By Randy Palmer
May 25th, 2023
With majority of roster in town and 13 players returning, hopes are high for another winning campaign
The Moose Jaw Miller Express are heading into the Western Canadian Baseball League season with a single goal in mind — win one more game than they did in 2022.
Because if they can pull that off, they’ll have the first WCBL title in team history.
After going all the way to the final game of the league championship series before falling to the Okotoks Dawgs, the off-season was spent preparing and looking toward at the very least a repeat performance — and ideally one step better.
“It’s exciting after the year we had last season,” said Miller Express head coach Eric Marriott during the team’s second practice on Thursday afternoon. “The interest we had from players across North America was something we’ve never really had before and we’re excited about the team we have here. With 13 returnees, that’s something that’s not very common in summer baseball, so we expect to have a strong summer for the city of Moose Jaw.”
Getting players to return from year to year isn’t always an easy task, especially with the myriad of summer baseball opportunities closer to home for many players. Almost winning a league title offers a new wrinkle to things, though, and helped a lot of returnees make decisions.
“For some of the guys, it was a breeze because the job’s not finished,” Marriott said. “Then some of the other guys followed suit. They went home, talked to their families and coaches and were like ‘let’s come back and let’s do something special’. Honestly, those guys are my best recruiters, they talk to their friends and their teammates and want to come out here, too, and we saw quite a bit of that in the offseason.”
As per usual, the Millers will be a touch shorthanded to start the campaign as players finish up their college seasons. Marriott expects to have 21 players in town to kick off the campaign Friday in Weyburn, with the remainder of the team arriving during the first week of June.
The players who are in town now — including all of their returnees from last season — have already given the team hope for a solid campaign.
When it comes to pitching, Marriott expects to see a bit more depth and balance after heavily relying on their all-star calibre arms last season.
“Last summer our pitching staff was a little top heavy and we relied on a few more guys than we needed to, but this year I’d say we’re much more complete,” Marriott said. “From one through 13, we have guys who can fill up the zone and throw strikes and keep hitters off balance and ultimately help us win ball games.”
If things go even close to as well at the plate as they did last season, pitching won’t be a concern most nights. There were points in 2022 where Moose Jaw could put together a line-up filled top to bottom with .300 hitters, most of whom also boasted fence-clearing power. A repeat of that, and things are guaranteed to look good.
“It’ll be tough to top last year’s team offensively, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t,” Marriott said. “We got a lot of our big-time guys back and we have guys coming in that should be right there with them in terms of numbers. We have guys who can hit the ball out of the park, hit for average, run and kind of do it all on the field.”
That includes team MVP and WCBL all-star Nate Mensik, who hit .314 with a team-best 11 home runs and 42 runs batted in while also emerging as a huge fan favourite.
“Things are looking good right now, we’re getting to know everybody and getting comfortable on the field, getting back into town and getting things going,” Mensik said shortly after a round of batting practice on Thursday. “So it’s been good and I’m excited to get going.”
Improving on what he did last summer will take some work, but the Doane University junior is confident it’s in the cards.
“I always want to be better, I just play the game how I do and don’t overthink it, play it like you always have as a kid,” Mensik said. “That’s my mindset going into it, you can’t look a stats or anything like that because then you start worrying about numbers instead of how you play. So that’ll be my focus.”
One aspect of the team that was important to their success was how close they became over the summer. Mensik expects that kind of unity will be a major factor his season as well.
“We’re starting to get that feel already,” he said. “It’s tough coming from the States up to Canada, a tough transition right away, but they get used to it as they go. This is our second day together of a long, fun summer and we’re all looking forward to it.”
After their contest in Weyburn Friday, the Miller Express will play their home opener against the Beavers on Saturday night at Ross Wells Park, with first pitch at 7 p.m.
“it’ll be exciting to get on the road and get our feet wet to start things on Friday, and then Saturday we’re back home and hopefully we have a sell-out crowd and it’s packed,” Marriott said. “The boys will be ready to go and they’re excited to be playing in front of the Moose Jaw fans.”