The Alaska Baseball League is facing a new reality. Among a group of teams that have finished more or less predictably the past two or three seasons, a new face has risen to the top of the standings: the Chugiak Eagle-River Chinooks. It’s still early in the season, but the upstart club seems to be taking to the 2012 ABL season like a fish to water.
Are these guys for real?
Through their first eleven games, the Chinooks have jumped out to a first-place start, carrying a half-game lead over the Oilers and Bucs as I write this. The teams have jockeyed for the lead throughout the early weeks, but the Chinooks have reclaimed first after briefly losing it. Their offense has been effective, second only the Oilers in the categories of Runs and OBP. But with their pitchers combining for a 4.74 ERA and a batting average against of .276, the team is surrendering nearly 6 runs a game. They’ve allowed nearly as many runs as they’ve scored: 63 vs. 65.
So how have they been winning at such a pace?
Thus far the Chinooks seem to be a team of surges, and when things line up well for them, they’ve been able to capitalize. When their pitching has faltered, their bats have come alive, keeping pace with their opponents until the relief corps can find someone able to stabilize the situation. On days when the bats are timid, the pitching comes on to keep them in the game, allowing them to just eek out enough runs. They’ve won some blowouts and they’ve lost some. The deciding factor seems to be that, in the games that are close, they tend to come out on top. They’ve also benefited from the schedule. The Bucs recently beat up on the Oilers, allowing the Chinooks to reclaim the top spot.
Whatever the case, the truth is that they’re winning more often than anyone else at this point. This is surprising, but not unprecedented, for a team whose predecessors were practically the perennial bottom-feeders of the league. The Chinooks have roots in the AIA Fire, a team which finished in last or second-to-last in every season 2005-2011, except one. That exception was huge, though: 2007, when they took the league title with a 24-11 record.
With their re-establishment as the Chinooks this season, one has to wonder if all the changes made over the offseason for this team could be a factor in their propulsion to the top of the standings. Of course, summer ball teams turn over a majority of their players (sometimes all of them) from year to year, so it’s not out of the question that they simply drew a better crop of players this season. But their wins in close games begs the question. The team has a new identity, new jerseys, and a new field that they can finally call their own after years of sharing with the Goldpanners and, last season, staking out as a “road warrior” club. They have their own fans that are attending the games like instinctively-spawning salmon and sounding the team’s new rally cry, “fish on!” Perhaps the Chinooks finally found what the other teams have had — and what the Fire were missing — all along: a true home-field advantage.
Last year the Fire won a mere 12 games. They’re already more than half way to topping that total. They’re on pace to bring home 25 wins, more than twice last year’s total, and perhaps enough to take home the league title. Could they repeat 2007?
Predictions are hard to make at this point. We’re only a quarter of the way through the season. The Oilers and Bucs are nipping at their heels, the Glacier Pilots and Goldpanners are resurgent and looking to get back into the mix, and the Miners are too good of a team to stay in their funk all year long. The only prediction I’m making is that this will be a hard-fought battle that will come down to the last days of the season.
But one thing is for certain: this team is no joke. The Chugiak Eagle-River Chinooks have made a statement and the other teams have taken notice. At this point they look like as good a candidate as any to bring home the ABL title this season.