If there is one thing different about the Victoria HarbourCats this season compared to previous seasons, it’s that this 2016 version seems… complete. I think it’s the significant influence of the returning players, the established coaching staff (although I can’t help but think that pitching coach Alec Adame is being greatly missed), and an improved off-season vision that looked for key role players and a more experienced roster. This team seems more like an enhanced version of last year’s squad rather than a completely new entity. A three game sweep against the newly minted Gresham GreyWolves proved that this old and new mix can be a deadly combination.
Tuesday saw the return of local hero Griffin Andreychuk, and one of last year’s most charismatic players in AJ Alcantara. All those two did, is each go 3-4 with Alcantara picking up a key insurance RBI in the bottom of the eighth inning, as Victoria won 2-0. It was HarbourCat pitching that stole the night however, as starter Will McAffer gave up only 2 hits in 5.2 innings of work, while fanning 9 Gresham batters in the process. Relievers Colin Ashworth (.1 inning) and Holden Lyons (3.0 innings) were solid in preserving the shutout.
Wednesday saw another old friend in Ben Polshuk return to the lineup, and all he added to the mix, was a pair of towering home runs in a 3-4 debut with 4 RBI. Not to be outdone, newcomers Riley Guntrip chipped in with a 2-3 night with 2 RBI, and in his first game as a Cat, OF Jake Stone went 2-5
Thursday in the blazing sun of the first day game of the season, Victoria was once again able to hold Gresham to only 4 hits, riding some key defensive plays and solid pitching to a hard-fought 3-2 win. Victoria scattered 11 hits but were unable to mount a concentrated offence until the fifth inning, when an RBI single by Andreychuk and a Gresham error put the Cats up by 2. After giving both runs back in the top of the sixth, Victoria got a gift winning run in the bottom of the inning on two wild pitches that scored LF Matt Smith. Andreychuk was again 3-4 on the afternoon, while Smith and Brad Pluschkell had 2 hits each.
The three wins was Victoria’s third sweep in a row, and set the winning streak at eight, one shy of the team record nine set last July. Oh and the blip in attendance last week seemed to right itself, with crowds of 1300 and 1400 before the school-kid infused 3100 day game. Let’s hope last week’s anomaly was just that…
Cowlitz comes to town for the weekend hoping to end the HarbourCats streak and build on their own 6-5 record. Only two players remain from the 2015 Black Bears – Pitcher Seth Rayburn, and 1B Lorin Archibald. Cowlitz has a surprisingly small team actually, bringing only 13 position players and 16 pitchers to town. By comparison, Victoria has 20 position players and 17 pitchers on the active roster. The Bears had players drafted in last weekend’s MLB draft, including one from their current pitching staff, RHP Rian Bassett.
The Black Bears are led by the returning Archibald who is currently hitting .429 on 15 hits along with 6 RBI and 7 runs scored.Including part-time players, the Bears have 7 players – or half their roster – hitting over .300, giving them a team .287 BA. Victoria is slightly higher at .291. Cowlitz is similar to Victoria in most hitting stats, but has played two more games than the HarbourCats.
Pitching has been the Bears Achilles heel so far this season though. A team-high 4.70 ERA ranks them near the bottom of the WCL, and is a full 1.7 runs higher than Victoria’s 3.00. The staff is led by outstanding starting RHP Kevin Baker, a sophomore from the U of Portland. Baker is 2-0 so far, sporting a paltry 0.75 ERA over 2 games, including 7.0 innings of shutout ball against the Sweets last week. They also have an outstanding lefty starter in Damon Jones, also a sophomore from Washington State. Jones is also 2-0, bringing a 1.54 ERA in 11.2 innings of work. Beyond these two starters though, things get a bit dicey. The relief core sits at a whopping 7.52 ERA in 31 innings of work. Get into the pen, and get the win seems to be the way to beat this Bears team.
Cowlitz hasn’t announced their starters for the series yet, but given the days rest since they pitched last, I suspect we will see both Baker and Jones starting in this series, which will be a good test for Victoria batters.
Victoria will go with Josh Mitchell (0-0) Friday night, Jack Wolger in his first HarbourCat appearance Saturday, and Will McAffer (1-1) on Father’s Day Sunday. Victoria pitchers are holding opposing batters to a league-low .199 batting average and .233 slugging percentage – meaning that even though hits are being given up, they are being held to singles only. Victoria pitchers have given up only a single home run all season, none at RAP.
As one would expect with an 8-game winning streak underway, Victoria has great numbers on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Cats have 11 players hitting over the .300 mark, and 5 are hitting .400 or better. The team sits second behind only Yakima Valley at a lofty .291. Victoria is also leading the league in runs scored (64), doubles (19), on-base percentage (.379), and slugging percentage (.376).
This last week saw the new additions step right in with big games, including Andreychuk hitting .615, Matt Lautz and Ben Polshuk both at .500, Brad Pluschkell at .429, and Jake Stone at an even .400. My pleasant surprise of the year remains Riley Guntrip who is seeing extended playing time and is sitting at .381. I can’t help but thing that Guntrip will come out of the summer with the most learned and most advancement of any HarbourCat. Good on him!
It would be tough not to pick another sweep by the HarbourCats, as they haven’t shown much weakness this season, even against tough pitching. The Cowlitz bullpen should make any game winnable in the late innings, as long as Victoria’s staff keeps them close. Until proven otherwise, this HarbourCat team seems to be the one everyone will be chasing this season. That and the fact that they haven’t lost yet when my buddy Ted has a bag of mini donuts – and he loves him some donuts. I fully expect both streak to continue this weekend…