By John Aronno

7-1 was the final score in the third game of last year’s “Top of the World Series” – the Alaska Baseball League’s three-game championship series. It was a definitive sweep of the Anchorage Bucs by the Mat-Su Miners, whose dominance over the independent summer league secured the team’s third straight championship. The Bucs were relegated once more to the doldrums of defeat and, for many, a return flight home.

But for four members of the team, the future became immediately brighter after the 2019 Major League Baseball First Year Player’s Draft earlier this month.

Right-handed pitcher Adrian Mardueno, fresh off 20.2 innings pitched for the Bucs, where he gave up exactly zero runs alongside 27 strikeouts, was selected in the 20th round by the St. Louis Cardinals. His colleague, Alex Segal, a southpaw from Wichita State University, was selected in the 22nd round by the Atlanta Braves. Outfielder Tyler Malone joined the party in the 27th, selected by the resurgent and Manny Machado-led San Diego Padres, and J.C. Correa – younger brother to none other than 2017 MLB All-Star Carlos Correa – was selected in the 31st round by the Houston Astros.

This is the second consecutive year Houston has made a play for the younger Correa to join his big brother in the organization (both play shortstop), but he has opted to return to play for the Lamar University Cardinals for his senior year, vying to up his stock further heading into next year’s draft. After hitting for a .296 average with one home run, one triple, and 12 doubles in Anchorage last summer, Correa went on to hit .332 with 10 home runs and 44 RBI during his first season in Texas.

In all, nine former Bucs were drafted this year; ample incentive for a new team looking to perk the ears of scouts heading north for a leg up on the competition.

Looks like it did the trick.

Thursday night, Mulcahy Stadium opened its doors for the first time this summer. A new Bucs team (save for Tacoma Community College sophomore Justin VanDeBrake, returning for a second season) took the field to face Peninsula Oilers behind leftie starter Mason Wells. In his freshman year pitching for Gonzaga University, Wells posted a 2-4 record and a sub-par 5.31 ERA, with 39 strike outs hampered by 35 walks. As it is for many, if not most, ABL players, the summer league holds out hope for a fine-tuning of mechanics and a subsequent collegiate rebound.

Wells got off to a good start Thursday night. His first pitch was a fastball for a strike. So was his second. So was the third. The Oilers’ second baseman, Victor Carlino, was sent back to the dugout and the season was underway.

Wells surrendered only four hits, one walk, and one run over five innings pitched, bolstered by six strikeouts. His velocity wasn’t much to write home about and his control was at times shaky. But, pitching to contact with a strong defensive showing from his infield (Bucs’ third baseman Justin Cook – a Junior out of the University of Richmond – has a cannon for an arm) made easy work of the Oilers lineup. The bullpen battery of Winthrop University junior Robert Hamby, University of Arizona freshman Ian Mejia, and University of Arkansas freshman Evan Taylor picked up the final four frames, combining for three strikeouts and no runs.

The bottom of the first held the first glimmer of hope for the new Bucs offense. The Oilers started Jonathan Carlos on the mound. The right-handed Long Beach State freshman relied heavily on a slider that seemed neither hittable (to the Bucs) or predictable (to Carlos) as to where it would end up. A hit, followed by a walk, followed by a wild pitch on a strikeout, and topped off by a brief monsoon, saw the bases loaded with Bucs. But Carlos would magically locate one final slider to avert the crisis and escape the first unsullied.

The luck ran out in the bottom of the second and, as these things tend to go, it started with Carlos walking Bucs second baseman Braxton Bohrofen. Next, shortstop Taishi Nakawake’s bat coughed a fastball a couple feet towards the pitching mound, but his legs carried him the distance to beat a throw to first. The next batter grounded out to second, but the runners advanced. That was all Bucs’ left-fielder Chad Castillo needed; he singled just outside the reach of Oilers’ first baseman Jaden Fein, and the first two runs of the Anchorage Bucs’ season were on the board.

Last year’s ABL runners up were long from done. With two runs scored and two out, University of Arizona sophomore Blake Paugh came to the plate and immediately delivered a bomb over the left field wall; a two-run no-doubter giving the Bucs a 4-0 lead. They wouldn’t have to look back. Paugh would carbon copy the blast in the fourth and the Bucs would inflict a season-opening drubbing to the Oilers and walk away with their first win, 11-1.

Paugh currently leads the league with six RBI, establishing himself quickly as a player to watch closely. The Bucs have worked their way to a 4-1 record – a half-game over their hometown rivals, the Glacier Pilots. The Mat-Su Miners have gotten off to a sluggish, 1-3 record and are tied with the Oilers at the bottom of the standings. The Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks are 1-2.

There’s a whole summer of baseball left to be played, new names to watch, hot dogs to devour, and memories to be made. We still have 36 games to go.

The Bucs and Pilots will square off at Mulcahy on Friday night and again for a doubleheader on Sunday. Monday night, Anchorage will play host to a rematch of last year’s championship: Bucs v. Miners. Getcha popcorn.

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