Contributed by Hunter Warning & Troy Wisneski
The Mat-Su Miners captured their second straight “Top of the World Series” title in what was the final piece of their record-breaking season. The Miners led the Alaska Baseball League wire to wire, compiling a 39-15 record.
“Every season is its own unique entity and special in its own way, but this season has been so special just for the hard work and the toughness our guys have shown to rack up the win total that we have and to be the team that we are,” said Ben Taylor, the head coach for the Miners and the associate head coach at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Chandler, AZ. Taylor says the team had plenty of challenges throughout the summer.
“We played basically the entire first month of June on the road and then we had five days off in July because of rainouts, we played multiple double headers. The elements and the schedule have not been the easiest and this team has won more games than any team that I’ve had up here.”
A big part of that winning formula was Quin Cotton, an outfielder from Grand Canyon University. "Going into the summer, I felt like I had all the pieces to be an effective player,” said Cotton. “I just needed to put it all together.” As the summer progressed, Cotton led the ABL in batting average and was voted the ABL Player of the Year and was given the league's Silver Slugger award.
The defending ABL champions started their first month with a trip to Kenai for six games in five days against the Oilers and of course, a stay at the infamous Bingo Hilton. The barracks have housed hundreds of ABL players over the years and were a big part of bringing this Miners team together early in the season.
“Summer baseball teams come together in such an organic way,” said Taylor. “You don’t have fall ball, you don’t have winter conditioning to bond the team together. It was huge because we got to know each other and we got to become a team while we were down there.”
The Miners went 5-1 against the Oilers on that trip, with the lone loss coming in a bizarre game with darkness, bad weather and a couple turns of bad luck. “It seemed like anything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said pitching coach, Matt Greely of Coppin State University. “A ball off our outfielder’s head to leave the yard late in the game and then the bases loaded with probably the fastest guy in the league hit into a double play, it was just a weird game.”
That series of games away from home was just the start for the Miners, who would play eighteen of their first twenty-five games on the road. By the end of June, Mat-Su held the lead in the ABL standings with the Anchorage Bucs close behind.
After a string of less than stellar games, the Miners kicked things into high gear with the end of the season approaching. Mat-Su won nine straight games to end regular season play, thanks in part to great pitching performances from the Miners across the board. Spencer Henson’s seven innings of scoreless baseball against the Oiler’s ace is something that stands out in Ben Taylor’s mind.
“When he had had a death in his extended family, a former coach of his, and we had been playing well but not great and we needed to beat the Oilers, coming off a double header loss against them,” said Taylor. “With everything going on in his life, he found a way to dig deep and dedicate his game to his coach and give us maybe the biggest lift of the summer.”
To close out the regular season, the Miners turned to their local pitchers, Jake Butcher and Nolan Monaghan, to carry them into the playoffs. For Monaghan, being a part of this team holds special meaning.
"It is really cool being on the team, cause I've always thought growing up that maybe I could play here one day,” said Monaghan, who lives in Wasilla and plays for Feather River. Both Monaghan and Butcher pitched clutch innings out of the bullpen and even started when needed. “I used to be in awe of these guys, but now I get to compete with them."
The season came down to the last day. After falling in Game 1 to the Anchorage Bucs, who had been rivals throughout the season and always provided a tough challenge, the Miners needed two straight wins to be crowned champions. Much like they had when faced with difficult situations throughout the season, the Miners responded with playing their best baseball. Outscoring the Bucs 20-4 in two games led to an emotional day at Hermon Brother Field.
While every season has challenges, the 2017 Mat-Su Miners met and exceeded every expectation set in front of them. And with that, Pete Christopher and the rest of the Miners organization gets to work on preparing for next season and hopefully, the next championship.