Date: Aug 13, 2018
By Miles Klotz
On Friday night, the Western Nebraska Pioneers will open up the first-ever Expedition League Championship Series at home against the Badlands Big Sticks. Games one and two (Friday and Saturday nights) will be held at Oregon Trail Park Stadium in Gering, while game three (if necessary) will be held on Sunday evening at Astoria Field in Dickinson, North Dakota.
Recapping the Season Series
During the 2018 regular season, the Pioneers had a record of 4-4 against the Big Sticks. They were 3-1 at home, and 1-3 on the road at Astoria Field. The Pioneers outscored the Big Sticks 57 to 44 in those eight regular-season contests.
In the four games played at Oregon Trail Park Stadium, Western Nebraska outscored Badlands 31 to 16. In the two team’s first meeting of the year on June 29 (the only game between the two teams in the season’s first half), the Pioneers crushed Badlands, 13-1. Jonny Petsch struck out ten over six innings of one-run ball while allowing just two hits and three walks. The teams met three more times in Gering in late July, with the Pioneers routing Badlands, 16-8, on July 25, before splitting a double-header on July 26. In game one of that doubleheader, Badlands starter Connor Grytdal threw a complete game shutout in a 7-0 Big Sticks win. He is no longer on the Big Sticks’ active roster. In game two, Pioneers starter Conner Deeds struck out 15 Badlands hitters in a 2-0 Pioneers win. It was Deeds’ final start of the summer.
On the road, the Pioneers were outscored by Badlands, 28-26, in four contests. Western Nebraska lost a pair of one-run contests at Astoria Field in mid-July, falling victim to a stellar pitching performance by Roman Oliu (no longer on the Big Sticks roster) on July 18 and seeing an exceedingly rare bullpen collapse in a 9-8 loss the next night. The Pioneers split a two-game set with the Big Sticks on August 2 and 3. They lost the second game, 10-8, despite out-hitting the Big Sticks by ten.
A Look at the Big Sticks
The Big Sticks success in their inaugural season has come mainly off of the backs of a strong offense, which ranks fourth league-wide with 462 runs scored. Despite this, Badlands is actually last in the league in batting average, with a team mark of .282. The Big Sticks offense has cooled off considerably since the start of the season, when they got off to a blazing start and held on to the Lewis Division lead for much of the first three weeks of the year.
Badlands leads the league in home runs with 74, and in home runs allowed with 81, a testament to the hitter-friendly dimensions of Dickinson’s Astoria Field. In the four games played between the Pioneers and Big Sticks at Oregon Trail Park Stadium this season, Badlands hit just one home run. In the four games played in their friendly confines, the Big Sticks socked eight long balls. Despite the abundance of home runs, the Big Sticks are last in the league in doubles, with just 98 two-baggers on the season.
The Big Sticks best offensive players have been Auggie Francis, Aaron Fritts, Jake Thurber, Wyatt Setian, and Gabe Knowles. Francis, an outfielder, has a batting average of .345 with 11 home runs and 50 runs batted in. 11 of his 22 extra-base hits are homers. Setian, the team’s slick-fielding shortstop, has hit 14 homers, which is third-best in the Expedition League. He is also third-best league wide with 59 runs batted in. Knowles has a .320 batting average with five homers and 29 RBIs, but has not played since July 30. Thurber has excellent plate discipline, with his 55 walks leading the league, and he only has struck out 52 times. He has also added nine home runs.
On the pitching side, Badlands is a bit more precarious. Their team ERA of 6.50 ranks fourth-worst in the league, and opponents hit .307 off of them (only the Casper Horseheads ranks worse in that category). They strike out far fewer batters than any other team (402, 27 below the 2nd-worst Horseheads), but also walk far fewer batters than any other team (219, 35 below the 2nd-best Hub City Hotshots).
The Big Sticks have a trio of arms who have been instrumental to the team’s success this season, and all three could see starts in the championship series. Left-hander Clay Wilson led the league with 86.2 innings pitched, and put together a very respectable 5.50 ERA given the unfriendly dimensions of his home park. Wilson was 0-2 in two starts against the Pioneers, allowing eleven earned runs in 12 innings pitched against Western Nebraska. Wilson’s command in the regular season was stellar, as he walked just 15 batters all year in his 13 starts.
Knuckleballing right-hander Matt Graser was another workhorse for head coach Hayden Pewitt’s squad, pitching 72.2 innings over 12 starts. He was strong all year, with an ERA of 5.94 and just 15 walks to 35 strikeouts, while batters hit .326 off of him. In one home start against the Pioneers, Graser allowed seven runs over five innings, including three long balls, but did not walk a batter and did not take the loss as the Big Sticks rallied in the later innings. Right-hander Gabe Lizarraga is not physically imposing at just 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, but he was third on the team with 65.2 innings pitched, striking out 34 in those frames and posting a 3-5 record and 8.08 ERA. He allowed 17 runs in 8.1 innings in two starts against the Pioneers this year.
The bullpen has turned into a recent strength for Badlands, led on the backs of quirky right-hander Cort Dietrich. The 6-foot-5 righty with a strange delivery has a 4.75 ERA that is ballooned by one poor outing in Pierre. He has dominated the Pioneers, not allowing a run in 6.1 innings of relief. Dietrich has 29 strikeouts in 36 innings, as well as four saves and a home run as a pinch-hitter. Big Sticks closer Kaleb Binstock, who started Tuesday’s one-game playoff, has 49 strikeouts in 28.2 innings, and is tied with Jeff Hakanson for the league lead with nine saves. Dakota Weindel, Joe Smith, and Nick Jennings are all solid right-handed relief options for Pewitt.
What to Watch For
The Pioneers will have to sweep the Big Sticks in the championship series if they want to clinch in front of their home fans, with a scheduling conflict at Astoria Field pushing the Big Sticks’ one home of the series to a potential winner-take-all game if necessary on Sunday. Pioneers head coach Jimmy Turk has not announced starting pitchers for the series. Left-handers Cal Beardsley and Jonny Petsch, who were members of the starting rotation all season, could reasonably assume to make starts at some point in the series. Petsch in particular had two great starts against Badlands this season, both at home and on the road. Beardsley has never faced the Big Sticks. Tuesday starter Jack Sinclair could also be available for a relief appearance on Saturday, and could also start Sunday on his usual four-days rest.
The Pioneers will also return a key offensive piece, as Luther Woullard will return to the team on Friday for the league championship series. Woullard played his last game with the Pioneers on August 1 before returning home to take care of some academic matters. Woullard was leading the Pioneers in batting average before his departure.