The last few years it seemed as though it was the Fort Frances Braves’ world and everybody else was living in it.
That suddenly all changed last Wednesday night.
The Barwick Blue Knights scored twice in the seventh inning to pull out a thrilling 3-1 win over the two-time defending champs in the third-and-deciding game of the Rainy River District Fastball League championship series at Couchiching.
It was the first league crown for the Blue Knights since 2015.
“The Braves are the powerhouse of the league, no doubt,” said Blue Knights’ shortstop Vaughan Wilson, who also serves as the league president.
“For years it seems like we measure our potency by how many runs we lose to them by. This might sound a little cheesy, but I work with a bunch of the veterans on this team and our lunchroom conversations had a lot to do with how much we wanted this championship in particular,” he noted.
“There’s a younger group of Blue Knights that are now the engine on this team and maybe this is a kind of a torch passing.
“So yeah, this win was definitely sweet,” he enthused.
It was mostly a pitcher’s duel throughout last Wednesday’s deciding game, with JJ Landry of the Blue Knights and Braves’ ace Jaden Gustafson doing their darnedest to keep the opposition off the board with a variety of great pitches.
Barwick looked to be cooking with gas early on in the first inning as Wilson led off with an infield single.
But Gustafson rebounded by striking out the side to keep it scoreless.
That great pitching proved vital for the Braves in the bottom half as Dakota Andy struck out to start the frame but was able to reach first base when the ball got away from Blue Knights’ catcher Josh Whalen.
A pair of groundouts by Chris Bourgeois and Travis Tom allowed Andy to advance to third and he came around to score on Jesse Tom’s soft grounder to short to make it 1-0.
After Gustafson struck out the side in the second, Fort Frances looked destined to add to its lead in the bottom half as Mike Parisien drew a walk and Gustafson singled to put two men on with none out.
But Landry got back-to-back strikeouts and induced a groundout to stifle the threat.
“Every one of the Braves that I talked to last night commented on how well JJ pitched and–having caught him in Game 2–I felt like he probably threw harder in that game, but he was dialed in for this game,” Wilson noted of Landry.
“He got us out of a few jams where they had a runner in scoring position with one and even none out. He hit his spots and got the ground balls.”
Brandan Pratt drew a one-out walk in the fourth and came around to score on an RBI triple from Jaxon Calder to knot it at 1-1.
That set the stage for a thrilling seventh inning for Barwick.
Wilson came home from third on a wild pitch by Gustafson to give the Blue Knights their first lead of the night.
Ryder Woolsey then followed that up by cranking a deep solo shot to right-centre field to add an insurance run and make it a 3-1 game.
Landry took over from there, retiring the side in order in the bottom half to preserve the championship for Barwick.
The Blue Knights’ ace finished with five strikeouts while surrendering just four hits, two walks and the lone run in a complete-game effort.
Gustafson was solid despite suffering the season-ending loss for the Braves, going the distance while winding up with 17 strikeouts and surrendering just three runs on four hits and five walks.
“I talked to Jaden after the game and he was telling me about some of the mistakes he made in my at-bats and I’m thinking ‘I couldn’t hit that pitch’ and he’s calling it a mistake,” lauded Wilson.
“He’s a young, strong man and he’s going to get that mid-20s strength soon then I don’t have a clue how we’ll keep up with him.”
Wilson also feels as though the Blue Knights’ success during the playoffs was due to the team really coming together midway through the season.
“We expect a lot from ourselves as a team, so when we were sitting at .500 about three weeks into the season we were a little baffled,” he recalled.
“We were fielding well and we definitely had the competitive drive, we just weren’t scoring runs. About halfway through the season guys like Ryan Redford, Jaxon Calder, and Cole Allan started hitting the ball a long way.
“JJ, Pratt, and Tanner [Smith] did their jobs well on the mound and we kind of got that old family feeling back,” Wilson enthused.
Looking back on the RRDFL season as a whole, Wilson said that there’s no doubt in his mind that fastball is the heartbeat of a lot of communities right now.
And with 12 teams currently in the league, he doesn’t see that number diminishing anytime soon.
“It’s impressive to see a Sabaskong versus Sabaskong crowd up there,” he noted, referring to the Lakers and Goldeneyes teams.
“Stratton visits Barwick and their fans fill the bleachers. The ladies’ teams that play alongside the men’s teams are there to cheer the guys on and vice versa.
“We’re doing well in all the important aspects of keeping the league healthy,” he enthused.
“We have a small but very committed group of umpires who do a great job, we’re lost without them.”
As for skill level, Wilson noted that the league probably saw the best young pitcher between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay last Wednesday night in Gustafson, along with some very good offensive talent on both the Braves and Blue Knights.
“It’s not a beer league,” he stressed.
“Anyone who’s faced a 70 m.p.h. fastball from a guy who jumps six feet towards you off a rubber that’s 45′ away can attest to that. I see a younger generation that wants to be better than the last–and I love it.”