Contributed by Josh Grissom, Mat-Su Miners
Mat-Su Miners General Manager, Pete Christopher, paces around the bleachers at Hermon Brothers Field, his brow furrowed in nervous energy. His team holds a commanding 9-3 lead over the Peninsula Oilers in the championship series of the Alaska Baseball League (ABL), but Christopher remains restless.
A roar from the home crowd momentarily breaks his concentration. He peeks around the bleachers to catch a glimpse of the scoreboard before returning to his anxious pacing. Few could understand the nerves affecting the longstanding Mat-Su General Manager. After nine months of recruiting, field maintenance and community fundraisers, a single inning stands between Christopher and his fifth ABL title.
A passing Miners fan greets the anxious general manager with enthusiastic support. “Hey Pete, just three more outs,” he says while pumping his fist. Christopher nods and watches as his defense takes the field for what he hopes will be the final inning of the season.
Summer of Success
The Miners entered the summer of 2016 with high expectations, following three straight years as the league runner-up under Head Coach, Ben Taylor. The fourth-year skipper fell to the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks in 2013 and 2014, before dropping the championship series to the Anchorage Bucs the year before.
“We were expecting to win the league and nothing less,” Christopher said. “We came in second three years in a row, but it was time to win.” It appeared as though the struggles of previous seasons might carry over into the new year. The Miners recorded a total of three hits in consecutive road losses to the Oilers in Kenai.
“Those first few games were tough,” Taylor said. “But there were a lot of positives to take from it. Getting on the road isn’t easy.”
The Miners scheduled additional practices and team meetings to address the early-season issues. The program rebounded with five consecutive wins to gain an early foothold atop the ABL standings.
“That might be the most complete team offensively that I’ve had,” Taylor said. “We had guys who could run, guys who could handle the bat. I could shuffle things around a bit.”
The momentum propelled the Miners through the weekend of the MLB Scouts Showcase, as 11 players were named to the league’s annual All-Star Game. Taylor also earned his fourth consecutive coaching nomination for the event.
“It was very humbling to be able coach in this league period, I felt very blessed,” he said.
In the ABL All-Star game, Miners utility player, Jacob Hughey, earned MVP honors after launching an opposite-field home run, pitching an inning and recording the winning RBI for the Gold Team.
Cam Montgomery added to Mat-Su’s accolades by blasting 33 total home runs to win the 2016 ABL Home Run Derby in front of scouts from nearly every MLB team.
“I had a pretty good feeling going in that I had a chance to win,” Montgomery said. “I was really just trying to stay focused and put some balls out of the park.”
As the team entered the final stretch of the regular season, four members of the Mat-Su pitching staff combined to toss a no-hitter in an 8-4 victory on July 29 against the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
“It was a clunker, but the imperfections of this game make it beautiful,” Taylor said after his team completed the historic feat.
The Miners carried that energy through the remainder of the regular season to clinch home-field advantage and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“Staying at home and playing in front of our own fans gave us a huge advantage,” Mat-Su Closer Jordan Floyd, said. “We were really excited. It gave us that extra motivation to play hard.”
The weather took a turn for the worse during the opening day of the playoffs. A torrential downpour forced the Miners to reduce the opening playoff series with the Bucs to a single game, but a strong pitching performance from starter, Connor Higgins, gave Mat-Su a 4-1 win and a berth in the Top of the World Series.
In the opening game of the championship series with the Oilers, Miners’ first baseman, Jake Scudder, drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to propel Mat-Su to a 3-1 win and put his team a single game away from the ABL title.
The Final Out
With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Christopher peers through the chain link fence in anticipation, wringing his hands nervously. The chatter of the Miners faithful grows louder with every pitch, as Floyd quickly notches a 0-2 count against Peninsula infielder, Alex Seifert.
The crack of a wood bat momentarily breaks through the noise of the crowd, as Seifert rips a shot down the third base line, forcing Mat-Su third baseman, Angelo Armenta, to make a play.
Armenta fields the grounder, plants his feet and fires the ball over to first to record the final out.
A swarm of white jerseys bursts from the home dugout in a rush of energy. Players pile on top of the mound, fans swarm the field for pictures and members of the coaching staff are doused with a traditional Gatorade bath. Meanwhile, Christopher walks around the diamond in jubilation, soaking up the scene of his fifth ABL title.
A New Season
A month later, Hermon Brothers sits in relative silence. The lockers are empty. Field equipment is in storage. A thick lock holds the entrance closed. But for Christopher, the feeling of clinching another ABL title has not yet faded.
“Each title has been important in its own way,” he said. “But this year it was special because we had a bunch of guys who didn’t start out strong in the beginning of the season, but they worked hard to get better every day.”
The Mat-Su General Manager has already begun preparations for next year, combining efforts with Taylor to recruit players for the 2017 season.
Despite the shift in focus to next summer, Taylor said it was a rewarding experience to bring the Mat-Su Valley its first championship in over six years.
“It was the most satisfying day I’ve ever had on the baseball field,” Taylor said. “It was incredibly surreal.”
The 31-19 record of the Miners catapulted the program to No. 19 in the final national rankings released by Collegiate Summer Baseball.
“Everybody worked hard at their position,” Christopher said. “They always seemed to battle back, and that’s what made this season special.”