After winning 49 games and the inaugural championship of the Expedition League last August, Western Nebraska Pioneers head coach Jimmy Turk figured it would be a difficult challenge to duplicate that type of success in his baseball team’s second year.
The Pioneers have an opportunity to do just that if they are able to win three more games in this week’s playoffs. Three victories will give the Pioneers a second consecutive championship and a 50-win campaign.
“We had a really good season last year winning 49 games. I thought that would probably be the high mark just considering the league would get better talent-wise,” Turk said. “We have a chance to win 50 games if we win the league again, so I guess my expectations were exceeded. We’ve just done a really good job.”
The Pioneers (47-14) will take their first step in pursuit of a repeat when they host the Fremont Moo in the Clark Division championship game on Wednesday. First pitch is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. at Oregon Trail Park Stadium in Gering.
The Badlands Big Sticks will host the Souris Valley Sabre Dogs in the Lewis Division title game also on Wednesday. The winners will advance to the best-of-three championship series, which begins on Friday.
Fremont, which is in its first year in the league, brings a record of 31-31 into the postseason. The Pioneers prevailed in six of the eight meetings between the teams during the regular season. Both of the Moo’s wins came early in the season back in May.
Turk is expecting a stiff challenge from the Moo, who went 20-13 during the second half of the season.
“They have solid pitching and they put together competitive at bats,” he said. “They play hard and play the game the right way. I’m expecting it to be competitive for sure. In a one-game playoff, anyone can win.”
The Pioneers will send Ty Bothwell to the mound for the playoff opener. The freshman southpaw from Indiana University has been one of the top hurlers in the league all season. He sports a record of 8-1 with a miniscule earned run average of 1.69. Bothwell has struck out 84 in 58.1 innings pitched.
“He’s had a really good summer,” Turk said of Bothwell. “I think he’s probably the best pitcher in the league stats-wise and he’s done a really good job for us all summer.”
Turk believes Bothwell is the perfect choice for a one-game playoff, which will determine who moves on and who goes home.
“In a one-game playoff, you want to have your best ready to go,” he said. “We have a lot of really good arms this year, but numbers-wise and having confidence in knowing what we’re going to get, Bothwell’s proven he can be the guy for this start. He’s earned it.”
The Pioneers certainly enter the playoffs on a roll. Western Nebraska closed out the regular season winning 8 of 10.
As the top team in the league all season long, Turk said the Pioneers were able to play at a high level against a competitive schedule.
“I feel like the talent in the league is better this year,” he said. “I think we’re a little bit deeper on the mound and it’s showed with our numbers. Pitching wins championships. Hopefully, we can carry it over and win a couple of playoff games.”