(March 5, 2018 – Las Vegas, Nevada) The Dallas Spirits Baseball Club sent its (35+) squad to the MSBL Las Vegas Kickoff Classic this past weekend to start off their 2018 summer campaign and to test the waters of tournament baseball. The trip was a success and the feedback from family and friends that joined the venture to Sin City made memories that will last a lifetime, however the weather and the competition level was a little less inviting for the 2018 NTABL Veterans League Champions.
It appeared that the Spirits would already be at a disadvantage heading into the tournament as they were without their leading hitter and top pitcher in the form of All-Star, NTABL Pitching Award Winner, and team MVP, Craig Molldrem. Molldrem was unavailable for the trip as the Spirits were also without the arms and bats of All-Stars, Travis Hitzeman and Jason Bottenfield.
“Experience and pitching is 80 percent of these things,” commented manager Shawn Lee following his team’s trip. “We knew we’d be heading into this tournament as more of an exploratory type of adventure, and we certainly learned a lot along the way with regards to health, time investment, and needing arms. I thought we did a great job making due with some of our veterans, but these teams bring some of the best from around the country, so it’s taught us to be a bit more prepared the next time we compete.”
In the first game of round-robin competition, the Spirits hosted the Chicago Cyclones. The game was held at a high school field with overcast skies and winds blowing out to left field at 40mph. The combination of sky color, wind, and chrome bleachers placed behind home plate made it nearly impossible for Spirits outfielders to judge and corral balls hit. Ordinary pop-ups were carried with wind gusts and short pop-ups seemed to find openings just beyond the infield; an advantage the Cyclones used and the Spirits failed to capitalize upon. In what appeared to be a slug-fest on paper, turned out to be an 11 to 8 Spirits lead heading into the final inning of play. The Cyclones use a 3-run, 2-out rally that managed to end the game in a controversial tie, leaving both teams at 0-0-1 in round-robin play.
“I chased down a fly ball to the gap that bounced and clearly made it’s way over the regular wall and the yellow fence covering in left field,” commented Lee on this team’s first game of the tournament. “With runners on base and the game in jeopardy, I fielded the ball and relayed it in. We made our case to the umpires that it should have been ruled a ground-rule double, and the 11th run should not have scored, but they were indecisive on how to handle it because we hadn’t discussed it prior to the game. It didn’t make sense to me that we needed to. The fence has a yellow out of bounds covering. Anything above it is out of play. We protested to the league afterwards and they felt it was something we should iron out with the umpires prior to playing, which we did the next game.”
Kirk Sipila and Shawn Lee led led the Spirits offense as Sipila finished with a 2 for 3 performance, including a BB, RBI, and 2 runs scored. Lee added a pair of singles, 2 runs, 3 RBI, and a stolen base, while Cliff Brade, Eric Goetz, Chris Lewis, Patrick Bilgere, Guy Koenig, Eric McPherson, John Showalter, and Jack Nash also added singles. Lewis also finished by adding a pair of RBIs alongside 3 runs scored by Goetz.
For game two, the Spirits faced the Salt Lake Lugnuts following 30 minutes of rest and the same cold, windy conditions. The result was a little of the same as the high winds didn’t seem to faze the Spirits opponents, but Spirits outfielders seemed to struggle with judging and fielding baseballs. Lee, Sipila, and Bilgere, each contributed a pair of hits, with Lee and Bilgere adding an RBI alongside Koenig, who was also good for a run batted in during the team’s 15 to 4 loss.
During the second day of tournament action, the Spirits hosted a cross-divisional opponent in the form of the Woodpeckers, a solid baseball club from the Chicago. The Spirits offense wasn’t much of a match-up for the Woodpeckers, and the birds cruised to a 13 to 2 victory behind solid pitching and defense combined with timely hitting. Lee once again led his team with a pair of hits and 2 runs batted in, while Brade, McPherson, and Duane Aponte were the only other Spirits batters to reach base with a hit.
Heading into the Sunday afternoon, the Spirits were convinced their tournament was over following their 0-2-1 round-robin performance. As it would turn out however, the phone rang and a message was delivered to the team that brought about a reaction most basketball teams obtaining an at-large bid in the NCAA Men’s Basketball typically experience. The Spirits discovered that due to the performance of some other teams in the tournament, the team had made the cut-off as the number eight seed heading into the cross-divisional playoff round. The seeding placed the Spirits against the fifth seeded, Utah Braves and the team had just an hour to stop their adjustment from post-baseball and Las Vegas celebration and make their way 21 miles outside of the city to Henderson for the playoff round.
“This will certainly be one of the funniest and memorable moments we’ll have as a team,” mentioned Lee. “We thought we were done. We were eating, getting ready for a Sunday night in Las Vegas and the phone rang. I’ll leave it there, but the surprise was priceless and the new life turned up our celebration level and it seemed to re-ignite the guys. It was a blast and we couldn’t have been more excited to play another game.”
It turns out the team’s miscalculation on the standings resulted in a re-birth as the squad made it’s way to Henderson to challenge the Braves. As it would develop, it turned out that not only was the celebration of playing another game a memorable point in the team’s weekend, but a new story would also come out of the night’s play in the form of third baseman, John Showalter. Showalter, a solid defender and hitter for the Veterans (35+) squad and manager for the Open (18+) squad indicated to Lee that he could be available to pitch in a pinch. With sore arms and bodies in his dugout, Lee gave his third baseman a shot and Showalter didn’t disappoint. In fact, Showalter was nearly lights out as the sun set over Las Vegas and the Spirits found themselves on the winning end of a 13 to 6 victory. For Showalter, he played hero, becoming the only Spirits pitcher over the weekend to pick up a victory and did so by pitching a complete game when the team was out of arms. Showalter went 7 innings, striking out 8 Braves hitters, allowing only 7 hits, while walking 5.
“Show (Showalter) was insane,” continued Lee. “It was an absolute blast watching him dig in and get into a zone. We’re certainly going to consider him an option this upcoming season. He’s a hard-throwing third baseman and if he can pitch anything close to how he delivered Sunday night, we’ll definitely have an extra arm at our disposal. The score wasn’t reflective of his work. We mishandled a handful of ground balls that should have been easy outs or double-plays, so hats off to his performance. It’s certainly one we won’t forget!”
Showalter’s pitching heroics and a Spirits offense that seemed to finally be clicking became the recipe for winning. The team was energized, vocal, and appeared to be loose and having fun on the diamond. Koenig finished the night 3 for 3, with a BB, R, and RBI, while Sipila finished the evening 3 for 4, with a 2B, 2 R, and an RBI. Brant Finchum was also 3 for 4 with a run scored and Lee topped off the offense with another pair of singles, a run scored, and 2 RBI. Brade, Goetz, McPherson, Aponte, Tipton, and Nash each added hits to the box as well, alongside a run batted in (2 for McPherson).
The victory placed the Spirits against last year’s Las Vegas Kickoff Classic Champion, the Las Vegas Warriors. The Spirits couldn’t find anything left in the offensive tank however, as the team mustered only 6 hits, with two coming from Koenig. The Warriors went on to capture the 2018 championship, defeating the ghosts by a score of 13 to 0. The second place finish, however, provided the team with a $375.00 purse to utilize at a future MSBL tournament.
“The trip was fantastic,” concluded Lee. “We learned a lot, but more importantly, we had a blast and made some great memories. We’ll show up more prepared with some of our extended talent next time, and we’ll likely reach out to some of the talent in our league to make us deeper. Big shout-outs to the pitchers who allow us to get on the field. If it weren’t for John Holmquist, (Duane) Aponte, (Kirk) Sipila, (Brant) Finchum, (Guy) Koenig, and (John) Showalter, we wouldn’t have been here. Holmquist pitched a solid game against the Woodpeckers, one of the better teams in amateur baseball around the country, and we just failed to provide him with the needed offense to make it a game. Big John was great! In looking at some of our blunders, I’ll say in our ‘defense’that these were our first games played this year. We went into these games without any practice games or scrimmages behind us and that showed for us defensively. I thought we hit okay. We didn’t take advantage of that wind blowing out the first day, but overall, the learning experience was solid. We’ll be a more formidable opponent the next time.”
The Spirits will continue to prep throughout the next couple of weeks as the NTABL season is expected to kick off the week of April 8, 2018. The club would also like to take a moment to thank the wives and girlfriends who also took the time and braved the weather for 3 hours per game to support the squad. They provided not only exceptional support, but laughter and moments that will be remembered forever. Thank you Spirits Ladies!
Waxahachie Autoplex Players of the Tournament
Spirits Tournament Box Score