Baseball continues to grow in the East Kootenay and the Cranbrook Bandits ever increasing success is simply one measuring stick for that. The local American Legion Baseball crew provided yet another marker in that regard this past weekend, by setting a new franchise win record.
Playing five games south of the border in Lewistown, Mont., the Bandits earned four victories to improve to 21-19-1 this season, surpassing the club win record initially set in 2014 and matched in 2015.
“We’re definitely playing much better baseball,” said Paul Mrazek, head coach of the Bandits baseball program, Monday afternoon. “We’re playing better defense than we have. We’re hitting the ball better as a team, getting the job done cashing people in. There’s still lots of little stuff I still expect more of, but I think it says the program has definitely come along. Different coaches [around the league] over the last three years have seen what we’re doing, they’re seeing us get better and they’ve commented that. It’s nice.
“This year is where we’re seeing it and it’s pretty exciting — baseball is growing in Cranbrook right now. I’m excited and I think there’s more that we can do.”
Opening the weekend with a 8-4 defeat of the Medicine Hat Majestics, the Bandits snapped a three-game losing streak. After a 13-7 loss to Billings Post, the Bandits rounded out the weekend with a 12-3 win over Great Falls and a 5-3 victory over Gallatin.
Sunday afternoon, wild weather brought about an early end to the final game of the weekend. After a length delay, the game was called and the Bandits walked away with a 6-5 triumph over the Scobey Blues.
Bandits rookie Greg Rebagliati got the start in Thursday’s 8-4 win over the Majestics, going three innings, striking out four while only allowing one earned run. From there, Dan Mercandelli, Brandon Thorn and Caden McCormack provided relief work, while McCormack earning the save.
The Bandits’ offense provided the necessary run support, building a 6-1 advantage through five innings before adding another two runs in the bottom of the sixth to go ahead 8-2. A last-gasp comeback attempt from the Majestics was doused in the top of the seventh inning.
Friday afternoon, Billings Post got the best of Hayden Mastel and the Bandits en route to a 13-7 win.
Mastel lasted only one inning on the bump despite doing his best to work the opposition into hitting routine ground balls and pop ups. The rookie allowed seven runs (three earned), before giving way to Mercandelli, as the defense crumbled around him.
By the end of the second inning, the Bandits were in a hole too deep to recover, having fallen behind 9-2. After Billings Post tacked up two more runs in the top of the fourth inning, a spirited four-run effort clawed the visitors to within striking distance, trailing 11-6. But Billings Post put it away with a two-run effort in the top of the sixth.
A total of 10 errors in the outing ultimately cost the Bandits.
Kei Chlopan went 3-for-5, including two RBI for the Bandits to help lead the offense, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the costly mistakes on defense.
“We never recovered,” Mrazek said of the early errors in Friday’s loss to Billings Post. “I wasn’t too happy about how we played against Medicine Hat, even though we won. So after that, we had a little talk. I wasn’t going to talk at all but then I had to wait for the bus, so I started talking and it got ugly.”
Saturday morning, the Bandits responded in resounding fashion, shaving the error count to four en route to a decisive 12-3 win over Great Falls.
A six-run effort in the bottom of the first inning gave the Bandits more offense than was required, with Rebagliati going the distance by throwing five strong innings with three strikeouts and three runs allowed (zero earned).
Saturday, the Bandits won a 5-3 nail-biter against Gallatin.
The bats spotted a 4-0 lead through the top of the second before Gallatin came to life, victimizing Mercandelli — who got the start on the mound — for three runs in th bottom of the second inning to roar back into the contest.
Tyler Thorn came on in relief and went the rest of the way, firing 3.2 innings of one-hit baseball, striking out eight to claim the save, while Mercandelli collected the victory.
Sunday’s final outing saw the Bandits fall behind 5-1 before a five-run explosion in the top of the fifth inning launched the visitors to a 6-5 lead with no runs on the board.
Then the lightning rolled in to put the game on delay. Then the skies opened and pingpong-ball-sized hail pelted the field. Before mother nature had finished, rain poured down leaving standing water on the diamond and multiple hours of cleanup required to build the field back up. The game was called, giving the Bandits a third-place finish at the tournament and a new franchise mark for victories in a season.
The Bandits will look to build upon that freshly-minted record and end their 2016 American Legion Baseball season on a high note when they travel to Calgary for the Dan Lawson Memorial Tournament this weekend (July 22 to 24).
“I want them to see that they can play the game in tight situations, some of them, and also just make the routine plays, quick innings, get guys on base, move them around and generate runs,” Mrazek said. “Usually we have our one big inning where we string three or four hits together and that’s usually good for three or four runs.
“I just want to see them go play the way they can and be relaxed out there.”
The Bandits will play a doubleheader Saturday, taking on the host Calgary Redbirds (12 p.m.) before facing Inside Pitch Regina (3 p.m.). The final game of round-robin action will pit the Bandits against NW Premier Baseball (Post Falls) on Sunday at 9 a.m. before the bronze medal game (12 p.m.) and gold medal game (3 p.m.).