By Jack McGuire and Julianne Garnett
For the third year in a row, the Bethesda Big Train and Alexandria Aces will face off in the CRSCBL League Championship Series. It will be an LCS rubber match after the Big Train won in 2021 and the Aces in 2022. Fresh off of a 2-1 LCS Semifinals victory over the Cropdusters, Bethesda looks to retake their title of league champions, which they lost to Alexandria in 2022. The Aces swept the #5 Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts in two games to advance to the finals.
With the superior regular-season record, the Aces claim the #1 overall seed in the playoffs, meaning they receive automatic home field advantage in both series. Game one of the LCS Finals is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Frank Mann Field. Game two will be at Povich Field at 7 p.m. on Thursday. If necessary, game three will be Friday in Alexandria at 6:30 p.m.
The Aces have undoubtedly dominated the league in 2023, boasting an impressive 30-6 record. But the Big Train are responsible for two of those six losses and are the only team to beat Alexandria more than once. Additionally, two out of the Big Train’s three losses to Alexandria came down to only a one-run difference. In other words, if anyone can beat this 2023 Aces team, it’s the Big Train.
Despite that, this is sure to be a difficult task, as Alexandria’s pitching staff has been one of the best in the Ripken League, living up to their team name. Aces arms have a team ERA of 3.68 which is the second best in the league. Alexandria pitchers also have incredible stuff, leading the league in strikeouts with 353.
The Aces’ ace this season has been Ryan Reich. Despite only pitching 24 innings this season, Reich leads the Ripken League in strikeouts with 45. On average, Reich has struck out 16.88 batters per nine. Fortunately for the Big Train, Reich pitched in the Aces’ series against the Thunderbolts, meaning he probably will not pitch until a hypothetical game three in the championship series.
Without Reich, the Aces will likely turn to Anthony Ehly and Ryan Edmonds for the first two games of the League Championship Series. Both Ehly and Edmonds did not pitch in the semifinals, making them fresh for the Championship. In 33 innings this season, Ehly pitched to a 3.00 ERA, good enough for fourth in the Ripken League. Meanwhile, in Edmonds' five starts this season, he has an ERA of 3.68. In his one start against the Big Train this season, Edmonds allowed just one earned run in four innings pitched.
With Bethesda’s series against the Cropdusters going three games, the Big Train’s best arms — Brandon Cassedy (Christopher Newport) and Ryan Ertlschweiger (James Madison) — probably will not be available until a hypothetical game three against the Aces. The Green and White also used top relievers Max Martzolf (Florida Atlantic), Jack Robinson (Roanoke College) and Skyler Hutto (Alabama) numerous times in the semis, limiting the trio’s availability for the championship.
All in all, new arms will have to step up for Bethesda. Jesse Gutierrez (San Jose St) is likely to start game one for Bethesda. Gutierrez, a Ripken League All-Star, pitched to a 3.14 ERA in 28.2 innings pitched this year. However, in his past two starts, Gutierrez has struggled, giving up ten runs in seven and two-thirds innings pitched. Hopefully for Bethesda, the southpaw will revert to his dominant self.
In the second game of the series, the Big Train will probably turn to Jack Hostetler (Whitman College). In 24 innings this season, Hostetler has a 3.38 ERA and 26 strikeouts. Unlike Gutierrez, Hostetler has been dominant in his most recent starts. In his past two, Hostetler has allowed three runs in nine innings and has struck out 14 batters. One of these starts came against the Aces, and the Big Train hope he can continue his recent run of dominance.
On the other side of the coin, the Big Train look to continue what was a red hot offensive streak during the Cropdusters series. Across the three games, Bethesda racked up 22 runs on 28 hits, including five home runs.
Bethesda’s Dixon Williams (East Carolina) led this offensive charge, going 7-for-14 (.500) in the LCS semifinals. He was a perfect 5-for-5 with seven RBIs, including an eighth-inning grand slam, in the series clinching game three.
Of course, the Aces are strong on the offensive side as well. You don't go 30-6 with a weak offense. Gavin Miller delivered a standout series against the T-Bolts, recording multiple hits in each game and finishing 5-7, with three RBIs, three walks, and a home run.
It remains to be seen how successful these offenses will be against the top two pitching staffs in the league. Excluding Bethesda’s 12-5 loss on June 6, the teams only scored a maximum of six runs in their other four matchups, setting up a potential low-scoring series of pitcher’s duels. But as both teams have shown, anything can happen in the playoffs, so it wouldn't be a surprise if these offenses find their grooves and unleash the scoring.
Kurkjian Fellows’ Predictions
Jack McGuire: Big Train in Three
The Aces have had a fantastic season, and they will have an advantage over the Big Train going into the championship series, having used less pitching in their semifinals series. However, the Big Train offense has transformed in the past two weeks. Dixon Williams and Dean Toigo (Oregon) have become an insurmountable force at the top of Bethesda’s lineup, adding much needed length. With the way the Big Train’s bats are going right now, it will be difficult to take them down, even for this impressive Aces team.
Julianne Garnett: Aces in Three
A Big Train series win is by no means out of the question. Bethesda’s bats lit up against the Cropdusters in ways that they haven’t all season, clearly motivated by the electric atmosphere of the CRSCBL playoffs. But so many things need to fall in place in order for the Big Train to secure a championship title. With the team’s best pitchers having already been used against the Cropdusters, Bethesda is forced to rely heavily on their less consistent bullpen arms. And on offense, the Big Train hitters must overcome Alexandria’s loaded pitching staff. The Aces know how to win, as they’ve done all season, making them favorites for the 2023 championship title.
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