Fans showing up at game time Friday at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai were treated to the sandal-clad and barefooted Oilers hooting and hollering as they maneuvered a tarp around a moated field, trying to get the surface playable.
The fun didn’t stop once the game started about an hour and a half late.
The Oilers jumped out to an 8-0 lead after three innings to defeat the Anchorage Glacier Pilots in an Alaska Baseball League Playoffs semifinal.
The Oilers, who finished second in the ABL regular season, moved on to face the top-seeded Mat-Su Miners in the best-of-three Top of the World Series.
“It was the funnest game all year,” said Oilers left fielder Brody Wofford, who was 3 for 4 with two runs and an RBI after helping his teammates prep the field for about three hours. “It was cool, laid-back, and everyone was loose.
“It was win or go home.”
The series with the Pilots was supposed to be best-of-three, but Thursday’s game was washed out to cut the series to one game.
The Thursday rain gave the Oilers a day off after a road trip that saw 10 games in six days.
“We didn’t know how it would turn out having to play three games in two days after that trip, but the good Lord had it rain,” Wofford said. “That helped us save pitching.
“We’re feeling good. We might as well win it all.”
The season-ending road trip didn’t break the Oilers. They went 5-5. Billy Oxford, who went seven innings and gave up four runs (three earned) for the win, said the trip only made the squad stronger.
“Especially this last week, we’ve really come together,” Oxford said. “It was during that last, long road trip of the year.”
The game matched Oxford and Pilots starter Weston Rivers, both All-ABL first-team players this season.
Rivers was 5-1 with a 1.24 ERA in the regular season, but the Oilers touched him up for seven earned runs and seven hits in just two innings.
Oilers head coach Brian Daly said his squad’s approach at the plate was key.
“He’s a knuckleball guy and I think their plan was to use our hitters’ aggressiveness against us,” Daly said. “But he left some balls up and over the plate.”
The Oilers got on the board in the second when Wofford singled and was doubled home by Daniel Szpik, who was 2 for 2 with two runs and two RBIs. Szpik would make it 2-0 on a sacrifice fly by Jared Huber.
The skies never opened during the game, but the floodgates did with six Oilers runs in the third. The Oilers loaded the bases with no outs when Darius Hill, who was 3 for 4 with a run and an RBI, walked and Trey Dawson and Jonathan Washam followed with singles.
Seth DeWitt cleared the bases with a double, and Wofford followed with another double for a 6-0 lead that sent Rivers packing.
Szpik would single in Wofford and Hill would single in Szpik before the 11-batter, six-hit inning was done.
But the Pilots weren’t done.
“These guys have been awesome,” Pilots head coach Darren Westergard said. “Whether it was playing the first four games with pitchers or playing the last game with a skeleton crew, they’ve given all they can give all summer.”
Before the game, Daly said Joe Gillette was a player that could be on TV one day, and Gillette showed why by crushing a two-run home run to left field in the fourth for an 8-2 game.
Oxford said he fell into the trap of pitching differently once the lead was 8-0.
“I wasn’t attacking as hard as I normally do,” he said. “I didn’t stay aggressive enough.”
The Pilots trailed 8-4 in the eighth when they put runners on second and third with nobody out, but reliever Austin Piscotty escaped unscathed.
In a heavy mist, Piscotty then started the ninth by walking Luke Ritter and allowing Jeremiah Burks to reach on a single.
Pinch hitter RJ Cordeiro then singled to score Ritter, but right fielder Szpik cut down Burks at third with a no-hop dart for a crucial and momentum-turning first out. Daly said the mist and field conditions only increased the quality of the throw.
“That’s where we dumped the majority of the water from the tarp, so I didn’t know how that was going to turn out,” Daly said. “Most right fielders would have thrown home, but he knew we needed the out more than the run.”
Westergard said Burks getting cut down at third and Nate Eikhoff getting picked off in the first by the rifle-armed Huber were two base-running errors that cost his team.
Andrew Bash would come on to record the final two outs for the save.
Make no mistake about it. Daly isn’t happy his team had to play the 10 games in six days on the road.
He said he thought a game was postponed too quickly against the Anchorage Bucs at Mulcahy Stadium on July 5 and then tacked on to the season-ending road trip.
The coach said he also tried to get a game with the Chinooks at the ABL Showcase changed to a league game to lighten the season-ending road trip.
The ABL presidency rotates each year between general managers, but Daly said playing so many games in a short period is a bad look for a league entrusted with top college talent and prime argument for an independent commissioner.
He added that only the rain kept the Oilers from no days off in going from that road trip to playoffs that had the potential for six nine-inning games in four days.
But all that aside, he likes where his team is headed going into the Top of the World Series.
“All year long, our guys have turned negatives into positives,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s brought everybody together.”
Oilers 8, Glacier Pilots 5
Pilots AB H R BI Oilers AB R H BI
Wtsn ss 4 0 0 0 Hill cf 4 1 3 1
Hurd cf 5 1 2 0 Dwsn ss 5 1 1 0
Ekhf 3b 4 1 1 0 Whm 1b 2 1 1 0
Glte rf 1 1 1 2 DWt dh 4 1 1 3
Wtrs c 3 0 0 1 Wfrd lf 4 2 3 1
Knmn 2b 4 0 0 0 Spk rf 2 2 2 2
Rtr dh 3 1 1 0 Cprn 2b 3 0 0 0
Brks lf 4 0 1 0 Hbr c 2 0 0 1
Mrgn 1b 3 1 1 0 Sfrt 3b 4 0 0 0
Cdro ph 1 0 1 1 —- — — — —
Totals 32 5 8 4 Totals 30 8 11 8
Anchorage 000 201 101 —5
Peninsula 026 000 00X —8
2B — DeWitt, Wofford, Szpik. HR — Gillette. SF — Walters, Huber. SH — Szpik, Chapuran. SB — Hill, Wofford. E — Seifert. LOB — Pilots 7, Oilers 6. DP — Pilots 2.
IP H R ER BB SO
Rivers, W 2 7 7 7 2 1
Holdgrafer 3 2-3 3 1 1 3 1
Wolf 1 1-3 1 0 0 0 0
Oldenberg 1 0 0 0 0 1
Oxford, W 7 5 4 3 3 7
Piscotty 1 1-3 3 1 1 3 1
Bash, S 2-3 0 0 0 0 1