Playoff baseball begins – Divisional Series Game 1 preview

Well folks, this is it. The dance, the big show, the rare air. It’s the playoffs – a place the HarbourCats have never been. In fact, as long as I’ve been blogging about baseball – through the Seals years, the off-years, and the HarbourCats years, this is the first ever “Playoff Series Preview” on the blog. Feels pretty special I must say.

So here we are, round 1. It’s not as bad as a weekend fastball tournament where it’s a one-game-takes-all affair, but it’s not far from it. A best 2 of 3 doesn’t leave much room for error, so both teams will be pulling out all the stops to get past the first round in two games.

Merritt prep

Head coach Graig Merritt preps down in Bellingham

The series starts in Bellingham for the first game, then back in Victoria for games two and three – a decision that was made by Victoria once they clinched the first-half title. Done that way for a couple of reasons – why would you not want to have the extra game at home, both from a fan support perspective and a team revenue perspective? Seems like a no-brainer, unless you’re in the camp where you would like to win the first game at home and put pressure on the other team going home. I could see that working in some parks, but not in Victoria. The HarbourCats 10th man should outweigh any psychological advantage the Bells would have going up one. So we get games two and three at Royal Athletic on Wednesday and Thursday.

Bellingham comes in as WCL playoff veterans, this being their fourth trip to the post season in the past five years. Last year they lost to Kelowna in the first round, in 2014 they won the league title. It’s commonplace for the Bells and their fans, being part of post-season ball. Not so much for Victoria – there have been many things written and said about Victoria not seeing playoff baseball in the past 64 years (since 1952), but then again, we hadn’t seen baseball of any kind in 55 of those. The HarbourCats organization has done a great job of whipping the city into a playoff frenzy around here, and record crowds are expected to turn out and push the team into the next round.

It’s not going to be easy though. Bellingham showed in the second half that they are more than a worthy opponent. Both teams finished the second half with identical 17-10 records, with the Bells taking the second half title because of their 4-2 record in the two series the teams played against each other. In fact the Bells came from behind in the ninth inning of their last game of the season to take the second-half title from Victoria. They went 8-2 in their final 10 games while Victoria went 7-3.

As coach Graig Merritt would say though… Who cares. What really matters is what happens next. With these two teams, and let’s face it with any playoff baseball teams, it all comes down to pitching. Who has the better starter that can go longer, and keep the other team from putting up crooked numbers inning after inning. Does Victoria have that edge over Bellingham? Well that’s where it gets interesting… These two teams have played each other six times in the past 25 days, and either by fluke or by design, neither has a good idea of what they will see as far as pitching. Victoria starters Austin Dondanville didn’t throw a pitch, and assumed game 2 starter Josh Mitchell faced only a single batter in relief. Will McAffer got in a start and a relief appearance, throwing a total of 8 innings of 1-hit ball – and he’s the game 3 guy! Likewise, Bells ace and game 1 starter Jon Olsen didn’t throw a pitch in the six games. In game 2 we may get Nick Silva whom we did see, or Tyler Palm who we did not. We could see Spencer Howard or even Gio Lopez for a game as well, and don’t forget about lefty Zach Johnson, who is the only Bell still around from the 2014 championship team. It’s a bit of a guess at this point, as the Bells have started seven different pitchers in the last week while trying to find the magic to win the division.

Game 1 Starters

jon_olsen

Olsen dominating of late

As mentioned, Jon Olsen is the only given at this point. Olsen, a UCLA Sophomore, has really found his arm in the second half. He started 0-2 and had a 7.20 ERA at one point, then turned his season around. He ended the season at 5-2 with a 2.11 ERA – but take those first two games away, and he pitched 32.1 innings of ball over 5 starts, giving up 2 earned runs on 16 total hits. That’s a 0.55 ERA over that span.

 

Dondo1.JPG

Dondo masters his game

 

Of course Victoria’s Game 1 starter Austin Dondanville (6-1, 1.72 ERA) is equally impressive. We haven’t actually seen Dondo much this season… He’s made only 2 starts at home, his last was the big win on July 1. It’s a trend that continues tonight in Bellingham -he’s Victoria’s road warrior for sure this season. Where Dondanville shine is on his overall command of the game. His WHIP is one of the lowest in the league at 0.82, giving up only 10 walks all season in his 52.1 innings of work. Opponents his a paltry .172 when he’s on the mound.

Players to Watch

The Bells were led all season long by All-Star OF Shane Hanon. He ended up taking the WCL Batting title (as one of the only 18 players eligible) by hitting .331 on 56 hits with 16 RBI. In the 6 games against Victoria he went 5 for 20 with a couple of doubles and a home run. Victoria also had trouble with lefty OF Austin Shenton who went 6 for 14 with 4 walks in five games, but he didn’t end up impacting games at all as he scored only once and drove in only a single run. The same cannot be said for C David Banuelos, who touched HarbourCat pitching for 5 RBI on 6 for 21 hitting. 2B/DH Dean Lawson finished second on the team in batting with a .318 average, and hit over .400 in 3 games against Victoria. As a team, Bellingham hit a modest .235 in the six games.

stump1

Riley Guntrip looks to continue ringing the Bells pitching staff

On the Victoria side, 3B Brad Pluschkell had 7 hits against the Bells in six games, while Riley Guntrip and AJ Alcantara had 6 each. Victoria presented a balanced attack against the Bells in the six games, with 10 different players registering at least 1 RBI.  Victoria’s lineup has changed significantly however, with 5 players no longer with the team (Dean, Cannon, Prior, Stone, and Guibor). As a team, Victoria hit slightly better at .242 against Bellingham this year.

 

Team side by side comparisons

Offense: Here’s how the two teams stack up against each other offensively (all games, not just head-to-head).

Bells batting compare

As you can see from all of the green, the HarbourCats dominated the league offensively  this season, leading in most key categories. Bellingham isn’t far behind, coming in as the 4th ranked offense. The true difference between the teams is the crazy number of hits Victoria managed this year which obviously gives Victoria a few more base runners per game, and the slugging percentage which turns those hits into runs. Also notice the incredibly low number of errors Victoria made this year – 56 is the lowest number of team errors since 2012.

Defense: Here’s how the pitching plays out:

Bells Pitching compare

Similar to offense, lots of league-best numbers for Victoria, although Bellingham comes in with a lower overall 2.95 ERA. Numbers that stand out are Victoria’s Opponent Batting Average being a minuscule .219 – lower than any WCL team’s season average, pointing to Victoria being the toughest team to hit against by quite a margin. The low 382 hits allowed is another demonstration of this. Victoria’s league-worst 20 home runs given up is a result of playing in Victoria, where the home-run fence doesn’t help. Pitchers gave up 7 on the road, 13 at home.

All those stats and a buck-eighty-five will get you a Timmies double-double though. We all know they are good for planning, not great for helping you execute. If they play out, Victoria should win the series, but not handily. The series will not be won by any one factor, but will most certainly be decided on a combined effort by all. Before the series is over, a hero will emerge – be it a key out recorded, or a clutch 2-out single. That’s the excitement of the playoffs for you! All we can do now, is sit back and take it all in…

HarbourCatNip

  • Sunday’s game was the last game for both Austin Guibor and Jake Stone. Both players have returned home rather than stay for the playoffs. We wish them the best of luck in the future.
  • Don’t just wait for tonight’s score to show up on your twitter/email feed – listen in on the Bells radio network. Play-by-play man Tom Prizeman does a great job of the broadcasts and is a knowledgeable host worth lending an ear to. Check out their live broadcast link on the Bells site here.

 

Note: Jon Olsen photo credit goes to Niall On Baseball!
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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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