HarbourCats lineup solidifying as playoffs draw near

The blog is back after a successful (if not overly expensive) trip to Toronto to watch a couple of Blue Jays games. It was a fun time, saw a couple big Jays wins, but I found myself missing our own boys of summer down on Caledonia. A lot has happened since the last one, so here’s a couple highlights for ya…

Back when the first half streak finally ended, some folks around the league were heard to say that Victoria’s streak wasn’t near as impressive because they hadn’t played any “good” teams yet, and that the teams they were beating had mostly losing records. Sour grapes for sure, one would have to look at why those teams were losing so many games… Maybe because they have played Victoria already? Apart from the HarbourCats, only 5 of the other 10 teams managed a .500 or better record. Had the tables been turned and the teams played in the first half beaten Victoria, 8 or 10 would have had winning records.

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HarbourCats: Contributing to your losing record with pleasure!

Since the midway point – and while playing those “contending” teams, Victoria continues to hold their own and is still leading the second half with a 13-9 record. Better teams like Bellingham and Corvalis have provided steeper challenges yes, but the ‘Cats have bent more than they have broken. The series down in Corvalis shaped up to be the best series of the year pitting first-half winners against each other, and Victoria took two of three from the Knights. The game they lost by a 9-2 score wasn’t even as bad as it looked, and if not for a missed double-play and a passed ball that cost Austin Dondanville his first loss of the season, it could have easily gone the other way.

Still, 13-9 is not bad – especially in a second-half where only Wenatchee has dropped out of the playoff hunt so far in the North. It’s safe to say that not playing Victoria in the second half is helping teams keep their playoff hopes alive for sure.

So what of those playoffs? Well we all know Victoria is in thanks to their first-half win. With the win last night in Kitsap, Victoria clinched the league title for 2016 as well, ensuring them “home field advantage” in the second round. In the WCL, that means picking if you want the first game on the road with games 2 and 3 at home, or do you want the opposite? Like the first round, I can’t imagine anyone would ever pick the “one home game” option…  The second half will go down to the wire it looks like, as Bellingham, Kelowna, and Walla Walla all have a legitimate shot at it. Of course if Victoria continues to win, those teams will really be playing for second place, but that would be good enough to make it to the dance.

Realistically, Victoria doesn’t care much about winning the second-half title – coach Merritt was quoted as such on the Bells broadcast last week as saying it wasn’t something they were shooting for. Maybe that’s true, but there are a couple of things at stake the team is aiming for to end the season – winning 40 games to set the WCL record for wins in a regular season, and making sure the team is ready for the  short but intense playoff run.

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Casper will be a key out of the playoff bullpen

The problem is that these two goals may be contradictory. With 36 wins and only 5 games left, it doesn’t leave much room for error. Victoria is currently lining up the pitching staff for the playoffs, going through the big three starters in the Kitsap series to make sure they are rested (Dondo, then Will McAffer, then Josh Mitchell). Once they return to Victoria for the final three, all bets are off on what the rotation may look like. With potentially 2 more victories needed, those three are off the table for helping out, as I would think are significant innings for key bullpen guys like Casper and Lyons. Even if a game is close and all we need is an inning, don’t expect that winning that 40th game is more important than the playoff alignment – because it’s not. Recent starters like Schneider and Mora are likely candidates, but I would think Schneider’s arm is one of those ones you would rest in case a starter implodes early. We will have to wait and see…

Of the three teams in the hunt in the North, the one that spawns the most worry has to be Bellingham. In six games against them over the past two weeks, the Bells were able to win four of them – the only team to hold a winning record over Victoria this season. In each of the two Bells series, Victoria lost a game outright, gave one away late, and then responded with a win. The problem with this is that in a best of three playoff series, it’s only the first two that count. Bellingham pitching matches up very well with Victoria, and they should be spending the last week aligning themselves for the series as well – their disadvantage is that they cannot afford to keep key arms out of stretch games and risk losing the division. The best situation for Victoria would be having them come down to the final game in a must-win situation where it’s all hands on deck to get the win. They finish the season against bottom dweller Wenatchee though, so that’s a bit of a pipe-dream.

Kelowna and Walla Walla also have somewhat of a shot – the Sweets could have all but punched their ticket by winning games against the ‘Cats last weekend, but the Victoria sweep really hurts their chances. For Kelowna to have a legitimate chance, they need to rebound from last night’s loss in Bellingham and take 2 of three from the Bells before hosting Walla Walla. Honestly, I don’t see either of these teams being able to dominate enough to get passed the Bells. Look to see B2 here in August.

On the Victoria side, with the season coming to a close and playoffs looming, the team is undergoing some adjustments with the roster to set things up as well. If you have been paying attention to the box scores over the past week, you will see the lineup is not what it was, but it’s getting pretty solidified.

First off, it’s important to note who you don’t see on the scorecard:

  • Griffin Andreychuk is still not back in the lineup after being plonked on the noodle in Bend back on July 17th. Not making light of it – Griff has taken some time to rest, have some planned (and unrelated) dental surgery performed, and deal with the concussion protocol. He may still return for the playoffs, but no guarantees.
  • Also missing are SS Cameron Cannon and C Joe Prior. Cannon was reportedly suffering from a bad back and asked to return home for some needed rest. Prior also fell victim to concussion symptoms after being hit by a pitch in Bend (different game and pitcher than Griff). He didn’t disclose the issue immediately and played a few more games before finally giving in and heading home this past weekend.
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Ryan Anderson is making the most of his increased playing time

So with those three regulars out of the lineup, the rest of the team is moving around to step into their key roles… AJ Alcantara has won his spot in left field, and Jake Stone and Austin Guibor seem to have regular jobs in CF and RF. Matt Lautz, Jarron Silva, and Dakota Dean fill in where needed or take the DH role. Brad Pluschkell is solidly at 3B, and Ryan Anderson has really seized his opportunity – his hot bat of late has helped him become a regular at the 2B spot. Tommy Jew becomes the regular SS while Riley Guntrip has taken the lead behind the plate with Hayden Jaco backing him up. Ben Polshuk should see the majority of the first base duties, perhaps sharing with PJ Floyd. PJ is capable of playing pretty much any position and will get valuable innings all around the diamond as needed

On the mound, the lineup remains strong, with 12 pitchers still in town. No major departures of late (and a bullpen that has been managed about as good as can be hoped for over the past week) have the crew operating at full capacity. As mentioned earlier, as the team prepares for the playoff rounds you can expect to see more from some lesser-used arms than you have before.

This week, there are two more games in Kitsap against the Blue Jackets, then the team returns home to close out the regular season against the Yakima Valley Pippens. This will be the HarbourCats last two games ever in  Kitsap – the team will be relocated in 2017 after a terrible year at the gate. Attendance has steadily declined in the last month, down to a season-low 100 fans at last night’s game. Their 163 fan average this season has sealed their fate – look for the franchise to land in Port Angeles next year.

On the exact opposite side of the coin, fans at Friday’s game here in Victoria will help the team reach 50,000 fans on the season. Victoria could end the season close to 57,000 fans through the turnstiles, a number seemingly impossible four years ago. Add in the possibility of 4 playoff games, and 75k on the season is not unreachable. Whatever that final number is, one thing is for certain – baseball in Victoria has become a vital part of the summer activity plan. If you don’t have your tickets for round 1 yet, you better make friends with people in the apartments over on Pembroke if you want to catch a glimpse of the first playoff baseball in Victoria since the 50s…

More Toronto road trip musings (in case you’re interested)

First off, who takes a road trip in the middle of the WCL season? Sometimes you can’t help the way family schedules fall – but I think I’ll take a three-game home series with our boys any day – here’s my crazy Roger’s center comparatives:

  • Even if you’re coming from the far side of Sooke, I’ll gladly put up with the 40 minute windy car ride over the 5 hour Air Canada trip that bounces its way across Manitoba in a hail storm!
  • Parking near the ballpark? Lots of close free stuff here, but in TO you park about ten blocks away at a cost of about $30 a game!
  • Field box seats? You can sit in the box seats for a Jays game a) if you knew somebody b) if you want to pay $1,200 a game. Or you could sit in the same seats at a HarbourCats game – and see two seasons worth for the same price!
  • A famous Skydome foot-long (they renamed it, but I’m all about the retro feel) will set you back $12. Or, you could get 3 RAP dogs for the same price. That’s 5 inches of dog x 3, or 15” of total dog.And who wouldn’t like three extra inches..?
  • And you will want a drink to wash that down… My $9 coke collectors cup came with a free refill at least, too bad the $8.00 beer didn’t…
  • Kids could run the bases on Saturday at Rogers. That sounded like fun, but the line extended along the concourse for seventeen sections – there must have been over 10,000 people waiting with their kids for a chance to run the bases. You could watch a WCL double-header in the time it took to get them all through the line…
  • Admittedly, I’d take the 50-50 though… Saturday’s winning number took home over $47,000.

Not complaining at all – just pointing out how great a deal seeing a ball-game is in Victoria. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to do that all summer!

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About Brian

Avid baseball blogger since June 2012. Blogger, photographer, and graphics designer for both the defunct Victoria Seals Baseball Blog, and the first edition of the Victoria HarbourCats blog.
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