Big home stand begins, Cats look to claw back

Looking at the HarbourCats schedule for 2017, the season seems to break nicely into three distinct sections. The first third of the season ended on Friday night with the team getting swept in a three game series against the Walla Walla Sweets, which included a rain-induced seven inning double-header set.

With the Saturday off and the Sunday exhibition games, Monay’s afternoon game begins the second leg of the journey. This is the grueling leg. The team will now play 13 meaningful games in a row before the next day off, and a total of 22 games in 26 nights. This middle-third of the season will go a long way to showing us what this 2017 team is made of.

Coming in 7-8 is not exactly where we expected the team to be. The pre-season expectations of an undefeated season, or recreating the massive winning streak of 2016 are dreams of the past. Last season, Victoria went 23-4 in first half play, and it wasn’t until July 20th that they lost their eighth game of the season. In 2017 now with a sub-.500 team sitting in fifth place in a six-team division 2.5 games behind leading Bellingham, we’re just hoping to somehow get close enough to give a playoffs berth a sniff. It’s a tall order given the rest of the first-half schedule though as Victoria has only 6 games left against teams ahead of them in the standings, and doesn’t play Bellingham at all – so moving up and catching them all will need some extra efforts and a little external help.

Still, this second leg now brings together the full roster for 2017. The majority of those planned to be in attendance are here, and less reliance on ten-day players is the new norm. With this should come consistency at the plate and on the mound, something that has been absent of late. The team has fallen to a .248 combined batting average, while the team ERA has been raised to a combined 3.81. The ERA isn’t actually that bad by WCL standards, but the fielding isn’t helping much with that – 17 errors have been committed by the squad, resulting in 17 unearned runs given up. The team is currently sitting at +1 in runs scored with 71 in and 70 given up – without the 17 of those given up by the defense, Victoria’s record could be significantly better.

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SS Harry Shipley continues to deliver

Harry Shipley continues to be the bright star on offence – he an Bernie Huang are the only two regular players hitting over .300 at .319 and .314 respectively. Newcomer OF DJ Porter had one good game in Walla Walla going 3-4 so we’ll see if he can keep that going. The Cats best hitter early on was the versatile Noah Prewett, but an early injury on a slide into third in the Wenatchee series has sidelined him since. Hopefully he will be back soon – Jim Swanson calls him “Perhaps the best athlete we have ever had”, so let’s hope we get to see more of him. We’re also waiting to see some of that Pac-12 magic from Andrew Vaughn. The highly touted Cal-Berkeley catcher/DH has yet to breakout, hitting .200 on 3/15 with a double. He was on fire in the Sunday exhibition game going 4-4, let’s hope that kick-starts him off.

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Travis Kuhn, Closer extraordinaire

On the mound, stud pitcher of the year so far continues to be AJ Block. He’s impressed since his first pitch in Port Angeles and continues to do so, sitting at a 1.25 ERA in 3 starts and a hold out of the pen to preserve a win in Wenatchee. Travis Kuhn is right there as well, and has grabbed the closer role with a vengeance, earning 3 saves so far on a 1.28 ERA, striking out 6 in 7 innings. Starter Isaac Mullins is right there too – he’s throwing a 1.68 ERA, giving up only 3 earned runs in 16 innings over 3 starts. Those kind of numbers should have him sitting at 3-0 on the season – but he’s 0-1 after bullpen implosions and 5 unearned runs during his outings.

The bullpen excluding Kuhn though, is the true issue with the team right now, it is sitting at a combined 5.25 in 36 innings of work.

This week will be a test for sure – starting with Port Angeles and a game they should be able to win, and then three against South Division powerhouse Corvallis before finishing the home stand with another set against Walla Walla. Victoria likely needs to go 5-2 in this stretch at home to have a shot at the first-half playoff spot. A tough order that will require some additional discipline all around the diamond to achieve…

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HabourCats fizzle at home, head to Wenatchee for revenge

Well that did not go as planned did it… The opening home series of the season is supposed to be one of magical wonderment, one that brings with it the hopes of league titles, monster performances, and season-long winning streaks. What we ended up with though, is a dose of baseball reality. It’s not all sunshine, hot dogs, and wins – it seems there’s an equal share of tough at-bats, missed opportunities, and unfavourable results in there too.

IMG_7014 cropYes the Cats lost 2 of 3, and were over matched at the plate for most of the series, managing to score runs in only 5 of 27 innings. The team hit a disappointing .216 over the home stand, on 21 hits with only 4 of them for extra-bases.  On the mound it wasn’t pretty either, with the team sporting a 6.33 ERA and giving up 12 extra-base hits including 4 home runs.

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AJ Block impressive in his second start

Not that we didn’t see hints of greatness… Tuesday’s pitching crew was a fine oiled machine that saw  Travis Kuhn’s 1-2-3 9th inning put an explanation point on two solid innings by new addition Taylor Prokopis and a fine 5-inning start from AJ Block. Block continues to impress with two quality starts now, his first coming in Port Angeles. Offensively, Justin Orton went 4-8 in the two games he played, and Ethan Lopez had 3 RBI while going 4-10. KeKai Rios also played some solid 1B and went 5-13 driving in 2. Riley Zayicek, while only hitting 1 ball all series, hit the longest one, the first Victoria home run of the year. Kevin Collard, although going only 1-8 was a perfect 3-0 on steals.

 

And of course it goes without saying that Claire Eccles debut was a highlight of the entire series. The pressure must have been intense for her, but she persevered and came out unscathed. Sure she gave up a couple runs, but pretty much everybody else did too. The support she was getting all around from fans, players, and coaches was nice to see.

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Bryce Bonner (10) and Kevin Collard (37)  tip caps to Riley Zayicek’s first HR of 2017

But stats aside, from where I sat this team is missing something. Granted the season is less than a week old, but this team needs some serious time to gel as a unit. With last year’s team, it was a road trip just shy of the mid-way point where the team really came together. That’s when the win streak started, that’s where they started to believe in each other. This team does not have that yet. For most of the three games, the team sat in total silence on the bench, watching pitchers flail and at-bats go astray. At least last year there were a couple of louder outspoken individuals that riled the team up early (remember “Rock skipper! Grave digger! Worm burner! Soiled It! Soiled it! Soiled it!”). While this year’s squad seem more mature, more professional, it costs them in not presenting as a team – at this point, they are just a bunch of individual ball players. Who knows, maybe the media frenzy around Claire will help with that as well.

What’s really interesting, is how the crowd reacted. All three games were very quiet by Victoria standards. The excitement of opening night was quickly replaced by stony silence as the team got behind and never recovered. Tuesday’s game was better once the team got a lead, but Wednesday’s early runs against put the crowd right back into silent mode. When Claire Eccles took the mound in the 8th, you could hear a pin drop at RAP as people watched the first batter with nervous apprehension. Crowds were down significantly in numbers as well, the 2,676 opening night was the smallest in club history, about 1,900 fans fewer than last year (it was on a comparable Tuesday as well). Games 2 and 3 brought in 1,780, and 1,263 respectively for a three-game total of 5,719 – a 1,300 drop from last year’s opening series.

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Claire and the post-game scene

As the team moves on now to Wenatchee for the back part of the 6-game home and home, the three days on the road together will hopefully pull them closer together. I suspect by the Port Angeles series next week, we may see a renewed excitement on the first-base side. We should also see a few more regulars on board as the college world series ends for several teams, and players complete other commitments. The additions should hopefully solidify the lineup.

Hopefully before that happens, Victoria can find their road bats and not come home 4-6!

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HarbourCats back home to kick off SeasonV Victoria-Style!

SeasonV comes to Victoria this afternoon as the HarbourCats come home for the first time this season, bringing with them the Wenatchee AppleSox for a three game set. A raucous welcome no doubt awaits the team that brings to town a 3-1 record after an exciting road trip through two southern cities.

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RAP is ready for action, and has never looked better!

In case you missed it, Victoria welcomed the Port Angeles Lefties to the WCL with an 11-2 thumping on Thursday night at Civic Field in P.A., then spoiled the Yakima Valley Pippins 2017 opener the next night, holding on for a 7-6 victory. On Saturday night, one bad inning led to 7 Yakima runs and an 11-4 loss, but Sunday the Cats rebounded with a 6-2 effort to get to the 3-1 mark.

As one could expect of a team averaging 7+ runs a game so far, offensive numbers are outstanding to this point. The team is hitting a combined .265, with 5 players hitting above .300. Most impressive so far are SS Harry Shipley and 3B Noah Prewett, both of whom come into tonight’s game hitting .462 on identical 6 for 13 streaks. Catcher/DH Kekai Rios has made the most of his early swings going 4-10, with Ethan Lopez (.364) and Kevin Collard (.308) rounding out the 300 club. Surprisingly, the power isn’t on yet as the team has yet to hit a home run, and on the base paths, the group is a collective 6/10 on stolen bases.

On the mound, despite getting rocked in game two of the Yakima series, the club sits at a combined 3.86 ERA. Relievers have a slightly better 3.60 ERA in 20 innings of work, while starters sit at 4.20 in 15 innings. Seven errors have accounted for a total of 6 runs against.

While it’s a bit early to be too focused on stats, we have seen some great early starts including AJ Block’s 8 K’s in 3 innings with no earned runs, and Adam McKillican who has 6 shut-out innings under his belt so far, picking up both a win and a save in the process.

For the HarbourCats this week, the lineup will remain pretty much the same as the first 4 games. LHP Claire Eccles gets to town on Tuesday, as does RHP Taylor Prokopis from Colorado Mesa University. We may also see some game time from RHP Greg Casper, who hasn’t figure into the games played so far. Greg is coming off a red shirt year where he was unable to pitch, so he hasn’t seen game action since leaving the Cats last season. Look for him to get a graduated start back into the lineup.

The AppleSox come to town after dropping all three opening games against the Sweets down in Walla Walla. Wenatchee was outscored 16-10 in the three games, including being shut out 4-0 in game 2. Spotty .205 hitting for the Sox combined with a team ERA of 4.32 account for the slow start, with only OF’s Dugan Shirer (.500 on 4-8 hitting) and Evan Johnson (.417 on 5-12 hitting) doing any real damage. Johnson is a bit of a beast; he’s hit two home runs and has almost half of the Sox RBI. Hopefully SS Reagan Teegarden is the Keg’s “K Batter”, the WSU Sophomore has whiffed 7 times in 11 AB’s so far.

On the mound Wenatchee is sending up WSU’s Colin Maier and Gonzaga’s Mason Millett for their first action of the summer on Monday and Wednesday while sending Hugh Smith up for a start on Tuesday. Smith pitched a scoreless inning on Friday. Victoria responds with the versatile Ethan Fox to the mound Monday – Ethan is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 2 innings of work, but he’s also hitting .182 in 11 AB’s over 3 games in left field. Expect his focus to move toward the mound as the Victoria roster fills in. Tuesday Victoria fan will get their first look at opening day starter AJ Block as he goes for his first win, and Wednesday sees 2016 returnee Colin Ashworth looking for a bounce-back game to lower his ERA to single-digits.

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SeasonV Instructions: Insert butt here.

But the true magic of this series will be what happens around the game. The HarbourCats front office has been waiting for 10 months now to unveil the 2017 array of promotions, in-game entertainment, and changes to the park that make RAP the place to be on a sunny summer evening. Expect to be amazed with visual excitement all around the park on Monday and carrying on right through the series. Good crowds are expected for all three nights – the excitement of opening night Monday might just be overshadowed by the sensational story that continues with Claire Eccles’ arrival on Tuesday.

And of course there’s meeting the 2017 team, raising the 2016 banners, meeting the new coaching staff and seeing how they manage the game, and of course – continuing the winning streak started yesterday in Yakima. You don’t actually think for a minute we’re going to lose another game this year do you?

We are all set for another stellar year of baseball in Victoria with the HarbourCats. The field has never looked better, the beer never been colder, the Floyds burgers never more juicy. I can’t imagine a better way to start June! Play ball Victoria!

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Port Angeles successfully opened, onto Yakima for three

So game #1 is in the books, and what a game it was! Firstly, hats off to the Port Angeles team and staff for hosting a great event that started off on a classy note with a choir rendition of anthems timed perfectly with a fly-over from a helicopter dispatched from the US Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles.

Lefty1The crowd may be new to the WCL, but I overheard many an educated conversation on the finer points of baseball and the history of baseball in the region. The Lefties have also done a phenomenal job of establishing their brand around town, as many of those in attendance were sporting Lefties shirts, hats, jerseys, and jackets. An exciting time for the Lefties, with many things to work on and make their own – I suspect that by the time a few series have been played, this will be the place to be in Port Angeles on a hot summer night. One of the more eclectic seating sections you will ever see at a ballpark went along the third base line, where a raised concrete slab was set with a couple old couches, lazy-boy recliners, and a few plastic chairs like the ones in the field box at RAP. Fans got to recline like they were home in the living room Al Bundy-style. In all, a very nice feel to a small-town baseball diamond, and a good time was had by everyone in attendance, which was estimated at about 2,000.

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McRae’s busy card tells all

Well, except maybe by the Lefties themselves. Victoria dominated the game from the start, scoring four runs in the opening inning before AJ Block took the mound to strike 3 of the first 4 batters out. The game continued on the same pace, leading to an 11-2 HarbourCat victory. Some early season jitters hit both teams with several errors and sloppy plays leading to runs. Issues with the league’s Online scoring app has made the box score unavailable to confirm with (and the party-deck $2 Ranier beers make my memory less than it could be), but thanks to Brian McRae’s excellent note taking some gems can be pulled out. SS Kyle McComb was great in the lead-off spot and was on base three times. Noah Prewett had a strong game at short, and 1B Bernie Huang you can tell is going to be a fan favourite – he had a couple hits and a couple stretches on throws to the bag to get runners out. Kevin Collard came in late in the game and banged out a double in his only at-bat.

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2B Justin Orton (R) and 1B Bernie Haung ready for action

Riley Guntrip started behind the plate and for the first time as a HarbourCat, called the entire game himself. If you remember from last season, coach Graig Merritt called pretty much every pitch thrown all year – not so yesterday, as Guntrip took very few calls from the bench. Still, to ease him back into his HarbourCat life, several times we yelled “Be a WALL Riley” on critical 3-2 pitches. Whatever he was calling was working pretty good – Block ended with 8 strikeouts in 3 innings, while Adam McKillican, Ryan Ricci, and Chavez Fernander shut the door with scoreless relief.

Off to Yakima

yakima-valley-pippins-roundelThe HarbourCats now travel a bit further south-east to Yakima for a full 3-game series. By the end of it, we should see the remainder of the team with some stats to report – McRae did a good job of using the bench last night, I’d expect the same to continue as he gives everyone a shot at some early playing time.

Victoria has their starters announced for the whole series, and start game 1 with Colin Ashworth on the mound. Ash threw only 13.1 innings this spring with no starts, so this will kick his summer into gear early. He had a 6.08 ERA at Hawaii. Game 2 on Saturday sees Washington State’s Isaac Mullins get the start. Mullins started 6 games for the Huskies this spring and finishing with a 6.15 ERA. Sunday’s game 3 sees 10-day guy Ethan Fox get a shot. Fox started in right field in Port Angeles, so he’ll get to impress closer to home in his second appearance.

Victoria went 2-1 against the Pippins last year. Yakima is traditionally a strong team and should provide a good early test for the new HarbourCats squad. Can’t wait for Monday to see the boys back here in Victoria for opening night!

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SeasonV Begins in Port Angeles – Series Preview

2016 Series Preview - Port Angeles

Can you call it a “Series Preview” if it’s only 1 game? Just slightly shorter than a WCL playoff series, so yeah we’re going with it.

Game 1 is here! A bit of an oddity in league play, this single game sets off the entire WCL 2017 season, which begins in earnest tomorrow for the rest of the league. Victoria and Port Angeles get this special event to welcome the new Lefties team to the league, and begin what everyone hopes is a long rivalry between two teams who’s home plates are exactly 35.86km apart.

So what can you expect from a brand new team, with all new players, playing ball in front of a brand new WCL crowd? Your guess is as good as mine. The Lefties are opening with 22 signed players tonight, just over half of their expected 40-man roster. No 10-day contract players on their side, they are content with what they have and will wait for more regulars to arrive to fill out their roster. Those players who have arrived early have been working hard – not only busy working out, but also chipping in painting benches, the clubhouse, and generally getting the field game-ready for opening night. Tonight’s game will be played in a “mostly complete” Civic Field, but the city has committed to performing upgrades over the next few weeks that will improve it even more. By the time Victoria returns here for the last series of the year in early August, it could be a whole new experience!

The lefties start their WCL by sending Eastern Arizona College Sophomore (and 2016 Kitsap BlueJacket) Nick Caudillo to the mound. Caudillo led EAC in innings pitched this year with 71, sporting a 2.92 ERA while going 3-0.  In 2016 WCL play, he threw 2.1 innings in relief against Victoria giving up a single hit.

On the HarbourCats side, they are ferrying 24 players to PA, including about 18 regulars, the remainder made up of 10-day signees. Lots of upside already on board for opening day which is nice, and the team will be very competitive right out of the gate. WSU Cougar AJ Block gets the start tonight; Block started 7 games for the Cougars this year, appearing in relief in 9 more. The Salt Lake native made a name for himself as a high school standout in Bellevue in 2015 and 2016, and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2016 (39th round). He finished 2017 with the Cougars sporting a 6.89 ERA, striking out 28 while walking only 10 in 32.2 innings of work.

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OF Kevin Collard goes yard for U-SD

Of the Cats making the trip, there are a couple names to watch for early, including Vancouver Native RHP Indigo Diaz, who returns to the HarbourCats this year with increased velocity and control. Look for him to get some significant time coming out of the pen. Another starter who is impressing in early looks is Campbell River 10-day pitcher Ethan Fox. He’s already listed as a starter for Saturday’s game in Yakima and is fighting for a regular spot by showing some real talent.

On the field, Bernie Huang is turning everyone’s heads with his exhibition play Tuesday, going 3-5 with a home run, double, and single. Returning Cat Kevin Collard is also looking good, as predicted this guy could lead the league in several categories this year.

Given the current roster, there’s no reason to suspect the HarbourCats won’t fly out of the gate this year, starting with a solid victory tonight to open the season. The blog will be in attendance, so check out the twitter and Instagram pics of this historic evening in Port Angeles!

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The wait is over – the 2017 season begins this week!

CatOnly_FullColorWell folks, this is it! It’s opening week around the West Coast League. The start of the fifth HarbourCats season, or #SeasonV as we like to call it. It all kicks off tonight with an exhibition game at RAP before the team boards the bus and ferry for opening night over in Port Angeles against the newly formed Lefties! Then it’s off to Yakima for three before returning home to open the home season against Wenatchee.

On the field, it’s going to be an interesting one I think. With last year’s success still echoing off the cement of the grandstand, there’s an urge to compare this year’s team to the one we came to love last year. It’s as good a place as any to start, but I think the contrasts between the team will be pretty substantial. In fact I think what we will see on the field in 2017 will be unlike anything we have seen in the past…

Right off the bat I think we will notice the coaching change. With nothing to base my gut feeling on yet, I suspect a more structured approach. Not that previous coaches haven’t had that – because they have – I just feel like there will be a more a calmer presence at the end of the bench this year in Brian McRae than we saw last year with Graig Merritt. Merritt’s style seemed more “One of the guys”, and he was able to motivate the entire group of players by sheer will to succeed – a “do what we talk about, and we’ll win every game together” attitude.  Without watching a single moment of McRae’s coaching style, I suspect him to be more of a “supportive parent” style, motivating each player individually in a way that allows that single player to be the best they can be, and together, they will all succeed. We will see if I’m close here or way off base. I think both styles work – we saw last year how Merritt was able to turn a team into an unstoppable force, and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t happen this year under Brian McRae, just… differently?

Andrew Vaughn Long Beach State

Cal Berkeley ‘s Andrew Vaughn

Another notable difference we will see is in team experience. Almost half the 2017 team are Seniors or Juniors, the other half mostly Sophomores with just a handful of Freshman. This could be the oldest squad in the HarbourCat’s five year history. With that comes experience that proves so vital in adjusting to a new team and a new playing environment. The current roster comes in with significantly more playing time that previous teams; In total, SeasonV HarbourCats have had just shy of 2,100 at-bats this college season, and as a “team” hit over .280.  Likewise on the mound, the pitching staff comes in very warm having thrown over 330 innings in the spring. Many of the players coming this year are starters on college teams, with over 600 starts between them. Add to that mix a couple of red-shirted players who didn’t play this college season – like blog favourite returnee Greg Casper – who are eager to start fresh here in Victoria, and there’s a lot of quality ready to show what they can do.

With that kind of experience, there are more than a handful of players we should be excited to see based on what they have done already this year:

  • HarbourCat returnee Kevin Collard was already a stud back in 2015, it will be interesting to see how he’s improved in the 2 years away – he hit .288 with a couple home runs in San Diego this spring.
  • Cal Berkeley 1B Andrew Vaughn could light this league up – all he did this season was hit .349 with 12 home runs and 48 RBI while starting all 54 games for the Bears, while gaining various player honours through the year.
  • Baylor’s Davis Wendzel posted a .302 average in just under 150AB this spring, hitting 8 long balls. Baylor is also sending us senior Tucker Johnson, who hit .360 as the team’s premier pinch-hitter this season.
  • Will LaRue played 60 games for Xavier this spring, hit over .250, and stole 31 bases bringing some needed speed to the OF.
  • Colorado Mesa junior Tanner Remple hit .377 this spring – with a ridiculous .700 slugging percentage.
  • On the mound, excited to see returnees Blake Hannah and Colin Ashworth back in town. Hannah had a sub-3.00 ERA this spring, and both will be looking at building on last year’s workload success.
  • Polk State’s  Chavez Fernander could also dominate the league from the mound – the hurler boasted a 1.80 ERA this spring, striking out nearly 2 batters an inning. If that heat converts well with more innings, it will mean some long nights for WCL hitters.

As is the case in this league though, it’s about getting players here and keeping them to the end if you want to win. At this point it looks like around 15 regulars will be here for Thursday’s opener in Port Angeles, and more will arrive for the weekend’s Yakima series and finally the home opener next Monday night against the Apple Sox. There are a total of 5 players competing in the NCAA Div 1 playoffs which continue this weekend, so we will wait as usual for that tournament to end before the full complement of players arrives.

Last year’s team received some early contributions from the 10-day roster spots to keep the team in the hunt early. The hope of course is that we will see similar results this year. Like they say – you can’t win the division in the first couple weeks, but you can certainly lose it if you aren’t keeping pace.

Overall, it seems we’re in pretty good shape this year, with nothing but blue skies ahead  – well, except for the very non-blue skies in the forecast for the next few days. If this rain keeps up, we may not need any players at all!

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I had a brief back and forth with last year’s WCL Coach of the year Graig Merritt, getting an update on his summer baseball plans. The news is good – he’s signed on as an assistant coach with Chico State, who is just coming off a phenomenal championship Div II season. He’s currently keeping busy scouting for the Tampa Bay Rays until Chico returns in August. We wish Graig all the best in his new role with the WildCats!

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Welcome to Season Five!

CatOnly_FullColorHello everyone, and welcome to another season of the Victoria HarbourCats Baseball Blog! The blog has been hibernating all throughout this long, cold, snowy Victoria winter, but it’s time to shake the red dust off the cleats, dry off the bats, and start taking some easy pre-season swings.

Good thing the HarbourCats organization doesn’t take as much time off as the blog does – in fact despite the very non-baseball weather we have been having, nothing but baseball has been going on over at the offices on Vancouver St. It seems there’s been hardly a week without some announcement around new players, coaching additions, changes to the fan experience, or general West Coast League news coming down the pipe. Add to that the college ball season coming to its finale, and the things to write about are really piling up.

As usual, we’ll keep you posted on HarbourCat lineup developments right up to opening day, and then switch into full gear reporting on all the action from Victoria’s fifth WCL season. Wait – did I just say five seasons of top-level baseball here in Victoria? That seems crazy doesn’t it? After waiting for so long to find a team and a league that could grow with us, and after sitting on pins and needles over some early ownership issues, now it just seems like a given: Victoria has baseball, Victorian’s love baseball, and Victoria is a baseball city! It’s nice to be a small part in something that has now grown beyond our wildest expectations isn’t it?

Well, not everyone’s wildest expectations. General Manager Brad Norris Jones is adamant the team is nowhere near done. “We haven’t won a championship yet. We made it to the playoffs, but didn’t win a game. We got beat by a better team, our goal this year is to win, and do that every year from this point forward”. Owner and Managing Partner Jim Swanson agrees, and honestly believes he’s just getting started. “We’re excited to make it to year five, but this isn’t the finish line. There is no end game here. Don’t get me wrong, last year was a fabulous year, but there’s no satisfaction with just making the playoffs. We need to improve both on the field, as well as off the field with the fan experience”.

Despite finishing on top of the league in 2016, the very nature of summer ball presents new and difficult challenges each and every year. With 90% of the league turning over every year, you build every year’s team from scratch. “We start over every September” says Norris Jones. “This year, we feel confident with the schools we have dealt with and the players we have. We have a really good team coming here this year, some truly elite players”.

As it stands now, Victoria has 49 signed players, including 7 returning from last year. Despite all the hard work though, with two weeks to go before opening night anything can happen. Injuries, college season workload, or school commitments could change the lineup drastically before opening night, and as has happened in the last three years, the MLB draft in early June could take players away.

As far as recruiting for 2017, two things have happened this off-season that have had a significant impact on the team’s ability to sign top-notch talent: The HarbourCats incredible run in 2016, where they set records for winning streaks, games won, and attendance; and the additional exposure of hiring ex-major leaguer Brian McRae as a head coach. Says Swanson “People have heard of Victoria now, and are familiar with how well this team has done, and they want to come here”. Norris Jones adds “Brian [McRae] has helped us out considerably with a lot of mid-west guys, so this year we will have a different flavour for sure”.

And that is certainly one difference that is immediately noticeable when reviewing the recent player signings – which not only includes NCAA Div 1 players from schools like Baylor, Perdue, and Mississippi State, but also includes a player from Taiwan, and one from the Bahamas. Add to that mix a solid group of West Coast talent and the HarbourCats have perhaps the most diverse and distributed roster in the league. And that’s before we talk about Claire Eccles. In the most recent announcement made by the team, the HarbourCats have signed the first woman to play baseball anywhere at this level, and has made local and national news doing it.  “It’s not a gimmick”, points out Norris Jones. “Claire will be treated like every other pitcher out there. If she’s good, she plays. Brian has full control over who pitches every inning, and Claire is no different than anyone else”. Except that she is, but reasons beyond baseball. More on Claire to come as she joins the team in the second week of June (once she completes her Baseball Canada commitments).

Even with new and talented players in the pipe, the organization knows that one way to keep fan interest high is to bring back returning favourites. Victoria is fortunate enough to have some key players returning from last year, including pitchers Josh Mitchell, Blake Hannah, Colin Ashworth, Casey Costello, and Greg Casper. Of that group, likely only Mitchell is iffy, as word on the street says he may be drafted. Great for him, not so much for Victoria where the lefty dominated most of his starts in 2016. Catcher Riley Guntrip is currently the only rostered fielder on the list of returnees, but watch for maybe a couple more in the coming weeks…

With only three weeks to opening day, there are plenty of unknowns, and critical work to be done. “The park needs some work to be ready for June 6, but being 5 years in, we know what to do, how to do it, it’s just work” says Norris Jones. “It will all get done, and we will all be ready to go to Port Angeles for game 1, and June 5th we will be back here and ready to kick this thing off at home”.

Between now and then, we’ll see the roster firm up, players start to arrive, and the park will come alive with he signs and sounds of baseball returning to the Capital Region. We can’t wait for that first yell of “Play Ball”!

Watch for more action here on the blog as we go through the roster and track late movements up to opening day. Baseball’s back baby, glad to have you along for the ride!

 

 

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A few minutes with new HarbourCat coach Brian McRae

The big announcement from last week that set the Victoria sports scene buzzing, was that the HarbourCats had ended their relationship with Head Coach Graig Merritt – that’s WCL Coach of the Year Graig Merritt – and have brought in 10-year MLB veteran Brian McRae for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Rumors started to fly instantly on the reasons why the change was made – was Merritt not the right fit? Was the team disappointed with the playoff loss? Was it a personality conflict between ownership and coaching staff?

Much has been said and written on the reasoning behind the move, with a few common themes emerging:

  • There were NO issues at all with what Graig Merritt did for the team and the city, his time here earned him nothing but respect for what he accomplished with the team.
  • The WCL is a developmental league for both players and coaches, and this is not a firing but a “moving on” for a coach to a new opportunity.
  • It was likely Merritt would get offers from other organizations/leagues/programs and could be pulled away before the 2017 season begins, leaving the HarbourCats with a hole to fill.
  • There’s nothing left for Merritt to do here next year. 2016 would be a tough season to surpass, and unless he pilots a 45+ win season with a championship, anything else would look like a failure…Get out on top!

I can see the reasoning in all of those, yet I can also see that it’s outside standard practice to get rid of a guy who a week before was named the best in the league at what he does. Like anything else though, this is a business, and the long-term sustainability of the team is focus number one at the office over on Vancouver Street. In the end, Graig Merritt will be just fine without the HarbourCats – his baseball IQ, winning attitude, and now proven track record make him instantly valuable all across baseball. I personally can’t wait to see where Graig hangs his hat next year, he’ll be successful wherever it is…

But enough about what has happened, let’s look to the future. Brian McRae is the man running the show now, as he becomes the fourth head coach in HarbourCat history. I had the opportunity to speak with Brian about coming to Victoria next summer, and learn a little more about the experience and desire he’ll bring with him…

BrianM Royals CardOf course plenty has been written about Brian McRae around here in the past few days – his 10 year MLB career with teams like the Royals, Cubs, and Blue Jays, and about his years broadcasting for the likes of WGN, MLB, and ESPN. His resume also includes a couple coaching stints in collegiate and summer league baseball. Outside of baseball, we know Brian devotes much of his time to charities like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Cystic Fibrosis, and cancer research. He’s currently running a non-profit program called the Kansas City Sluggers baseball, which provides youth aged 14-18 from the Kansas City area the opportunity to play baseball in situations where they can be seen by college recruiters and scouts, and helps these young men gain the experience and focus needed to become collegiate ball players.

Brian MissouWhat you may not know about Brian McRae, is that this week he is actually back in school taking classes at Missouri University, enabling him to become “Student manager” for the Mizzou Tigers baseball program. Don’t let the title fool you – McRae will spend the college year coaching the Tigers alongside head coach Steve Bieser, not refilling the Gatorade bucket and washing uniforms! It will be a unique experience for the 48 year old, as he never attended college as a student in his youth.  McRae had planned to attend the University of Kansas to play both baseball and football (and was offered a football scholarship to do it), but when the Royals selected him in the first round of the 1985 draft, he jumped at the opportunity to play pro baseball instead. His best years in the show were interrupted by the strike of 1994 (ask any Expos fan you know about that horrible year in baseball) when he was among league leaders in singles and stolen bases. The following year, after being traded to the Cubs, he finished fourth in hits in the National league.

While it might seem like McRae’s addition to the HarbourCats seems a bit out of the blue and unexpected, it’s actually been in the works for some time. Back in 2014 when Bob Miller was removed as coach, then GM Jim Swanson had contacted McRae about the job. At that time though, with his father going through some health issues, McRae removed his name from the short list thinking it would be unfair to Victoria if he had to later pull out for family reasons. Now two years later, McRae is once again jumping at the chance to spend the summer in Victoria.

Not what you would expect from someone who’s done what Brian has in the game, and his reasons for signing on with the HarbourCats point to his love of the game more than anything else. “I enjoy Summer ball. I thought the experience I had in 2012 with Morehead City [of the Central Plain’s league] was the greatest thing ever. No classes to worry about and you just get to work with the kids full time. They come to learn the game, and play as much baseball as they can”.

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Brian coaching at first for the Park University Pirates in 2012

For McRae, it’s not all about teaching others, it’s about learning for himself as well. “I love that these kids come from all over, and you get to see what they are being taught at their schools. You get a good feel for what’s going on across the country at the collegiate level, and I think it makes you a better coach, a more well-rounded coach”.

And what kind of coach does Brian expect we will see come June? We have seen the full spectrum ranging from the stoic indifference of Bob Miller, to the pure unbridled intensity of Graig Merritt. Where will Brian McRae fit in that vast spectrum? He says it’s all about balance. “I think I bring a different approach to getting your work done and being efficient at it. Learning how to conserve your energy for the time that you need it in order to play the game”.

That’s easily said, but it’s something that summer ball clubs – including Victoria – struggle with: the need to be on and win every game, with players who haven’t had down-time in many months. It’s certainly taken its toll on the HarbourCats over the years as witnessed by the early departures of talent we see near the end of each season. McRae says it’s all in how you manage from the first day. “Knowing the kids have just come off a spring season where they have all played a lot, and knowing that they need some down time to let their bodies and their minds heal so the focus can be on winning ball games. With the travel and the schedule, you have to know to back off a little bit. Know when to give them time off and when to get extra work in. I think I can bring a perspective of how to get your work done in a timely manner, and still have the energy left to go through a regular season in the WCL – and be fresh at the end”.

Knowing that these are key recruiting months for summer ball teams, McRae doesn’t get any of that downtime he speaks of himself. He’s been inserted directly into the team-building work going on for the HarbourCats 2017 team, and he’s bringing with him a host of new contacts and new avenues of recruiting. “I’ve got some players that I’ve identified over the past couple years that I would like to pursue, so I’ll be contacting them immediately and seeing how they fit with the roster that’s already in place [from returning players – the HarbourCats have almost a dozen commitments for next year already]. I’m heavily involved trying to get the best players we can in Victoria”. Brian’s contacts also reach outside the typical WCL player, reaching into the mid-west and south for some potential untapped talent. “With some of the contacts I have, there’s some kids I see that could compete in that league, and I think this will give them an opportunity to show what they can do up there for sure”.

Being here for the Blue Jays summer kids camp, and staying to watch a couple of games over the years, McRae has a good idea of what playing baseball in Victoria – and specifically at Royal Athletic Park – means to a roster. “Victoria plays more of a power game and a speed game, so the roster will be constructed with power pitching, and power hitting guys – because that’s what plays better in that ballpark”.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles

Manager Hal McRae (left) and CF Brian McRae of the Kansas City Royals talk during batting practice on September 6, 1991 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

What is clear when speaking with Brian, is that he’s a true fan of the game and that he understands what it takes to win, balanced with what it takes to grow a strong and successful ball player. His addition to the HarbourCats certainly puts notice to the rest of the West Coast League – this team isn’t satisfied with what they have achieved to date, this team is continuing to change the face of the game we see. For HarbourCats fans, this continued commitment to excellence should have us watching championship baseball for many years to come.

 

 

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Coach’s Corner 2016 year-end edition

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It’s hard to believe it was one week ago tonight that the HarbourCats bowed out of the West Coast League playoffs at the hands of the Bellingham Bells. Since then, the Bells have been locked in battle with the Corvallis Knights – the series is tied at a game each, with both teams winning on the road. The final game is tonight in Corvallis. Don’t forget you can listen in on the Bells radio network here.

This past Monday, the West Coast League announced its yearly award winners, and placed six HarbourCats on the All-WCL teams (5 first-team, 1 second team). In addition to the players, both the Executive team led by Jim Swanson and the coaching staff led by Graig Merritt won awards – Exec of the year for Jim, and Coach of the Year for Graig. A huge accomplishment for a second-year coach, but well deserved knowing how hard he works each and every night.

His intensity on the field is matched by his graciousness off it, and it’s always a pleasure to sit down with him. I spoke with head coach Merritt to recap the year, look to the future, and talk about his experiences leading Victoria to the best season in WCL history.

Tell me about the final game (the 12-1 playoff loss to Bellingham), and the tough ending to the season – how was the mood in the clubhouse after it was all over?

It was bitter-sweet for sure. A lot of people were emotional, I know I was emotional. The team had gelled together [this season] with all the games we were winning and records we were chasing – that started happening back in June. It was sad to see it end and have to say goodbye, those are friendships they will have for life – with each other and with me. Winning and losing is such a fine line. We all learned a lot about it, but really… we lost a baseball game. We had a great season. I understand that fans want you to win every game and win it all – I get that – but everyone in that clubhouse was very proud of what we accomplished this season. We had no big speeches after the game, in fact we didn’t even talk about that game we just played. It was all about the season and the positives we took out of it, and the experience we got to share with each other. That was [our focus] after that game, it was quite special to be part of.

We all loved the 19 game winning streak that became the sports talk of the town. Was it as exciting to play to as it was to watch, or did it become extra weight and pressure as it went on?

There were no negatives of that streak whatsoever. When we got around 10 wins it was like nobody was going to touch us. When we got to 14 you could feel the pressure because the record was coming up. Games 15-19 and when we smoked Kelowna, that was pretty special. Up and down the lineup, [the players] thought that we wouldn’t lose again all summer. With 30 or so games left, they honestly thought we would go 30-0 from there. The attitude they brought to the park every day was special – sure I thought we would win every game, but not like these kids… they believed in it.

How to win Is something you hope to teach every summer. If you can develop a winner, you’re developing a quality player. Part of being a ball player is learning that. I try and create that culture, and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that as a coaching staff this summer.

Did things change after the streak? Did the team lose some of its intensity?

After we lost that one double-header game, we won 6 of the next 7, so at 26-1 we were still on a role. Then guys started leaving. We lost Costello, we lost Steindorf, and is seemed like someone poked a hole in the balloon. I was texting guys after a couple losses saying “Hey if you don’t go home, we win this game!”. We missed Costello – he was a guy you could go to early or late, he could eat up innings, as many as you need. He was a weapon out of that bullpen we just didn’t have any more. I get the injuries, but if nobody healthy leaves, we win 45-46 games easy.

Was that the high point of the season in your mind?

The 19 [game streak] is up there, but it just kind of happened organically. I’d say the 40th win was the high point for me. I had let my emotions get out of hand and got tossed out [of the Friday Yakima game], and I honestly think we win that game and maybe finish with 41 if I don’t – but winning 40 the way we did was special.

That said, the 40 wins record I think can be broken in this league, but the 19 wins in a row will be around for a long time. If I’m back next season, I want to break 40 wins.

Who really surprised you this year, who exceeded your expectations?

Tommy Jew did for sure.  I didn’t know what to expect, but he’s a great player – I don’t think he over-achieved, but he was special. Riley Guntrip did well – he impressed me for sure. They both contributed in massive ways for us all season.

How about leadership? Who really stepped into and embraced the leadership role on the club?

AJ Alcantara no question. The way he conducts himself – he’s not a rah-rah guy, but when he speaks people listen.  When he plays people watch him. The way was he is on and off the field, he’s a true leader. It was special to have him for two years.

Now that the season is over, it’s time to think about next year. Will we see Graig Merritt back in on the HarbourCat bench next year?

I would love to come back – who wouldn’t with the location, the team management, the host families – everything. Places like Bellingham are nice, but Victoria is the top of the list as far as I’m concerned. Jim [Swanson], Rich [harder], Ken [Swanson], and John [Wilson]… these guys are running the best organization I’ve  coached in and one of the best programs in North America. The whole group has treated me with nothing but respect. There’s a sit-down coming in a few days and we’ll see where that goes. I’d love to be back in Victoria.

Even before that though, things are underway for next year already, as they were last year?

The end of the season was so intense, and we were just dialed in. It all ended so fast – I said to the guys 10 minutes before the first pitch in Bellingham that we might be done in 27 hours, and we were. Now that it’s over, we need to start aggressively building for next year. Even not knowing my future, we need to be on that – and we have been. We already have 9 or 10 players signed for next year, and I’m trying to do everything I can for [Victoria] to get us top players from top programs here for next year.

[Ed Note: In a recent Times Colonist article, Jim Swanson confirmed the club’s desire to have Graig back for year three, but recognized that with the success he’s found here, his phone may be ringing with other opportunities as well. Still, both parties seem pretty fond of each other so we’ll have to wait and see what happens… Stay tuned!]

It’s tough to say that with 40 wins, we didn’t have what it takes to win it all – were we missing anything this year in your mind?

We needed more power arms. Velocity, velocity, and more velocity. It’s not always about that – look at Blake Hannah who was lights out throwing mid-80’s – but we needed guys throwing harder and faster. They are hard to find – guys like that get shut down for the summer at this level and they don’t get sent out [to play summer ball]. There are some around though – I saw them in Corvallis, Bellingham, Yakima… Cowlitz had three guys throwing 94 against us one night so they are out there. We didn’t have many of those guys this year.

Was that the key difference in bowing out early versus winning the championship?

If we had the same team on the field we had 5-6 weeks ago, with Joe Prior, Dakota Dean, Austin Guibor, Jake Stone, Casey Costello… Bellingham had power pitching – they had that over us for sure, and we would have had troubles with them, but we would have beaten them with some of those missing characters. They had depth, but we still had pitching. Mitchell’s injury [before the final game] was freak. We were going to have to grind it out. We needed to steal that game in Bellingham to have a chance to win it at home. That was a great game, an old-school game that came down to the wire, losing by a run on a [broken-bat single].

So the impact of departing players hurt the team cause down the stretch?

It’s disappointing that in the WCL, players can just come and go as they want. Some of those kids left with minor injuries, or to take a class, or for reasons unknown. There’s no other level where that happens. These kids can’t leave their college teams, they couldn’t leave minor-league teams – in fact if you’re in a pennant race in the minor leagues, they bring more guys in to build that team. In this league, you get too many kids – on every team, not just our team – that can’t wait to get out of here, win or lose. It’s hard for me to see, after we have put all this time in, from basically the final day of the last season until the end of Wednesday’s [final] game, to have these kids tell us they are leaving because they have a sore back, or they have to take a class, or they are homesick. That’s disappointing.

The West coast season is pretty grueling – does the length and intensity of it impact the ability to keep guys here for the duration?

It has to be a pro experience. Other leagues do three-games a week, but we need a full schedule. I talked about it with Bend’s [GM and Head Coach] Casey Powell. He’s had experience and coached in the Alaska league where they start a week later and end a week earlier. That [reduced season] was just perfect. The other part of it is dealing with the semester and quarter system of US schools. We don’t get the majority of our players until mid-June, and you’re already 12 games into the season. That’s past the make or break point already for the whole first half.

If the WCL wants to be as good as [some other summer leagues], they need to look at shortening the season, and play a 45-game schedule. And they should have a prospects game not an All-star game mid-season. But this is a business, and to ask the owners to give up four or five [home] gates a year on both ends… I don’t know.

The other thing people don’t understand is what we go through when we play series in Cowlitz or Bend. We can’t just drive home to our house that night and wake up the next morning ready to go. We have to sit at the ferry until 7:00am, and we don’t get back to the park until 9:30-10:00am – and we always play the same night. We do that for the entire schedule. Getting to 40 wins while playing in Victoria – there’s gotta be some kind of asterisk on the record because of that.

Any immediate plans for the rest of the summer?

Just decompress the season. I’ll head home and spend some time with my family and friends. See my dogs, and maybe head east to check in on some family and friends out there. That’s was most important for me for sure.

The blog would like to thank coach Merritt for his support this season, his candidness and willingness to talk, and for directing a great season at the park to write about! We wish him congratulations on his well-deserved accolades for this season, and nothing but the best of luck. Victoria would be lucky to have him back on the bench in 2017!

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Key injury plays a huge role in HarbourCat loss

Well the HarbourCats certainly left their A-game at home last night didn’t they. Bellingham sure showed us what a winner plays like. Fourty wins doesn’t mean much if you can’t win the ones that count. Maybe we should rename them the HarbourCanucks… I heard that and more walking through the stands during the late innings last night. To be fair, I heard a lot of positive comments too – a lot of people talking about what a great season it was, how fantastic the organization is, and how top-notch it is to have these young men represent our city, etc.

This isn’t an excuse piece – I’ll be the first to admit that Bellingham is a solid, proven, and well-constructed team with a couple of players who stood above the rest to help them win the series. There is however, as they say, extenuating circumstances that need to be aired.

Last night the seemingly impossible happened. Victoria sent Josh Mitchell, their 7-0 undefeated All-star starter to the mound in a must-win game. Bellingham would be lucky to get a runner to second base, let alone score a run. Or two runs, or say… 12. What could have possibly happened to change that expected path? As it turns out, this game was in trouble before the first pitch was thrown…

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Josh Mitchell, trying to work through things in the first inning of game two

In pre-game warm-ups, the seemingly indestructible Mitchell suffered a badly strained oblique muscle. For a pitcher that relies on a whole body torque motion for power and location, that’s a problem. It became apparent that something was up as soon as he made it to the mound for his first inning warm-up. Instead of his usual 87-90mph fastball, the radar gun was struggling to get much over 80. Instead of untouchable heat, Mitch was tossing up batting practice. After striking out the lead off batter, the injury seemed to worsen, and Bellingham showed no mercy. To their credit, they recognized the situation as well, and hitters came up swinging. After giving up a solid single, SS Chase Strumpf sent one over the left field fence that even AJ Alcantara couldn’t bring back. Another couple of well-hit balls thankfully turned into outs and Mitchell stomped off the mound, going straight for the dugout.

Knowing what was happening, coach Graig Merritt was quickly off the bench signalling for a new pitcher to start the second inning. At this point in the season however, bullpen arms are limited and he had no choice but to rush forward game three starter Will McAffer – who was expecting to spend the night charting pitches and studying hitters for Thursday’s inevitable game. Now pressed into service, he needed to compress his six-hour game day warm-up into about 15 minutes. At an earlier point in the season, perhaps there would have been a couple long relief arms that could be jump-started into action, but not this far into August, not with a reduced bench.

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The infield comes to the mound to rally around Will McAffer

Clearly the one option available didn’t work. McAffer had his own struggles early finding his zone and rhythm, and once again Strumpf took advantage, this time hitting a 3-run shot to make it 7-0 Bells. And once you get to that point, the game takes on a whole different feel. It was like the air was sucked out of RAP both on the field and off. The Bells continued to roll, and all the players, coaching staff, and fans could do was sit and watch. I heard one late-arriving fan who took his seat behind me say “What did I miss? It’s like someone died in here”. Yeah buddy, we all did just a little.

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Cat Killers: SS Chase Strumpf (2HR, 5RBI) and Starter Tyler Palm (3 hits, 1 ER)

Of course baseball is a team sport, and it’s not about one guy. But this isn’t hockey where everyone is involved from the opening draw. In baseball, one guy – your pitcher – holds the ball 95% of the time. The simple object of the game is for him to not let anyone but the guy catching his throws to touch it. Take him out, and you open the door.

I could go on about other injuries too – like 2B Griffin Andreychuk, who was sitting on the bench in the bottom of the first inning with runners at second and third, watching Ryan Anderson at the plate. You know Griff was hoping that was him with the chance to tie the game with a clutch hit, but he never fully returned after his concussion scare down in Bend. There were other aches and pains too numerous to mention. The WCL is a long season that takes its toll both mentally and physically on these young men.

I said this wouldn’t be an excuse piece, and I don’t mean to suggest that Victoria was any more beaten up than Bellingham – or other teams we played near the end of the season. Just hoping to make people think a bit is all.

In the end, it was just a loss. A tough loss, but a loss just the same. The team will now turn in their jerseys for cleaning one last time, spend a couple days with their host families, and head home for a couple weeks of much needed rest before returning to the rigours of school. I’d say this was the most solid team Victoria has ever fielded – both in skill, and in personality. A classy group of individuals, this team did the city and the organization proud. These good ball players showed they were even better human beings this season, and it was a privilege to watch them succeed where no WCL teams have succeeded before. Many will be back I’m sure – rumor is up to 14 of this year’s squad may return (pending many, many factors of course, but it’s a starting point). This season will be tough to beat, but like every one so far – I’m confident next year’s HarbourCats season is going to be awesome!

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One last look at 2016: A beautiful way to spend the summer for sure!

Stay tuned over the next week – the blog will have some year-end interviews and recap, and will announce our player of the year! I know, you can’t wait can you 😉

Thanks for reading everyone; it’s been a fun year.

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