Fastball playoff picture still quite muddled

Dan Falloon

The Rainy River District Fastball League’s regular season is scheduled to wrap up this week, but there’s still plenty to be decided in the next two nights.
The local Sight & Sound Wolves began a stretch of four games in three nights yesterday evening at Big Island.
The Wolves also have three games at the friendly confines of VanJura Park here, including a doubleheader against Rainy River tonight starting at 7 p.m.
Then Northwest Bay visits tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
The playoffs are slated to get underway next Tuesday (July 20).
The defending champion Wolves, who sat at 9-5 entering last night’s action, could finish anywhere from second to sixth in the standings.
Sabaskong (10-3), both the Big Grassy Braves and Lightning, and Rainy River also are all jockeying for position.
The Barwick Knights (14-3 entering play last night) remain the odds-on favourite to clinch first place.
The Knights needed a win over the Cubs in their final game last night, or a Sabaskong loss in one of its three make-up games.
Barwick manager George Oltsher was careful with his wording, adding that even though top spot in the league is well within his team’s grasp, nothing was guaranteed yet.
“We’ve had three losses so far. We’ve got one game to go,” he acknowledged.
“The competition is good,” Oltsher added. “Every team in the league has at least won one or two games, and every team has lost some games.”
Meanwhile, Sight & Sound has started to heat up at the right time, having reeled off five wins in a row, including key victories over Barwick and Sabaskong in that stretch.
Wolves’ manager Derek McKinnon feels his crew could be even higher than fifth place right now, amid the logjam of quality teams, if not for some early-season hiccups.
McKinnon noted four of their five defeats were by one run.
“A run here and there, we could have been in first place or it could mean no losses,” he remarked.
“The games lost were right at the beginning of the year and the guys were a little bit sloppy,” he admitted.
The Wolves’ first three losses of the year all came away from VanJura Park, with McKinnon saying his team tends to be shorthanded on the road.
“When we have a home game, we’ll have 14 guys there, but a lot of the time, when we have a road game, we’ve got nine guys,” he explained.
“Sometimes you end up putting a guy in a spot he’s not quite used to, or he’s batting in a different spot.
“It’s not a huge difference but sometimes it’s enough to change the outcome of a game,” he reasoned.
McKinnon said his charges are beginning to slip comfortably into their respective positions, but one player who has been able to slide seamlessly around the field really has caught his eye so far this year.
“Kurtis Wepruk’s been really having a strong year,” lauded McKinnon. “He’s really been hitting the ball and his defensive play has been impressive.
“We’ve moved him around a lot,” he noted. “He’s played shortstop quite a bit, or second base, and he’s just putting up great games every night.”
A major part of Sight & Sound’s success, according to McKinnon, is strong defensive play. Entering last night, the Wolves were tied with the Cubs for fewest runs allowed at 44 apiece.
Barwick sits at 49 after having played three more games.
Part of the credit can go to pitcher Bob Andy, who sports a 6-5 record while carrying the bulk of the load.
Andy was the hard-luck loser in each of the one-run games.
“If we’re down a couple runs, he doesn’t really change his game,” McKinnon said. “He just plays his game and doesn’t really worry about what’s going on around him.”
Andy also has been effective with the bat, pounding a pair of home runs to tie him for the team lead.
McKinnon conceded the Wolves’ offence hasn’t been as potent as in years past, with a younger lineup still trying to put a finger on the intricacies of the RRDFL.
In recent seasons, the Wolves have approached 300 runs, but sit at just 122 so far this year.
“We’ve always been pretty tight defensively,” said McKinnon. “We haven’t put up near the runs that we used to.
“We just haven’t hit the home runs that we used to, but we’re a younger team than we used to be,” he reasoned.
“We’ve got guys coming up that they’re going to be hitting home runs in a few years.”
Meanwhile, after scuffling through a winless season in 2009, the Sabaskong Cubs have rebounded nicely and are back in championship contention.
Manager Frank Shebagegit lauded his pitching staff, led by Don “Kimbi” Copenace and Sheldon Kelly, with helping return the Cubs to the league’s upper echelon.
“Pitching is a big thing in the league,” he stressed. “If you don’t have it, you really don’t go too far.
“Sheldon really brings a lot to the game, and ‘Kimbi.’
“They really helped us out.”
Copenace also is the team’s biggest long-ball threat, having popped five already to tie him for second in the league.
“He really leads the way when he comes out to play,” Shebagegit said. “He’s always on base, very rarely strikes out.”
The Cubs have recorded victories against each of the loop’s top six teams—proof that Shebagegit’s squad rises to the occasion against a challenge.
“We’ve just been doing the little things, especially against the tougher teams, like Sight & Sound or Big Grassy or Barwick,” he explained.
“[We’re] just doing the little things and getting it together.”
Over in Barwick, the Knights appear poised to make a run at their fourth title in five years after winning the league crown from 2006-08.
Leading the surge is slugger Kevin Gemmell, with eight blasts already.
And despite leading the RRDFL with 185 runs, almost 40 more than either of the Big Grassy squads (both at 148), the one stat in the back of Oltsher’s mind is the three defeats.
“I don’t know if there’s any one reason why our team has done well,” he said. “We do have three losses, which means we’re not unbeatable.
“Some years, teams have gone through without any losses, but this year just seems to be a good year for ball.
“We’ll just have to go there and have some fun, and play some ball,” he concluded.
In other RRDFL news, McKinnon announced trust fund information for the children of Wolves’ catcher Clayton “Beef” Windigo, who died last month.
The account is set up through the local Toronto Dominion bank (#626-5936). Cheques must be made out to “Sheldon Bourassa in trust.”
McKinnon also is selling window decals with Windigo’s No. 17 to help raise money for the fund, as well, and added the team is looking at hosting a golf tournament in late August as a fundraiser.
As well, the Wolves will host an old-timers’ game next Friday (July 23) at 4:30 p.m. at VanJura.
The game is open to anyone over the age of 45. Those interested in signing up can contact McKinnon at 275-9583.
Lastly, the league’s all-star game is set for Tuesday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. in Stratton at 7 p.m.
Each of the league’s 10 teams will have at least one representative in the game.