STANTON - The heart of the lineup that has terrorized Twilight League pitchers for years remains - with Josh Hibbard, Erik Nettell and Josh Koskela forming the imposing three through five - but there will be a host of new faces this year for Stanton as they try and defend their league title.
Gone are reigning MVP Mike Richards and workhorse pitcher Eli Luoma, and being called upon are some imports from Michigan Tech and the (hopefully) rubber arm of manager Daron Durocher on the mound.
It all clicked in the season opener for the Wildcats Thursday night, as the deep lineup pounded Pat's Foods for 15 runs in five-plus innings - with Hibbard drawing the mercy rule in the bottom of the sixth inning on a towering grand slam - to give Stanton a 15-4 victory.
Stanton shortstop Josh Hibbard catches a throw on the run in the first inning Thursday against Pat’s Foods (Hancock). Hibbard would end the game in the sixth inning with a grand slam that triggered the 10-run mercy rule. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
"We have six new guys from this year's team to last year's team," Durocher, the winning pitcher said after the game. "We got three Tech football players (Conor Cocking, Paul Kuoppala and Max Smith) so they are athletes. They all started and looked good out there today. Plus (Kuoppala) catches, which is huge for me if I am going to pitch. They fit in well.
"I don't want to sound arrogant, but since we have been successful it is easier to slide in guys to a team like this. They don't have to be the go-to guy, which can take some pressure off."
Kuoppala (an Iron Mountain native) and Smith gave Stanton immediate returns, with Kuoppala enjoying two hits on the day, including a smashed double, and three RBIs. Smith added an RBI single and stolen base from the nine-hole in his four innings of work, while Cocking drew a walk and scored.
Pat's 000301 - 4 10 1
Stanton 051135 - 15 10 1
WP: Daron Durocher, 6 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 2 K, 0 BB.
LP: Andrew Ewer, 5-plus IP, 10 H, 14 R, 4 K, 11 BB, 1 HBP.
Stanton: Daron Durocher, 3-4, 2 RBI; Josh Hibbard, 2-4, 5 RBI, GS; Josh Koskela, 1-1, 2B, 3 BB; Paul Koappala, 2-4, 2B.
Pat's: Chris Nielsen, 2-3, 2B; Andrew Ewer, 2-3, 2B, 2 RBI.
As a team, Stanton tallied 10 hits, but it was the Wildcats' patience at the plate that most stood out. With a sharp batting eye one through nine, the Wildcats drew 11 free passes from Pat's pitcher Andrew Ewer to welcome the new hurler to Twilight League play in harsh fashion.
Stanton scored five runs in the second inning to open the contest up before burying Ewer in the sixth frame with another five run rally.
"I don't want to put pressure on us, but we are going to need quality at-bats and to capitalize on opportunities because we don't have a true shutdown pitcher right now," Durocher said. "We are going to have to rely on a little more run scoring than maybe in the past."
With the bases loaded in the sixth, Hancock manager Marco Guidotti finally took mercy on Ewer and pulled him in favor of C.J. Lepisto, only to watch Lepisto serve up the grand slam to Hibbard immediately after.
"Yeah, that was alright," Durocher deadpanned.
"That pitcher must have thrown 150 pitches," Durocher added. "I have preached to my pitchers in the past that sometimes you have to let them hit it, you can't strike everybody out. It saves the arm and you can go longer."
On the mound for Stanton, Durocher certainly gives a different look than the hard-throwing pair of Richards and Luoma did last season.
With a misnomer fastball and darting changeup, Durocher worked around 10 hits and just one trouble inning (the fourth) by pounding the strike zone and inducing 10 flyouts. He struck out two on the day and did not walk any.
"I don't strike people out a ton and I don't walk a ton," Durocher said. "I'm just a fastball, changeup and curveball. The changeup seems to give people some trouble a bit. It is a semi-split finger, because I don't have the hands to throw a true split finger, so I just get on the end of the laces. But it is just the way to give them a different speed to keep them off balance."