Oilers ready for title defense

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

First impressions are always important.

For instance, Peninsula Oilers’ pitcher Tyler Fleming loved Alaska when he first arrived.

“They’re all telling me that it’s a little cold right now, but I’m from Oklahoma and it’s 105 every day. So, this is nice to me. I can deal with this,” the 21-year old said with a southern-like drawl. “And they said it’s going to warm up, so this weather’s perfect for me.”

Third baseman Toby Davis said his mind was running rampant with thoughts while glaring out the window on the plane trip, the first flight of his life.

When he finally arrived, though, his mind turned to something else.

“When we first got off the plane,” he said, “I was just wanting to go to sleep.”

But that’s natural after a 10-hour journey from Oklahoma during which he gained three hours.

His initial thoughts on the overwhelming amount of daylight?

“It makes it kind of hard to sleep,” Davis said with a laugh. “I don’t know how I’m going to adjust to that. But we’ll see.”

So, while their early assessments of the 49th state may vary, their opinions of the 2007 Oilers coincide perfectly.

“Tons of potential,” said Davis, who belted 15 home runs and hit around .370 this past season for Seward County Community College in Kansas. “We’ve got people that can really swing it. I haven’t really seen much of the pitchers, but I hear they’re supposed to be really good.”

That’s where Fleming comes in.

A 6-foot-3 right-hander, he signed to play ball at Wichita State next season and was drafted on Friday for the second time in as many years by the Texas Rangers.

“What I’ve seen, I’m impressed. We’ve got a lot of good players and I kind of expected that. Coming up to Kenai, Alaska, it’s a great baseball league. I knew our team would be good,” said Fleming, who is also set to start today’s exhibition game against the American Legion Twins at 2 p.m. “Everybody’s about what I expected. Everybody’s solid players and I’m looking forward to getting on the games and seeing what we can do.”

Coming off their first Alaska Baseball League championship last year since 2000, the current edition of the Oilers has big shoes to fill.

And no one knows that better than Aric Thomas, a member of the 1993 National Baseball Congress World Series championship squad who is back for his third stint as head coach, although his 2001 season was cut short when he accepted a job in Oklahoma.

“I love it. This is the only place that I would coach in the summer. I love it up here,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s great. The families are great. The organization does it right. They take care of the players right. They make it easy to do your job and it’s a fun place.”

Thomas coached the Oilers to within one game of the league crown in 2004 when they won their final game of the season but didn’t get the help they needed elsewhere to win the league.

He followed on the Internet last season as the Oilers captured the ABL title on a bases-loaded walk in the season finale and is hoping this team can pull off a similar ending, with or without the late-season fireworks.

“Hopefully we can take care of it before that (last game), but you never know,” he said. “If it takes the last day, it takes the last day. Anyway you can win a championship you’ll take it.”

What makes this team special, he said, is the big-game experience most of the players possess.

“Like (Los Angeles Angels manager) Mike Scioscia said, ‘Paper will get you beat.’ But realistically on paper, this team is definitely better than the 2004 team that I put together to come up here,” Thomas said. “I love this club. I’m going to be disappointed if we don’t win the championship. I know things have to fall in place.

“This team just has a lot of experience and a lot of winning,” he added. “A lot of times, you don’t necessarily get that in the summer because you’re getting younger guys that haven’t really done a lot yet in college. This group has a pretty good resume from school ball.”

Included in that group is Fleming, Andre Lamontagne and Matt Thomson, three pitchers who were just selected in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft.

Having them around could spark others to perform above their natural level.

“For our players up here, that means more exposure because their scouts are going to have to see them play during the summer and watch the team and that buys other players exposure,” Thomas explained.

But he isn’t just excited about the starting rotation.

He sees strengths in every facet of the team.

“We like our infield, defense is great. Our outfield defense is great. We’ve got good speed. Our catching situation’s really good ... We’ve got a great balance of left-handed starters,” he said. “In the lineup, we have the potential to run out four left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter in the lineup on a daily basis. I just really like the mixture.

“When we put the team together, we took some chances and took some risks on guys and they wound up coming through for us.”

Fleming, who said he went 10-4 with about a 3.00 ERA last season at Cowley County Community College, is up to date on his Oilers history, especially last year’s dramatic finish, and is eager to help the team defend its crown.

“I think everybody on this team knows about that and everybody’s wanting to step in and do their own thing and be one of those teams that’s remembered up here — have some big names come off here and hopefully get some people signed off this team to play pro ball,” he said. “I think everybody’s thinking about those teams. Like last year’s team that won it, everybody’s wanting to do the same thing, except maybe with a little more ease.”

For that to happen, though, he may want to study his opponents a little more.

While he knew he was slated to toe the slab today, he didn’t know who he was facing.

“That’s kind of how I always am,” Fleming said. “I go in blind. I don’t really care who the opponent is, just go out and pitch my game.”

Matthew Carroll can be reached at matthew.carroll@peninsulaclarion.com.

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