The Elmwood Giants suffered some growing pains this past year.
But head coach Marc Babaluk thinks a run to the Manitoba Junior Baseball League semifinal will help the club reach full height in 2014.
The Giants, who were the only Winnipeg-based team to make the six-team loop’s final four, will lose only one player to graduation — centre-fielder and cleanup hitter Roy Ettawacappo. After finishing the regular season with a 13-12 mark, Elmwood got past Winnipeg South 2-1 in the best-of-three opening round before falling 3-1 to the Pembina Valley Orioles in the best-of-five semis.
"We had a young team," Babaluk said. "If you asked the boys a week afterward, they feel like we should have won that series (against Pembina Valley). It was a pretty tight series, and there were a few spots here or there where if things had gone the other way, the series would have gone the other way."
The Giants’ playoff fate was best exemplified by ace pitcher Tyler Townsend, as the Giants lost all three of his postseason starts, including the 2-1 season-ender on July 26 where both runs were unearned.
Townsend acknowledged it was frustrating to come out on the losing end after pitching well, but he said he has experience trying to make ends meet on a tight offensive budget.
"I always want to go out there and give the team the best chance to win, put my heart on the line," said Townsend, who did pick up one win in relief. "It’s kind of frustrating when the team doesn’t support you, but they’re out there doing their best as well, so you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes."
Babaluk said the starkest area of development with the team this season was its pitching rotation, which was in a state of flux early in the year. The projected top starter from Brandon didn’t work out and the projected No. 2 went down with an arm injury almost immediately. But the progress of Townsend, Taylor Madsen, and Tyler Maskalyk made those question marks moot.
"We weren’t sure what our rotation was going to be, but we actually developed three pretty solid starters over the course of the season," Babaluk said. "They gelled pretty well into a three-man rotation and definitely were a strength for us."
Townsend, an East Kildonan product, noted that several facets of his game came together this season.
"My stamina definitely got better. I could throw more innings and I could hit my spots pretty well compared to the first few games," the 20-year-old left-hander said. "Near the end of the season, my curve started curving more, and my fastballs were hitting pretty good."
Babaluk was pleasantly surprised with the offensive attack, which averaged over five runs a game, nearly doubling its output from the 2012 season.
"We added some speed, which helped on the basepaths and put more pressure on the other teams’ defences," Babaluk said, noting Ettawacappo (.388 batting average and 11 runs scored), Jeff Hotson (.386 average, 12 stolen bases and 17 runs scored) and Matt Smith (.263 average, 23 runs scored and 15 runs batted in) helped pace the offence.
Ettawacappo, who lives in Unicity but nonetheless makes the trip to Elmwood, said he did his best to be a role model in his graduating year.
"They just need to be strong, be mentally strong," Ettawacappo said. "They need to show up, come to play, and be there to play."
Ettawacappo plans to continue his baseball career with one of the senior teams within the Giants organization.
"Every chance (I had), I took it all in to get better," he said.