Wheels fall off, but Express keep rolling

Matthew Gourlie
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Millers overcome disastrous inning in Hunter's final home game

Miles Hunter believes that the Moose Jaw Miller Express have something special going this season.

Austin Russell charges in to make a running catch in left field Saturday night at Ross Wells Park.

The Express outfielder may be biased, but he also may be right.

Saturday night the Express shook off a horrible inning and managed to right the ship in a 10-9 win over the Medicine Hat Mavericks in Western Major Baseball League action.

It was also expected to be Hunter's final game at Ross Wells Park as he moves home to Calgary and prepares to begin medical school in less than three weeks.

"There are a lot of special guys here who became best friends pretty quickly. Just how that game ended says it all — every single guy gave me a hug. You can't beat that," said Hunter. "The coaching staff gives you so much confidence as a player. Beyond that, it's the city and the fans that come to every game. It's such a fun atmosphere to play here every single day you come to the park. It's not just a game to the fans, it's part of their life."

It's been a great season to date for Hunter who is second in the WMBL with a .408 batting average and is fourth with 23 RBI.

He took a minute to regain his composure after the game before posing for photos with fans and teammates for 30 minutes after the game.

"You stay so in the game pitch to pitch and you're so focused on your next at-bat or the next ball in the field and it doesn't really hit you until it happens," he said of the finality of the last out. "It really hit me pretty hard. But in the best way though."

The Express looked like they were going to send him home in style in the early innings. 

They led 2-1 in the second when they scored five runs to build a big lead. Hunter, Derek Cornell and Aidan Stinnett each hit doubles in the inning.

The Express led 9-1 heading into the sixth inning when they surrendered seven runs to let the Mavericks back into the game. The Express committed three errors in the inning and four of the runs were unearned.

"It was a couple of mental errors and then a physical error and then the wheels fell off real quick," said Express head coach Michael Hunt. "Unfortunately we couldn't get someone hot enough, fast enough. The guys did a really good job of stopping the bleeding."

Ben Douglas led off the bottom of the sixth inning by hitting his third home run of the season. It helped swing the momentum back in Moose Jaw's favour and ended up being the winning run.

"That's baseball, one inning can make or break you," said Express outfielder Austin Russell. "It says a lot about our team that you can give up an inning like that so quickly — It seemed to happen in the blink of an eye — but we held strong and finished with the W. That's not what most teams would do in that situation."

Russell preserved the two-run lead by making a sensational catch to end a threat in the eighth inning. He made a diving catch deep in the gap in the left field and just missed colliding with centre fielder Danny Lokesak. The catch saved two runs.

"Once the sun goes down here, it can be tough when the ball goes above the lights," said Russell. "I was the last one to call the ball and so I reached out for it and hoped I didn't run into him."

The win lifts the Express' record to 15-11 after their two-game sweep over the Mavs. They entered the weekend series coming off of a 1-4 road trip.

"It was a long stretch with six games in five days, so it's nice to see the guys have the energy to come out and do this," said Hunt. "That was a big up-and-down momentum type of game, it's great to see these guys have the push at the end."

Douglas was 3-for-5 with four RBI and Russell was 3-for-5 with two RBI for Moose Jaw. Hunter was 2-for-4 in what could be his final WMBL game.

Hunter said he would love to try to get back to play whenever he could, but he knows that's unrealistic. He is planning to be in Medicine Hat for the Express' two games there later this week.

"What coach decides to do with the lineup is totally up to him, but it's close to Calgary and I have those days free so I'm going to at least sit on the bench and cheer the guys on," said Hunter. "Past that, if opportunities come up, I'm definitely going to jump on them."

His medical school classes start on July 21 and Hunter said he was hoping to stay until July 20 if he could, however he has to follow a rigid vaccination schedule every three days leading up to the start of classes. The vaccines have to be administered in Alberta and will help immunize Hunter as he prepares for a career spent in hospitals.

Hunter said that his two years in Moose Jaw have featured the best group of players he's ever played with.

"It's been an unreliable year so far. It's been easy having so many great teammates and guys who give you confidence at the plate. We have guys who can hit behind you and really force pitchers to throw to you," said Hunter of his great stats this season. "It's the teammates, the coaching staff, the fans that come out to the games, the regulars, that's the hardest to leave behind definitely. 

"Whether it's online or in person, I'm going to be tracking the boys pretty closely."

Josh Janzen (2-0) allowed 10 hits over six innings to earn the win. Jorge Pantoja allowed one hit over his two innings of shutout relief for the Millers.

Jason Renner gave up a run in the ninth, but held on for the save.

Kalei Contrades gave up nine hits and seven earned runs for the Mavericks and took the loss. Devin Johnson hit a two-run home run for the Mavs.

The Express will travel to play Melville Monday before hosting Swift Current Tuesday night. The Express have a 1.5 game lead over Swift Current in the Central Division.

Organizations: Western Major Baseball League, Millers

Geographic location: Calgary, Ross Wells Park, Moose Jaw Swift Current Medicine Hat Alberta

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