandits home with a record of 22-21-1 — the best mark the team has put up in the 10 years since head coach Paul Mrazek took hold of the reins.
“I think there was a lot of success, but as a coach, I’m always looking for more,” Mrazek said Tuesday afternoon. “I think we can improve upon it again next year. But we had lots of success with players developing. Rookies really did well by the end of the year and were fitting in playing this level of baseball. They did a great job.
“Overall, as a team, we had more wins than ever… We played just over .500 baseball and that’s a first in 10 years.”
The final game featured some special moments, particularly for veteran left-handed pitcher Tyler Thorn, who was dressed for his final contest as a Bandit.
After the Bandits took a 10-9 lead in the sixth inning, Thorn took to the mound with a one-run lead and a runner aboard on first base in the seventh inning. In quick and efficient Tyler Thorn fashion, the southpaw clipped the Redbirds wings for three consecutive outs, earning the save and guiding his team to one final win.
The savvy Cranbrook kid pitched into a line-out at second base, which turned to a double play to kick things off, before getting the next at-bat to groundout back to the mound.
Cooly and casually, Thorn scooped up the baseball and trotted to first base, tagging the bag for the final out of his career and the Bandits’ 2016 season.
“That was a pretty cool finish,” Mrazek said. “I think that was a highlight for a lot of the guys.”
The Sunday triumph provided a measure of revenge for the Bandits, who fell 10-3 to those same Redbirds in the opening game of the tourney early Saturday afternoon.
Saturday evening saw the Bandits drop a tough one to the talented Regina Prospects by a 7-2 margin.
With one final round-robin game remaining, the Bandits were thumped handily by NW Premier Baseball out of Post Falls, Idaho, setting up for the rematch against the Redbirds.
“Regina and Post Falls were the best teams we’ve played this season,” Mrazek said. “It was a good experience for the players. It was the best pitching they had faced. It was good for them to see and focus on the innings that we played the game right and played it well, [then] learn from where we let it get away from us.
“We played with those teams for a whole bunch of innings. If we continue to do that the games will be a lot tighter and that’s where we want to go. We want to improve and get to that next level.”
With the 2016 American Legion Baseball season in the books, this past weekend proved the last time this particular group of Bandits will kick up dust together as both Thorn and infielder Kei Chlopan age out prior to next season.
The end of a campaign always serves as a time for reflection and while this Bandits squad was worthy of celebration after it put forth the best win total in Mrazek’s decade in the dugout, the coach admittedly said he always wants more and this team could have been even better than it was.
“I still think we need to tighten up defensively, primarily in the infield is where we’ve got to focus next year,” Mrazek said. “We’ve got a very strong outfield, even the rookies were playing the outfield well. We’ve got to tighten up our infield and progress there.
“That will help us get to the next level and when I say the next level, I mean being a bit more competitive with the bigger centres, the bigger cities. But talking with some of the players, it was a good season. Everyone improved and I think we keep getting better with understanding the game and knowing what’s important. But there’s still room to improve offensively, defensively, and we’ve got to focus on staying in the game and knowing the situations a bit more.”
If there’s one characteristic Mrazek could single out about his 2016 Bandits, it’s that the team never quit.
On many occasions, the club found itself down and seemingly out, only to dig in and find ways to scrape out runs, make comebacks and steal victories from opponents.
Sunday’s final victory over the Redbirds — and back-and-forth affair from start to finish — is a perfect example of the team that never gave up, even when it fell behind on the scoreboard.
“This group didn’t give up,” Mrazek said. “We won a lot of games that we were behind in and came back in. There were a lot of games where the other team got four or five runs in the first inning and we never gave up.
“We really did battle hard in a lot of games. When we were down, we stayed in there and won. We’re getting comfortable in those tighter situations.”
Outside of battling, setting a new mark of wins in a season and claiming the first season of .500-plus baseball in Mrazek’s history with the program, the fiery shot-caller expressed how important it was for the team to finally have its own bus — complete with team logos and colours — this season.
With the amount of time spent on the road — some trips as long as 10 hours on the highway — Mrazek said having a bus for the team to call its own was long overdue and a great benefit to the boys as they became familiar with one another and gelled over the course of the season.
While the scheduled has been exhausted for the Bandits, the only thing that remains is to hand out team hardware.
Mrazek said he will take a week or two to get everything organized before the team rallies for one final celebration gathering prior to the end of summer.