Talent alone won’t guarantee a team a championship, but it’s a good start.
The Peninsula Oilers, who begin their season tonight at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai, are stocked with names that come from talented college rosters, all of which are ready to play ball for the Oilers’ 45th season as an Alaska Baseball League club.
The two-month long ABL season began this week, and the Oilers start with a long six-game home series against the Anchorage Bucs, with first pitch tonight at 7 p.m.
First-year Peninsula head coach Kyle Brown leads the local nine after serving as an assistant last year, and said he is eager to work with the budding talent.
“We’ve got a great group of kids up here,” Brown said. “They’re a little young, but they’re hungry and full of energy. They know Kenai is in a championship drought since 2006.
“That’s goal. That’s the expectation.”
A quick glance at the 2018 roster reveals a promising trend in that all 27 names compete at the Division I, II or III level of collegiate ball, with 16 playing at NCAA Division I institutions.
Brown said it is his objective this year to take that talent and mold it into something bigger and better for the rest of each player’s career.
“For me, winning is a byproduct,” he said. “Every day is about the kids establishing routines and every day to come to the ball park and know the drills they’re going to do to help them get better.
“We want them to trust the process, and maybe not get immediate results but apply those things come the fall and get better.”
About the only names returning are those of the coaching staff. Brown will be joined by returning pitching coach Ryan Doran, a coaching duo that could have a big effect on the Peninsula pitching staff.
Brown coached during the school year out of Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, a junior college, but made the move to the University of San Diego as a pitching specialist, while Doran returns from Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California.
Rolando Sanchez joins the staff as a catching and hitting coach out of Piedmont University in Winstom-Salem, North Carolina. Sanchez also played in the Mexico League.
Brown was an Oilers assistant under longtime San Diego State coach Jim Dietz last year, and said one of the most important things he gathered from working with Dietz was an incredible work ethic.
“He’s got this baseball mind and I got to pick his mind last summer,” Brown said. “We’d go out to breakfast and talk baseball, how the guys on the team are doing and how it’s going to apply. It was baseball 24-7, it was all he had on his mind, and he gave me free range as a pitching coach. I’m very intrinsically motivated to be a hard worker and working with tweaks to get these kids better.
“For someone who had turned 79, I had to keep up with him.”
Brown said a two-month ABL season doesn’t leave much time to properly develop a team, so he has integrated team bonding activities to ensure a winning culture in the clubhouse.
“I can explain it, but it’s up to them to create their own (culture),” Brown said. “When a program has three to four years, you get to see the progression. I get kids for two months and I’ve only seen them a couple days now.”
Brown said a storytelling activity earlier this week helped to break the ice and to create an understanding of who each player is and where they came from.
“We want them to grow as individuals,” he said. “For them to spend a summer in Alaska, sometimes 3,000 miles from family, they’re kids from different states, schools and areas, it’s about being able to communicate with those they never would.”
Last summer, the Oilers won just one of their first seven games, including a 1-5 start in their season-opening series against the Miners, but went .500 the rest of the way to make the postseason.
The Oilers finished third in the ABL standings with a 20-26 mark, just slipping into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Peninsula was then swept in two games by the league-leading Mat-Su Miners — thanks to a spectacular game-ending line drive catch by the Miners — who went on to their fourth straight Top of the World Series.
Brown said that is a position the Oilers would like to be in more often, but stressed it starts with doing things right before the first pitch.
“At the end of the day, if my guys do their job, we’ll end up on top,” he said.
The only returning Oilers player is shortstop Paul Kunst, who played most of last summer with the Fairbanks Goldpanners before arriving with the Oilers late in the season after Fairbanks ended its season early. Kunst wrapped up his freshman campaign for the University of San Diego with a .301 average in conference play.
Brown’s tentative lineup will look like this; the corner bases will be manned by University of San Diego freshman Michael Yourg at first and Cal State Bakersfield freshman Evan Berkey at third, Kunst will patrol shortstop while Murray State freshman Grant Wood will hold down second.
Cal State Bakersfield junior Ryan Koch will start as catcher, while Brown said his only known outfielder at this time is Murray Sate junior center fielder Tyler Duke.
A six-man pitching rotation will be in place, and although Brown said he is still working on that cast as of Tuesday night, he tagged right-hander Mike Lopez, a Cal State San Marcos (California) junior, as the opening night starter. Lopez went 2-3 with a 5.63 ERA this spring as a starter for the Cougars.
Brown said the big rotating cast of starters will hopefully prepare the team for long season series, including the opening six-game set against the Bucs.
“We’ve got a lot of versatility on the team,” he said, adding that starters will be on a pitch count of six innings or 85 pitches in the early weeks.
The Oilers also feature two home state kids in Jake Darrow of Sterling and Erickson Fish out of Sitka.
Darrow is a Soldotna High School graduate that won a state legion championship with the Post 20 Twins in 2012, and plays infield and outfield. Darrow returns to the Oilers after one year off in 2017, and is returning home for the summer after finishing his sophomore season at Eastern Arizona College, where he finished second in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with a fiery .399 batting average.
Fish is a right-hander out of Hope International University in Fullerton, California, that just wrapped up his junior campaign. Fish earned an Alaska state baseball championship in high school his senior year, and spun a 4.21 ERA at Hope International in 2018 over 25 2-3 innings pitched.