In their inaugural season in the Expedition League, the Badlands Big Sticks won the Lewis Division and competed for the league championship. With a larger roster that provides more depth and includes a few big returners, the Badlands boys are well-equipped to have another successful summer.
The Big Sticks will open the season on the road against the Pierre Trappers (S.D.) on Friday, May 24, before welcoming the Hub City Hotshots in the home opener on Tuesday, May 28, at 6:35 p.m.
"Fans love two things at a baseball game: Guys that hit home runs and guys that throw 90-plus (mph). We have plenty of those on both sides," General Manager Jason Watson said. "Last year, we had guys that could leave the park at any time. It might not be that same player back, but we have a number of players that can do that and a number of pitchers that throw the ball really hard, so that's exciting to see."
Last summer, the Big Sticks led the league with 76 home runs, but that was their strongest skill. The champion Souris Valley Sabre Dogs stole 228 bases over 65 games, while the Big Sticks stole just 61. Badlands committed 118 errors as well, the second-most in the league.
With a roster of 35 players, six more than last year, the team has a bit more overall depth.
"We got a lot more versatility, I guess you could say. We got more guys that can run this year," head coach Hayden Pewitt said. "Seeing the (Souris Valley) Sabre Dogs steal (what felt like) 1,000 bases last year, I kind of thought, well maybe we should get some speed, too. We obviously play at a small park, so you got to have guys that can leave the yard. ... I thought we could defend a little better than we did last year, so we got some straight-up defenders, too."
Pitching also suffered by the August stretch, so Pewitt and Watson brought in more throwers than last year. While they don't have a knuckleballer, as they had in Matt Graser last year, the Big Sticks boast three left-handed hurlers.
With more men on the pitching staff, players won't be put in precarious, potentially hazardous situations, but could perform better and with less pitch-count pressure, knowing there's always someone who could relieve them.
"This year, we'll have ... roles with our staff, which we couldn't do last year because it had to be, 'hey you got the rest of the game, or until the ninth,'" Pewitt said. "Having defined roles with our staff is going to be huge."
Joining the 19-man staff, is Malik Barrington, who earned a 7-4 record at Albany State University (Ga.) this spring. He put up a 3.82 ERA while leading the Rams with 75 strikeouts.
By the season's end, fans knew players' names, but this summer, they'll already know seven.
Catcher Ben Thoma and Brayden Olson will be back, along with four pitchers and Big Sticks big hitter Gabe Knowles.
In Pewitt's first year with the Big Sticks, he led the team through an early nine-game win streak followed by a rough patch that helped him establish a new motto for his second summer.
"You got to go with the flow. You've got a game the next day every game, so you can't dwell on the losses, you can't get too excited about a win because you've got one the next day," Pewitt said. "I think you just got to show up to the ballpark ready for the next one every day. You lose, you lose, it's over. You got to get prepared for the next one. ... This year what we're gonna preach is, 'Tomorrow's a new day; the best thing about this game, is you get to play again tomorrow.'"
Like last year, attendees will be treated to theme nights, such as beach night; in-game entertainment, such as the Zooperstars; and giveaways like hats and bobbleheads. Merchandise will be available at Teddy's Trading Post as well.
New team owner Dave Ouellette has helped get everything ready for the new season and said he's excited to see it all come together soon.
"I was around the ballpark all summer last year but wasn't involved with the Big Sticks," Ouellette said. "This year, being fully involved and invested in it, it's been pretty amazing. I'm excited. ... My biggest input, so far, has been trying to make everyone better for everybody, including our employees, including fans, players, coaches, everybody. I want it to be a great experience."
Ouellette, Watson and the Big Sticks staff have issued few upgrades to enhance the fan experience at the ballpark. Last year, Watson said lines at concessions posed a problem, particularly because of the soda machine.
With hope to move lines along faster, Dakota Community Bank & Trust Ballpark will sell bottled soda. Additionally, the deck by the main concession stand is being expanded to improve the flow of hungry fans.
"One good thing about our ballpark though is if you are waiting in line, you can still see the game," Watson said, noting that little luxury isn't available at all parks across the league.