Season V in the books, along with the blog

Last Tuesday night, the fifth season for the Victoria HarbourCats ground to an abrupt halt on the harsh artificial turf of Goss Stadium, down in Corvallis Oregon.  After taking a dramatic first game walk-off win up here in Victoria, the team managed only 9 hits in the last two games, ending the season one game shy of WCL immortality.  At least we had a chance in game three, with the tying runs on in the ninth and nobody out. Then from where our group was sitting, the team was over-coached out of a comeback. Leading home run candidate Harrison Bragg was asked to bunt (on artificial turf of all things) which he had done maybe once all season to that point, producing an out at the wrong base (third). Then, Kevin Collard, a guy who had hit more doubles (12) than any HarbourCat all season, was pinch-hit for by a guy who hasn’t played in nearly two weeks due to a bad foot, Noah Prewett. Now don’t get me wrong – we’re huge Prewett fans here at the blog, but it seemed like an impossible situation to put him into, especially given the alternative of leaving the 1-for-3 Collard in. Noah strikes out, leaving returning 10-day guy Justin Orton with the task of prolonging the inning, where he also fell victim to the strikeout to end the season. Let Bragg swing away, leave Collard in, and pinch-hit Prewett for Orton maybe? Bah, we’ll never know, and that’s why we spend the season cheering from the cheap seats… ed. Update: Bragg’s decision to bunt was 100% his own apparently, and not expected. Now THAT makes more coaching sense… Still keeping my regular seat though 😉

2017 was another big step forward for the HarbourCat franchise though – a first trip to the finals after a first playoff win and a first playoff series win against Kelowna. Getting that far into the playoffs though, really showed what I think is a league-wide issue – the season is just too long. From team picture day, to the start of the final game, close to thirty players had left the team already. Injuries, inning limits, school commitments, or just pure burnout takes its toll on these kids, and expecting them to go at the intensity and length of a summer-ball season is proving unrealistic. Had it not been for some late-season local pitching additions and 10-day returns, Victoria would have had a hard time fielding a team down the stretch and into the playoffs, let alone winning a championship. And although the players have good reasons to leave, it’s difficult seeing them on Instagram lounging on the beach in Mexico, having a successful hunting outing, or surfing with their girlfriends in Malibu while the team is still fighting to make the playoffs. Such is summer ball. I can’t help but think that a 40-game season, or a season that features more games with double-header weekends that ends by July 31st would be more inviting to even higher calibre players and would keep them here for the duration.  But try telling the league and teams to all take revenue hits like that and see how far that gets you…

Season five for the HarbourCats was actually pretty spectacular on the field though. While not setting any streaks or wins records like last year, the team on the field experienced a great deal of success. Offensively, there has never been a better HarbourCats team. The 2017 squad set team records in almost every offensive category, including most runs, hits, highest average, fewest strikeouts… The 45 home runs hit this year would have set a WCL record – if Bellingham hadn’t hit 48 thanks to Chase Illig’s league-leading 15 (as an aside, he hit 4 against Victoria this year – perhaps we should have walked him?). The team had a monster offensive year and led the league across the board.

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Year over year comparison of Victoria’s Offensive Numbers. Blue are team bests, green are also league all-time bests

On the mound though, it was another story entirely. This was actually the worst year of HarbourCat pitching, setting franchise highs in several key categories like runs allowed, hits given up, wild pitches… Team ERA was a franchise worst 5.08, that’s the eleventh worst ERA (out of 85 squads) in seven years of league history.

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Year over year comparison of Victoria’s pitching performance. Blue are team bests, red are team worsts.

The pitching staff seemed the hardest hit by having the fewest of the original set of players signed early actually make the trip north. Not surprisingly, it’s always a risk signing a top college arm early, where the better they do in college, the worse your chances of landing them for the summer become. Pitching wins championships, and no college coach is going to let a top stud blow out his arm for a summer team. Summer ball is about betting on the “next big thing”, and getting him before he peaks in college. It’s like constantly betting on the long-shot and hoping you find a thoroughbred.

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Our 2017 Player of the Year!

Over the entire season, OF Hunter Vansau was – I think – the most exciting player to watch game after game. He ended hitting .359 (good for 4th in the WCL), and 8 home runs (2nd in the WCL), with 34 RBI while striking out only 15 times. And those stats don’t include the dozens of fantastic catches in the outfield and key assists on ropes from the fence. Hunter is the blog’s player of the year for 2017 hands down. The aforementioned Noah Prewett also stood out, he’s probably the best all-round HarbourCat ever as far as skill goes? If not for an unfortunate tumble over a bunt and a bad flipper, he could have made a real difference down the stretch. And have we ever had a more consistent defensive player than Harry Shipley? If the WCL gave out gold gloves, Harry would be a deserving recipient.

And as happens every year, Victoria always ends up with some top talent that isn’t here long enough to be considered for league awards. Catcher Shane Maguire led the WCL hitting .451 and Andrew Shaps was just behind that at .441, but neither had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title (don’t get me started on that again, please).

On the mound, despite difficulties as a team, Victoria saw one of the best seasons ever by a HarbourCat pitcher in Jack Owen, who posted a 1.02 ERA in 44.1 innings of solid work. Owen could have won 7 games this year had it not been for a couple defensive miscues that kept him at 4. A great year was also seen from Vancouver Island native Adam McKillican, who registered 5 wins on 8 starts.

Overall, Season V will be looked back on as a success. Off the field, the team struggled with some cold June nights and mid-week games which lowered attendance figures to start, but as usual Victorian’s showed up when the team was winning and the weather warmed up, helping the HarbourCats lead the league in attendance once again. Team management provided what can be described as a “comfortable” experience at the park, copying last year’s tried and true game-day presentation almost exactly. While it’s getting a touch repetitive, it seems to work for Victoria fans, and if it ain’t broke…

Season six is already well into the planning stages, and the franchise – and league – seem stronger than ever with no end in sight. As team management likes to say, baseball in Victoria isn’t going anywhere folks!

The same can’t be said for the blog. A funny thing has happened over the past season and a half, not specific to this blog, but more with written media in general – nobody’s reading, nobody’s commenting anymore. Readership is way down, while other forms of short-form media are going up. The average blog post this year got 30-50 reads, where 200+ used to be the norm. Contrasting, tweet reads and facebook hits are higher than ever though, with thousands of people seeing them, following them, retweeting and forwarding them – but nobody clicks through to actually read the article. The headline and picture are enough for people to just scroll past onto their next story. Even more mainstream media is having the same issue – talking to Christian J. Stewart, who writes fabulous HarbourCat content for ISN, he estimates “a couple hundred” for each article he posts. In a city with close to half a million people, were a team draws close to 2,000 fans a game from a fan base of 15-20,000 say, less than 1% of them click a link to read a story? That’s pretty tragic. For me, some of these posts – the detailed ones that comb through years of stats and game logs, and find just the right pictures take several hours to put together, and take away from my own work and/or family time. On the other hand, I can post an Instagram picture and reach 300-500 people within an hour, with great results. The picture will instantly get likes and comments from the entire roster of players, their friends and family, and ex-players and families. It’s pretty cool when you post about a big home run the team just hit, and you get an instant like or a comment from ex-Cats like Dominic Topoozian, or Josh Mitchell, or Gabe Clark’s mom… It shows how much the HarbourCats become part of a player’s extended family, and continue on as part of their journey through baseball and life. It’s pretty cool to be providing a family with a picture of their son (or daughter of course) crossing home plate after a big hit, or coming off the mound after a big K.

So that’s where the blog will go. While the written words and the hours of stat hunting will stop, we’ll continue to find new and interesting ways to share in-game moments from the field with you all. If you haven’t yet, please follow us on Instagram, we are @VicHarbourCatsBlog. We will also cross-post to Twitter and facebook so you can see content there as well, but really – Instagram is the way to go!

If you have read this far, and you’ve been with us on the long journey to this point, thank you very much for your support, your comments, likes, re-posts, and for saying hi if you see me around the ballpark. If there were more people like you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation 😉 Here’s looking forward to the HarbourCats Season 6 and beyond. It’s been fun chatting baseball with/at you.

As for the logistics of the blog, it will revert to its original unpaid URL of vicharbourcatsblog.wordpress.com, and the registered domain will expire in June. Feel free to update your bookmarks at any time should you want to review any old posts.

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And Spike, if you’re out there reading this for some reason, I miss you buddy…

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HarbourCats Top-10 with Brad Norris-Jones – part 2

Did you catch yesterday’s start of the Brad Norris-Jones top 10 list? A top 12, as is came to be? If not, you can go back and read part 1 here.

We left Brad after number six with five more top moments to recount for us. Without further ado, here they are counting down to number 1…

5. Hosting the 2013 All-Star game in Victoria (July 23, 2013)

The first announcement the HarbourCats make upon starting their inaugural season is that oh yeah, as well as starting baseball in Victoria, establishing a brand, and getting over all of the opening-season issues, we’ll be hosting the 2013 All-Star game at Royal Athletic. Incredible, Victoria sets the record for attendance at an All-Star game at 4,210 fans and the city comes to party. The South wins the game 7-5, but Victoria wins the day.

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2013 All Stars (L-R) Austin Russell, Alex DeGoti, Scott Kuzminsky, Ty Provencher, Alex Real

“For this city, when we brought the All-Star game here, it was a true fan fest. It was a party. We had five players in that game, and we put a hell of a game on. It was better than opening night, we just killed it”. “We had tons of scouts, tons of league people. That game, and opening night, proved to the city that baseball can be fun at this park”

4. 2016’s pennant-winning first half (2016)

Finishing with a 23-4 record, the HarbourCats clinch the first-half title on June 30th setting league records with their 19th win in a row – all after losing the first three games of the season!

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“Forty wins in a year may be broken one day, but 23 and 4 – and the 19 game win streak will never be broken again. Things just happened in that streak where we won games, games where were down in the ninth that we maybe shouldn’t have won but did. And if you remember the 20th game we lost [on Canada Day], Cody Snider hit a ball off the top of the wall in right field in the 7th inning that would have tied that game, but it stayed in the park. For me and for the coaching staff, it showed the league that we were the real deal. Not just this year, but every year. Sometimes because you’re Canadian, you don’t get the same props as the other  teams, but that showed we were the real deal”.

3. Gabe Clark goes AWOL – well actually, he gets left on the BC Ferry (Aug 4 2014)

You know how sometimes you hear announcements about people leaving cell phones of wallets on the ferry? How about leaving your home-run king asleep under a row of seats on your start of a road-trip?

“I phoned Kelly thinking the team would be in Walla Walla already, and he told me no, they were late because they lost Gabe. Gabe had fallen asleep in the upstairs seats, and nobody noticed he was missing. So he had to take a cab from the ferry to the border. Now looking back, it’s hilarious, but at the time it wasn’t funny. I phoned [then GM Jim] Swanson and told him we lost Gabe, and he says ‘What do you mean we lost Gabe!!'”

2. Kelly Norris-Jones first home game as a HarbourCat (June 10/11 2014)

Talk about a proud poppa moment. Kelly pinch hit on June 10th in a 6-5 win against Cowlitz, but the best moment came the next night when Kelly put on the tools of ignorance and started behind the plate. 1,000 fans stood and cheered as the local boy made his start. One was cheering a little louder than the rest…

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“Kelly played in Kelowna in 2011, but playing for Illinois, they like to keep their kids close, so we never saw him in the summers. Literally, we would see him for two weeks at Christmas, and three days when we would go down and see him. That was five long years of that. It was pretty special having your kid play for the team you work for after all the trials and tribulations of the past five years. Him coming home was his best moment as a player. That first game, because of all the buildup, was special for his whole family, not just me, but everyone”.

1. Claire Eccles signing Announcement (May 16,2017)

In what seems to almost be back-to-back proud papa moments, Claire is introduced to Victoria media and fans – and media around the globe – as the first female to play baseball at the college level in North America. So many hours and so much work went into this historic announcement, and thanks to Brad’s enormous efforts, we all get to have those moments with Claire this year.

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“This is 100% number one. Because it was so progressive, and I stand by it right now, and I’ll stand by it forever. I’m so proud that I picked the right person in Claire. Anyone could pick a female to play, but I know I picked the right person. Her mindset, her ability, every single box has checked for her. Within a minute [of meeting her for the first time], I knew she was the right person, and within five minutes, we both said ‘lets do this’. This was in February and we held [the news]. I didn’t want anyone to know. I knew it was going to be big. I knew it would go across Canada, I thought maybe Sportsnet or TSN would pick it up. I had no idea she would be on the front page of MLB, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, LA Times, Washington Post, CNN. No shot I thought it would be that big…”

So there you have it, the top 12 moments from the GM of the HarbourCats. Any surprises in there? A couple for me – not on the moments themselves, but on the overall content. Apart from his son Kelly’s return to town, none of these are really about Brad. They are all about the success of his team, of his individual players. Nothing about him becoming GM, or being on Sportsnet, or sellout out stadiums, it’s all about the same thing we cheer for every day – The HarbourCats and the Players that wear the jerseys. The man is a fan of the game above anything else, and that folks is a sign this team is in good hands…

 

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HarbourCats Top-10 with Brad Norris-Jones – part 1

IMG_6969 cropIf you were at RAP on Thursday night, you got to see Claire Eccles pitch another inning for the HarbourCats. Every time she pitches it seems the same thing happens – the park goes deadly silent and the crowd hangs on every pitch. It’s like nobody wants to cheer to disturb her intense concentration or jinx outs from happening. Me personally, I find I’m silently rooting for her on every pitch. It’s like I find myself out there with her, just willing the ball away from opposing bats. It’s such a special thing to see her on the mound, I find myself mesmerized by the moment more than anything. It’s a real highlight of any night for sure…

So what kinds of things get other folks fired up at HarbourCats games? Well how about if we asked someone who’s been a part of pretty much every significant moment in HarbourCat history so far, HarbourCats General Manager Brad Norris-Jones. So as a special weekend feature a bit out of the ordinary, we are sitting down with Brad to talk about his top-ten HarbourCat moments.

Except this is Brad we are talking about, and not being one to follow the rules exactly, he’s telling us his top twelve such moments. We’ll break them into two parts – so here are entries 12-6, stay tuned tomorrow for the top five!

  1. Back to Back 19 and 17 run games against Kitsap (July 1&2, 2014)

Canada Day 2014 the HarbourCats explode for 19 runs on a 4-4 performance by Hunter Mercado-Hood, and six hit batters by Blue Jacket pitchers winning 19-2. They follow that drubbing up with an equally impressive 17-3 beating behind 4-4 days by DH Sean Watkins and LF Wyler Smith.

“This was real next-level stuff” says Norris-Jones. “Probably our best team ever, they had the talent to be dominant, and those games proved it to everyone that Victoria was a team that could put that together. The owner of Kitsap was there that night and he came up to me and he knew Victoria was going to be a next-level organization”.

  1. Crazy George Night (June 7/8 2016)

“He was such a great entertainer that was new and fresh for Victoria. I had so many comments from our older fans who thought it was the greatest thing. He’s a great person, and this was such a fan favourite. Of course everyone under 30 thought he actually was crazy…”.

  1. Gabe Clark’s three-home run game vs. Klamath Falls (July 18, 2014)

Another huge output game for the HarbourCats at home against the Gems where future Toronto Blue Jay draftee Gabe Clark hits three balls out in a 14-8 win. He actually came close to hitting 4 out, as he had one hit the top of the fence and come back into the field for a double…

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CF Nathan Lukes greets Clark at home after his second HR

“That game showed a lot of fans what great ball this was. Gabe was a true collegiate star. He was one of the best and arguably the best home run hitter we have ever had. That was a great display of baseball”.

  1. P.J. Floyd’s 4 Home-runs against Nanaimo (July 2014 and 2015)

In an exhibition game up island against the Pirates, fan favourite PJ Floyd doubles the cost of the road-trip by sending 4 balls over the fence in a HarbourCat win.

“There’s a story here. PJ Hit three home runs in 2014, and then one in his first at-bat there in 2015 – so 4 home runs in 4 at bats. If you’ve been to Nanaimo, the [right field] fence is tall, like two-thirds of the way up our foul pole. He didn’t just land them over, he crushed those balls. Like in the 400-410 foot mark. One went right-center that was even longer. P.J was a legitimate power hitter, you couldn’t put a fastball by him”.

  1. Dalton Erb’s near-perfect game, home opener, June 7, 2016

Four days before he was drafted by the San Diego Padres, Erb pitched his only game as a Victoria HarbourCat, showing the magic that MLB scouts had been talking about all spring. Erb took a no-hitter into the 8th inning before giving up a single hit. He completed the inning and ended the night going 8.0, giving up 1 hit, 1 walk, and 13 Ks.

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Erb throws the first pitch of his legendary outing

“That was just a special night. That was probably the most dominant pitching performance ever in league history. We all knew he was going, we just wanted to see him pitch at home before he left. We didn’t start him in the first series [on the road], so he was ready to go”.

  1. Nick Pivetta’s start on opening day 2013 (June 5, 2013)

Current Philadelphia Phillies starter and local Victoria boy Nick Pivetta started the HarbourCats existence off with a masterful start against the Kelowna. Not his greatest pitching performance, Pivetta gave up 6 runs on 8 hits over 8 complete innings. It was enough for the win though as Victoria pushed enough across to win 8-6. Pivetta would pitch only one more game before leaving to join the Phillies organization.

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Nick Pivetta – first pitch of game 1 for the HarbourCats at RAP

“That was special for a lot of different reasons. I had coached Nick when he was a kid, and both my sons had caught for him, Kaelin as a kid, and Kelly with team Canada. We all knew he was getting drafted and was going to sign, and he didn’t have to play for us at all, but he wanted to and did us a favour. I’ve known Nick so long, it was special to see him out there before he left”.

  1. Claire Eccles’ first recorded out (June 7, 2017)

In an event that everyone in Victoria and across baseball was waiting to see, Claire Eccles came to the mound in the 8th inning against the Wenatchee Apple Sox to the huge applause of the Victoria crowd. After a 4-pitch walk to the first batter Dugan Shire and two more to 2B Parker Price (including a wild pitch), Price hit a ball right back up the middle that Eccles snagged and threw to first base for the out.

“The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame wanted the first ball, so [after a few anxious moments before a Wenatchee player retrieved the first ball that had skipped past catcher Kekai Rios] I grabbed it and came back [to the concourse]. I’m standing there watching ball 2, ball 3, ball 4. And I’m thinking I can’t watch this, I gotta go watch [the go-live TV feed behind the concession]. Ball 5, ball 6 and I’m thinking what have I done to this young lady – and I’m thinking my neck is on the line here too… All of a sudden pitch 7 was a strike, and now I’m breathing again. Pitch 8, one hopper back to Claire and she turned and froze the guy at second, and threw a pea to first. At that point, I’m not kidding, I jumped 20 feet in the air. When she got that out, that was the happiest single baseball moment I’ve ever had”.

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All those magic moments, and we still have 5 to go! Tomorrow we get Brad’s top-5 HarbourCat moments…

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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!

HarbourCatNip

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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