Anchorage Glacier Pilots outfielder Tyler Spoon, whose club clinched the Alaska Baseball League pennant on a wild Wednesday night, learned a valuable lesson this summer.
"I just really need to relax more, because when I relax it just kind of takes everything away, all the pressure and stuff," he said. "I just chew gum and don't really think of anything."
That was tough to do Wednesday.
Even though the Glacier Pilots were one strike away from beating the visiting Chugiak Chinooks, they lost 7-4 in 10 innings at Mulcahy Stadium.
Yet the Glacier Pilots still won the title because the second-place Peninsula Oilers blew a three-run ninth-inning lead on the road, lost 4-3 in 10 innings to the Fairbanks Goldpanners and were eliminated from the pennant chase.
The Oilers, who have four games left, trail the Glacier Pilots, who have five games remaining, by 4 1/2 games, so the teams could finish in a tie if the Oilers win out and the Pilots lose out.
Yet the point is moot -- the Glaicer Pilots won the season series with the Oilers 6-2, and the league tiebreaker, according to Pilots general manager Jon Dyson, is the head-to-head season series.
And the third-place Anchorage Bucs, who lost 3-2 to the Mat-Su Miners in Palmer, could theoretically still tie the Glacier Pilots -- the Bucs trail the Glacier Pilots by five games and both clubs have five games left.
But the Glacier Pilots own the tiebreaker 5-3, over the Bucs.
Ergo -- the Anchorage Glacier Pilots are your ABL champs.
Chew on that.
Back to Spoon, whose relaxed mind helped him accumulate a league-high 29 RBIs and a league high-tying eight homers.
"We're just all having fun," Spoon said. "You're only in Alaska once, probably, so we are just loving our time here."
The Pilots weren't feeling so comfortable when they lost their first seven games, but wins led to confidence, which led to more wins.
The improvement was gradual, Spoon said, but he recalled a sudden surge in confidence when the Pilots managed to beat the Bucs for the first time in six tries -- four of their five early losses to the Bucs were in non-league games. The 3-2 ABL victory Spoon referenced came in the second half of a doubleheader July 3, and propelled the Pilots toward two more wins over the Bucs, and onward to an 11-4 record over the 15 games that followed the series.
"They were our toughest competition in the league this season," Pilots outfielder Jordan Luplow said of the Bucs. "Beating them a few times definitely gave us confidence. It feels like we really turned the season around and we feel good about how we're finishing."
Luplow, who has five homers and 23 RBIs, said the Pilots were just taking it one game at a time and trying to close strong. Winning the league was an important accomplishment, he said, perhaps a bit of a surprise after the way the season started.
"After the first seven games we were like 'We can't compete with these guys,' " Luplow said. "After the first couple of wins, we were like, 'Oh yeah, we can do this.' "
Once things improved, they did so in all phases of the game. Players became more comfortable on the field, able to trust one another, and bats became lively and explosive. That level of confidence then carried over to the pitching staff.
The Pilots' top pitcher is Kyle Freeland, who started Wednesday and got a no-decision. The three earned runs he gave up in six innings were the first he has surrendered in an ABL game this season -- still, his ERA is a ridiculous 0.74 and he's 4-0 in league games.
Freeland said his first non-league game didn't go so well, however, as he gave up four early runs.
"I was a little shaky then, but that's how it is with any team that you're brand new to," Freeland said. "We finally got to know each other and we meshed together really well. I know I have a great defense behind me."
The league title earned the Pilots a spot in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kan., but the Pilots have decided not to make the trip. Dyson cited injuries to several players as the primary reason for not wanting to continue playing.
"We just decided to get through the season and keep everyone healthy," Dyson said.
Miners 3, Bucs 2
The Mat-Su Miners cashed in the winning run Wednesday night courtesy of two Anchorage Bucs errors in the bottom of the seventh inning to bag a 3-2 ABL victory at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.
With the game tied 2-2 after the Bucs forged two runs in the top of the seventh on Jordan Brink's RBI single and Tanner Rust's RBI groundout, Mat-Su's Ian Sagdal was hit by a pitch to lead off the bottom of the inning. Sagdal stole second base and advanced to third on a throwing error by Rust, the catcher.
Sagdal scored on an error by Bucs second baseman Drake Roberts.
Mat-Su scored two first-inning runs on RBI groundouts by Chris Freeman and Branden Berry.
Goldpanners 4, Oilers 3
The Fairbanks Goldpanners rallied for three ninth-inning runs Wednesday and beat the visiting Peninsula Oilers 4-3 in 10 innings in Fairbanks, with Kurt Schlangen making a huge contribution.
Schlangen ripped a two-run single in the ninth and Alex Schmidt later scored the tying run on a wild pitch. Schlangen then singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 10th.
All that blew a stellar performance by Oilers starter Jon Maciel. The right-hander allowed five hits in seven scoreless innings, did not walk a batter and struck out five.
Find Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or call him at 257-4335.
Standings W L Pct GB Anch. Pilots 23 12 .657 -- Peninsula 19 17 .528 41/2 Anch. Bucs 18 17 .514 5 Fairbanks 16 18 .471 61/2 Chugiak 14 19 .424 8 Mat-Su 14 21 .400 9 Wednesday's Results Mat-Su 3, Bucs 2 Fairbanks 4, Peninsula 3, 10 inn. Chugiak 7, Pilots 4, 10 inn. Thursday's Games Pilots at Chinooks, 6 p.m. Miners at Bucs, 7 p.m.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News