It’s hard to believe it was one week ago tonight that the HarbourCats bowed out of the West Coast League playoffs at the hands of the Bellingham Bells. Since then, the Bells have been locked in battle with the Corvallis Knights – the series is tied at a game each, with both teams winning on the road. The final game is tonight in Corvallis. Don’t forget you can listen in on the Bells radio network here.
This past Monday, the West Coast League announced its yearly award winners, and placed six HarbourCats on the All-WCL teams (5 first-team, 1 second team). In addition to the players, both the Executive team led by Jim Swanson and the coaching staff led by Graig Merritt won awards – Exec of the year for Jim, and Coach of the Year for Graig. A huge accomplishment for a second-year coach, but well deserved knowing how hard he works each and every night.
His intensity on the field is matched by his graciousness off it, and it’s always a pleasure to sit down with him. I spoke with head coach Merritt to recap the year, look to the future, and talk about his experiences leading Victoria to the best season in WCL history.
Tell me about the final game (the 12-1 playoff loss to Bellingham), and the tough ending to the season – how was the mood in the clubhouse after it was all over?
It was bitter-sweet for sure. A lot of people were emotional, I know I was emotional. The team had gelled together [this season] with all the games we were winning and records we were chasing – that started happening back in June. It was sad to see it end and have to say goodbye, those are friendships they will have for life – with each other and with me. Winning and losing is such a fine line. We all learned a lot about it, but really… we lost a baseball game. We had a great season. I understand that fans want you to win every game and win it all – I get that – but everyone in that clubhouse was very proud of what we accomplished this season. We had no big speeches after the game, in fact we didn’t even talk about that game we just played. It was all about the season and the positives we took out of it, and the experience we got to share with each other. That was [our focus] after that game, it was quite special to be part of.
We all loved the 19 game winning streak that became the sports talk of the town. Was it as exciting to play to as it was to watch, or did it become extra weight and pressure as it went on?
There were no negatives of that streak whatsoever. When we got around 10 wins it was like nobody was going to touch us. When we got to 14 you could feel the pressure because the record was coming up. Games 15-19 and when we smoked Kelowna, that was pretty special. Up and down the lineup, [the players] thought that we wouldn’t lose again all summer. With 30 or so games left, they honestly thought we would go 30-0 from there. The attitude they brought to the park every day was special – sure I thought we would win every game, but not like these kids… they believed in it.
How to win Is something you hope to teach every summer. If you can develop a winner, you’re developing a quality player. Part of being a ball player is learning that. I try and create that culture, and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that as a coaching staff this summer.
Did things change after the streak? Did the team lose some of its intensity?
After we lost that one double-header game, we won 6 of the next 7, so at 26-1 we were still on a role. Then guys started leaving. We lost Costello, we lost Steindorf, and is seemed like someone poked a hole in the balloon. I was texting guys after a couple losses saying “Hey if you don’t go home, we win this game!”. We missed Costello – he was a guy you could go to early or late, he could eat up innings, as many as you need. He was a weapon out of that bullpen we just didn’t have any more. I get the injuries, but if nobody healthy leaves, we win 45-46 games easy.
Was that the high point of the season in your mind?
The 19 [game streak] is up there, but it just kind of happened organically. I’d say the 40th win was the high point for me. I had let my emotions get out of hand and got tossed out [of the Friday Yakima game], and I honestly think we win that game and maybe finish with 41 if I don’t – but winning 40 the way we did was special.
That said, the 40 wins record I think can be broken in this league, but the 19 wins in a row will be around for a long time. If I’m back next season, I want to break 40 wins.
Who really surprised you this year, who exceeded your expectations?
Tommy Jew did for sure. I didn’t know what to expect, but he’s a great player – I don’t think he over-achieved, but he was special. Riley Guntrip did well – he impressed me for sure. They both contributed in massive ways for us all season.
How about leadership? Who really stepped into and embraced the leadership role on the club?
AJ Alcantara no question. The way he conducts himself – he’s not a rah-rah guy, but when he speaks people listen. When he plays people watch him. The way was he is on and off the field, he’s a true leader. It was special to have him for two years.
Now that the season is over, it’s time to think about next year. Will we see Graig Merritt back in on the HarbourCat bench next year?
I would love to come back – who wouldn’t with the location, the team management, the host families – everything. Places like Bellingham are nice, but Victoria is the top of the list as far as I’m concerned. Jim [Swanson], Rich [harder], Ken [Swanson], and John [Wilson]… these guys are running the best organization I’ve coached in and one of the best programs in North America. The whole group has treated me with nothing but respect. There’s a sit-down coming in a few days and we’ll see where that goes. I’d love to be back in Victoria.
Even before that though, things are underway for next year already, as they were last year?
The end of the season was so intense, and we were just dialed in. It all ended so fast – I said to the guys 10 minutes before the first pitch in Bellingham that we might be done in 27 hours, and we were. Now that it’s over, we need to start aggressively building for next year. Even not knowing my future, we need to be on that – and we have been. We already have 9 or 10 players signed for next year, and I’m trying to do everything I can for [Victoria] to get us top players from top programs here for next year.
[Ed Note: In a recent Times Colonist article, Jim Swanson confirmed the club’s desire to have Graig back for year three, but recognized that with the success he’s found here, his phone may be ringing with other opportunities as well. Still, both parties seem pretty fond of each other so we’ll have to wait and see what happens… Stay tuned!]
It’s tough to say that with 40 wins, we didn’t have what it takes to win it all – were we missing anything this year in your mind?
We needed more power arms. Velocity, velocity, and more velocity. It’s not always about that – look at Blake Hannah who was lights out throwing mid-80’s – but we needed guys throwing harder and faster. They are hard to find – guys like that get shut down for the summer at this level and they don’t get sent out [to play summer ball]. There are some around though – I saw them in Corvallis, Bellingham, Yakima… Cowlitz had three guys throwing 94 against us one night so they are out there. We didn’t have many of those guys this year.
Was that the key difference in bowing out early versus winning the championship?
If we had the same team on the field we had 5-6 weeks ago, with Joe Prior, Dakota Dean, Austin Guibor, Jake Stone, Casey Costello… Bellingham had power pitching – they had that over us for sure, and we would have had troubles with them, but we would have beaten them with some of those missing characters. They had depth, but we still had pitching. Mitchell’s injury [before the final game] was freak. We were going to have to grind it out. We needed to steal that game in Bellingham to have a chance to win it at home. That was a great game, an old-school game that came down to the wire, losing by a run on a [broken-bat single].
So the impact of departing players hurt the team cause down the stretch?
It’s disappointing that in the WCL, players can just come and go as they want. Some of those kids left with minor injuries, or to take a class, or for reasons unknown. There’s no other level where that happens. These kids can’t leave their college teams, they couldn’t leave minor-league teams – in fact if you’re in a pennant race in the minor leagues, they bring more guys in to build that team. In this league, you get too many kids – on every team, not just our team – that can’t wait to get out of here, win or lose. It’s hard for me to see, after we have put all this time in, from basically the final day of the last season until the end of Wednesday’s [final] game, to have these kids tell us they are leaving because they have a sore back, or they have to take a class, or they are homesick. That’s disappointing.
The West coast season is pretty grueling – does the length and intensity of it impact the ability to keep guys here for the duration?
It has to be a pro experience. Other leagues do three-games a week, but we need a full schedule. I talked about it with Bend’s [GM and Head Coach] Casey Powell. He’s had experience and coached in the Alaska league where they start a week later and end a week earlier. That [reduced season] was just perfect. The other part of it is dealing with the semester and quarter system of US schools. We don’t get the majority of our players until mid-June, and you’re already 12 games into the season. That’s past the make or break point already for the whole first half.
If the WCL wants to be as good as [some other summer leagues], they need to look at shortening the season, and play a 45-game schedule. And they should have a prospects game not an All-star game mid-season. But this is a business, and to ask the owners to give up four or five [home] gates a year on both ends… I don’t know.
The other thing people don’t understand is what we go through when we play series in Cowlitz or Bend. We can’t just drive home to our house that night and wake up the next morning ready to go. We have to sit at the ferry until 7:00am, and we don’t get back to the park until 9:30-10:00am – and we always play the same night. We do that for the entire schedule. Getting to 40 wins while playing in Victoria – there’s gotta be some kind of asterisk on the record because of that.
Any immediate plans for the rest of the summer?
Just decompress the season. I’ll head home and spend some time with my family and friends. See my dogs, and maybe head east to check in on some family and friends out there. That’s was most important for me for sure.
The blog would like to thank coach Merritt for his support this season, his candidness and willingness to talk, and for directing a great season at the park to write about! We wish him congratulations on his well-deserved accolades for this season, and nothing but the best of luck. Victoria would be lucky to have him back on the bench in 2017!