Well folks, this is it. The last home series of the season begins tonight against the Yakima Valley Pippins. For the first time in our history though, it is not the end of HarbourCats baseball for the year, it’s merely another milestone in what has been an epic season. For the Pippins as well – they come in as the second-half winners in the South division and are moving on to the playoffs themselves come next week. Yakima will play first–half winner Corvallis in the divisional round.
Could this weekend’s series be a WCL championship preview? Maybe so. Victoria’s first round opponent is still unknown as the Walla Walla Sweets are still in the hunt, trailing the Bellingham Bells by two games with three to play. If the Bells lose all three games in Wenatchee this weekend while the Sweets sweep the visiting Kelowna Falcons, they will be hosting game 1 of the North Division final. Never say never, but I don’t like Sweet Lou’s chances… A date with the Bells seems inevitable for Victoria.
But before that, let’s not forget about the three games that will end the regular season! It will be a weekend of excitement at the park with lots of fan appreciation activities, fireworks, and of course, a shot at yet another record – 40 wins in a season. The team sits at 38 coming in, and winning two of three is certainly something within reach. Even if key players are being rested for next week, the Pippins will be doing the same so the playing field is leveled. Not that either team carries a “second string”, both teams have done a good job this season of managing playing time fairly evenly amongst all of their remaining bodies. Don’t forget – this is a development league above all else, and nobody signs up to ride the pine all season. Most everybody ends up getting comparable game time.
At this point in the season, it’s all about pitchers of course. Playoff starters will be on rest – Mitchell, McAffer, and Dondanville are out of the picture this weekend for sure, and the bullpen may be shortened as well to save some key arms. Not that it’s going to be easy for the Pippins… Friday the Cats throw Cameron Schneider (4-0, 3.07 ERA), Saturday they will send out Blake Hannah (3-3, 2.91 ERA), and Sunday Kyle Mora (0-0, 9.91 ERA) gets the start. Look for Schneider to have a shorter outing, as he’s in a position to be valuable long relief if needed in the first playoff set. Yakima had originally planned to have top arm Gavin Velasquez (7-2, 2.01 ERA) start Friday, but I’d be surprised to see him now that they have clinched. He would be an obvious game 1 or 2 starter come next week, as would 8-game winner Zach Draper whom we also won’t see. They have not announced any other pitchers for this set for the same reason, so it will be a game time surprise.
In the field, expect similar care being taken on both sides to maybe rest a couple of key bodies. As mentioned in our last post, the HarbourCats are molding a fairly consistent lineup to end off the season. Austin Guibor has been solid in RF, and coach Merritt has had him in the lead-off or 2-spot as he tries to ignite his bat. Ben Polshuk played a game in to outfield in the last series, but look for him to man one of the infield corners. I’d say watch for Jake Stone and Matt Lautz to get some extended play time this weekend. Both guys are working through extended hitting slumps that it would be nice to break before next week. Stone is hitless in his last 12, while Lautz hasn’t registered a hit in his last 15. The once streaking Brad Pluschkell has also had a tough time of late, going 4 for his last 21. On the positive side, Ryan Anderson continues to be on fire with his increased playing time – his 8 for 23 (.348), 8 hits, and 6 RBI led the team this week. PJ Floyd and Riley Guntrip have also had a good week, each going 5 for 15. On the season, AJ Alcantara remains at the top hitting .356 on 36 hits. Once again, he will fall short of the WCL minimum of 2.7 at bats per team game.
Soapbox interjection moment (again…): I appreciate there has to be a minimum so that you don’t have a 10-day guy winning your batting title, but in a development league, teams that platoon guys in and out will never be able to be considered for the title. Alcantara has 101 AB’s, last year Andreychuk had 104… This year only Brad Pluschkell has enough at-bats to reach the 2.7 limit. How about the league change this to a minimum number of at bats? At this point in time, there are only 18 players across the league with enough at-bats to qualify for the title. What good is that?
Sigh… In other news, PJ Floyd leads with 27 runs scored, while Anderson and Polshuk lead all remaining players with 20 RBI each (the departed Joe Prior has 25).
In this series, overall the teams stack up fairly close to each other. Victoria still leads the WCL in most offensive categories, including a combined .276 batting average, 307 runs scored, and 621 total bases. Yakima hits just behind at a .267 combined, but leads the WCL in total hits with 468, and in an obscure stat, they have the most hit batters with 58. The big surprise is the Pippins complete lack of power – the team has hit only 3 home runs all year, with no player hitting more than 1. Victoria leads the WCL in that category with 22.
On the mound the tables are turned, as the Pippins have a league-leading 2.55 combined ERA which is nearly a run per game under Victoria’s 3.22. As expected with those numbers, Yakima has given up the fewest earned runs of any WCL team with 131, 29 fewer than Victoria. Total runs allowed goes to Victoria however – the team has given up a stingy 182 runs this season. The difference is in Victoria’s defense. The HarbourCats have given up only 22 earned runs this season on 51 errors. That’s an obscenely low number of errors at this level – the rest of the WCL is averaging 76 to this point. We don’t talk much about fielding, but those are outstanding numbers. One other interesting area remains catcher efficiency. Twenty one passed balls put Victoria in the middle of the league, but the team has an extremely low number of runners thrown out – 14 in total (a 17% clip). Joe Prior never did manage to throw out a single runner this season, not that he had much of a chance – teams have only tried 68 steals against HarbourCats catchers this season (a stat shared with Yakima, although they have caught 22 of them for a higher 24%).
All those stats mean one thing – this should be a very close series, and an ever better league championship pairing should things work out that way. For these three games however, let’s enjoy the experience of ending the regular season at home, which we didn’t get to experience last year. Cheer on the boys to their 40th win, and start putting the game face on for playoff baseball!