A few minutes with new HarbourCat coach Brian McRae

The big announcement from last week that set the Victoria sports scene buzzing, was that the HarbourCats had ended their relationship with Head Coach Graig Merritt – that’s WCL Coach of the Year Graig Merritt – and have brought in 10-year MLB veteran Brian McRae for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Rumors started to fly instantly on the reasons why the change was made – was Merritt not the right fit? Was the team disappointed with the playoff loss? Was it a personality conflict between ownership and coaching staff?

Much has been said and written on the reasoning behind the move, with a few common themes emerging:

  • There were NO issues at all with what Graig Merritt did for the team and the city, his time here earned him nothing but respect for what he accomplished with the team.
  • The WCL is a developmental league for both players and coaches, and this is not a firing but a “moving on” for a coach to a new opportunity.
  • It was likely Merritt would get offers from other organizations/leagues/programs and could be pulled away before the 2017 season begins, leaving the HarbourCats with a hole to fill.
  • There’s nothing left for Merritt to do here next year. 2016 would be a tough season to surpass, and unless he pilots a 45+ win season with a championship, anything else would look like a failure…Get out on top!

I can see the reasoning in all of those, yet I can also see that it’s outside standard practice to get rid of a guy who a week before was named the best in the league at what he does. Like anything else though, this is a business, and the long-term sustainability of the team is focus number one at the office over on Vancouver Street. In the end, Graig Merritt will be just fine without the HarbourCats – his baseball IQ, winning attitude, and now proven track record make him instantly valuable all across baseball. I personally can’t wait to see where Graig hangs his hat next year, he’ll be successful wherever it is…

But enough about what has happened, let’s look to the future. Brian McRae is the man running the show now, as he becomes the fourth head coach in HarbourCat history. I had the opportunity to speak with Brian about coming to Victoria next summer, and learn a little more about the experience and desire he’ll bring with him…

BrianM Royals CardOf course plenty has been written about Brian McRae around here in the past few days – his 10 year MLB career with teams like the Royals, Cubs, and Blue Jays, and about his years broadcasting for the likes of WGN, MLB, and ESPN. His resume also includes a couple coaching stints in collegiate and summer league baseball. Outside of baseball, we know Brian devotes much of his time to charities like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Cystic Fibrosis, and cancer research. He’s currently running a non-profit program called the Kansas City Sluggers baseball, which provides youth aged 14-18 from the Kansas City area the opportunity to play baseball in situations where they can be seen by college recruiters and scouts, and helps these young men gain the experience and focus needed to become collegiate ball players.

Brian MissouWhat you may not know about Brian McRae, is that this week he is actually back in school taking classes at Missouri University, enabling him to become “Student manager” for the Mizzou Tigers baseball program. Don’t let the title fool you – McRae will spend the college year coaching the Tigers alongside head coach Steve Bieser, not refilling the Gatorade bucket and washing uniforms! It will be a unique experience for the 48 year old, as he never attended college as a student in his youth.  McRae had planned to attend the University of Kansas to play both baseball and football (and was offered a football scholarship to do it), but when the Royals selected him in the first round of the 1985 draft, he jumped at the opportunity to play pro baseball instead. His best years in the show were interrupted by the strike of 1994 (ask any Expos fan you know about that horrible year in baseball) when he was among league leaders in singles and stolen bases. The following year, after being traded to the Cubs, he finished fourth in hits in the National league.

While it might seem like McRae’s addition to the HarbourCats seems a bit out of the blue and unexpected, it’s actually been in the works for some time. Back in 2014 when Bob Miller was removed as coach, then GM Jim Swanson had contacted McRae about the job. At that time though, with his father going through some health issues, McRae removed his name from the short list thinking it would be unfair to Victoria if he had to later pull out for family reasons. Now two years later, McRae is once again jumping at the chance to spend the summer in Victoria.

Not what you would expect from someone who’s done what Brian has in the game, and his reasons for signing on with the HarbourCats point to his love of the game more than anything else. “I enjoy Summer ball. I thought the experience I had in 2012 with Morehead City [of the Central Plain’s league] was the greatest thing ever. No classes to worry about and you just get to work with the kids full time. They come to learn the game, and play as much baseball as they can”.

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Brian coaching at first for the Park University Pirates in 2012

For McRae, it’s not all about teaching others, it’s about learning for himself as well. “I love that these kids come from all over, and you get to see what they are being taught at their schools. You get a good feel for what’s going on across the country at the collegiate level, and I think it makes you a better coach, a more well-rounded coach”.

And what kind of coach does Brian expect we will see come June? We have seen the full spectrum ranging from the stoic indifference of Bob Miller, to the pure unbridled intensity of Graig Merritt. Where will Brian McRae fit in that vast spectrum? He says it’s all about balance. “I think I bring a different approach to getting your work done and being efficient at it. Learning how to conserve your energy for the time that you need it in order to play the game”.

That’s easily said, but it’s something that summer ball clubs – including Victoria – struggle with: the need to be on and win every game, with players who haven’t had down-time in many months. It’s certainly taken its toll on the HarbourCats over the years as witnessed by the early departures of talent we see near the end of each season. McRae says it’s all in how you manage from the first day. “Knowing the kids have just come off a spring season where they have all played a lot, and knowing that they need some down time to let their bodies and their minds heal so the focus can be on winning ball games. With the travel and the schedule, you have to know to back off a little bit. Know when to give them time off and when to get extra work in. I think I can bring a perspective of how to get your work done in a timely manner, and still have the energy left to go through a regular season in the WCL – and be fresh at the end”.

Knowing that these are key recruiting months for summer ball teams, McRae doesn’t get any of that downtime he speaks of himself. He’s been inserted directly into the team-building work going on for the HarbourCats 2017 team, and he’s bringing with him a host of new contacts and new avenues of recruiting. “I’ve got some players that I’ve identified over the past couple years that I would like to pursue, so I’ll be contacting them immediately and seeing how they fit with the roster that’s already in place [from returning players – the HarbourCats have almost a dozen commitments for next year already]. I’m heavily involved trying to get the best players we can in Victoria”. Brian’s contacts also reach outside the typical WCL player, reaching into the mid-west and south for some potential untapped talent. “With some of the contacts I have, there’s some kids I see that could compete in that league, and I think this will give them an opportunity to show what they can do up there for sure”.

Being here for the Blue Jays summer kids camp, and staying to watch a couple of games over the years, McRae has a good idea of what playing baseball in Victoria – and specifically at Royal Athletic Park – means to a roster. “Victoria plays more of a power game and a speed game, so the roster will be constructed with power pitching, and power hitting guys – because that’s what plays better in that ballpark”.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles

Manager Hal McRae (left) and CF Brian McRae of the Kansas City Royals talk during batting practice on September 6, 1991 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

What is clear when speaking with Brian, is that he’s a true fan of the game and that he understands what it takes to win, balanced with what it takes to grow a strong and successful ball player. His addition to the HarbourCats certainly puts notice to the rest of the West Coast League – this team isn’t satisfied with what they have achieved to date, this team is continuing to change the face of the game we see. For HarbourCats fans, this continued commitment to excellence should have us watching championship baseball for many years to come.

 

 

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Coach’s Corner 2016 year-end edition

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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!

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Key injury plays a huge role in HarbourCat loss

Well the HarbourCats certainly left their A-game at home last night didn’t they. Bellingham sure showed us what a winner plays like. Fourty wins doesn’t mean much if you can’t win the ones that count. Maybe we should rename them the HarbourCanucks… I heard that and more walking through the stands during the late innings last night. To be fair, I heard a lot of positive comments too – a lot of people talking about what a great season it was, how fantastic the organization is, and how top-notch it is to have these young men represent our city, etc.

This isn’t an excuse piece – I’ll be the first to admit that Bellingham is a solid, proven, and well-constructed team with a couple of players who stood above the rest to help them win the series. There is however, as they say, extenuating circumstances that need to be aired.

Last night the seemingly impossible happened. Victoria sent Josh Mitchell, their 7-0 undefeated All-star starter to the mound in a must-win game. Bellingham would be lucky to get a runner to second base, let alone score a run. Or two runs, or say… 12. What could have possibly happened to change that expected path? As it turns out, this game was in trouble before the first pitch was thrown…

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Josh Mitchell, trying to work through things in the first inning of game two

In pre-game warm-ups, the seemingly indestructible Mitchell suffered a badly strained oblique muscle. For a pitcher that relies on a whole body torque motion for power and location, that’s a problem. It became apparent that something was up as soon as he made it to the mound for his first inning warm-up. Instead of his usual 87-90mph fastball, the radar gun was struggling to get much over 80. Instead of untouchable heat, Mitch was tossing up batting practice. After striking out the lead off batter, the injury seemed to worsen, and Bellingham showed no mercy. To their credit, they recognized the situation as well, and hitters came up swinging. After giving up a solid single, SS Chase Strumpf sent one over the left field fence that even AJ Alcantara couldn’t bring back. Another couple of well-hit balls thankfully turned into outs and Mitchell stomped off the mound, going straight for the dugout.

Knowing what was happening, coach Graig Merritt was quickly off the bench signalling for a new pitcher to start the second inning. At this point in the season however, bullpen arms are limited and he had no choice but to rush forward game three starter Will McAffer – who was expecting to spend the night charting pitches and studying hitters for Thursday’s inevitable game. Now pressed into service, he needed to compress his six-hour game day warm-up into about 15 minutes. At an earlier point in the season, perhaps there would have been a couple long relief arms that could be jump-started into action, but not this far into August, not with a reduced bench.

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The infield comes to the mound to rally around Will McAffer

Clearly the one option available didn’t work. McAffer had his own struggles early finding his zone and rhythm, and once again Strumpf took advantage, this time hitting a 3-run shot to make it 7-0 Bells. And once you get to that point, the game takes on a whole different feel. It was like the air was sucked out of RAP both on the field and off. The Bells continued to roll, and all the players, coaching staff, and fans could do was sit and watch. I heard one late-arriving fan who took his seat behind me say “What did I miss? It’s like someone died in here”. Yeah buddy, we all did just a little.

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Cat Killers: SS Chase Strumpf (2HR, 5RBI) and Starter Tyler Palm (3 hits, 1 ER)

Of course baseball is a team sport, and it’s not about one guy. But this isn’t hockey where everyone is involved from the opening draw. In baseball, one guy – your pitcher – holds the ball 95% of the time. The simple object of the game is for him to not let anyone but the guy catching his throws to touch it. Take him out, and you open the door.

I could go on about other injuries too – like 2B Griffin Andreychuk, who was sitting on the bench in the bottom of the first inning with runners at second and third, watching Ryan Anderson at the plate. You know Griff was hoping that was him with the chance to tie the game with a clutch hit, but he never fully returned after his concussion scare down in Bend. There were other aches and pains too numerous to mention. The WCL is a long season that takes its toll both mentally and physically on these young men.

I said this wouldn’t be an excuse piece, and I don’t mean to suggest that Victoria was any more beaten up than Bellingham – or other teams we played near the end of the season. Just hoping to make people think a bit is all.

In the end, it was just a loss. A tough loss, but a loss just the same. The team will now turn in their jerseys for cleaning one last time, spend a couple days with their host families, and head home for a couple weeks of much needed rest before returning to the rigours of school. I’d say this was the most solid team Victoria has ever fielded – both in skill, and in personality. A classy group of individuals, this team did the city and the organization proud. These good ball players showed they were even better human beings this season, and it was a privilege to watch them succeed where no WCL teams have succeeded before. Many will be back I’m sure – rumor is up to 14 of this year’s squad may return (pending many, many factors of course, but it’s a starting point). This season will be tough to beat, but like every one so far – I’m confident next year’s HarbourCats season is going to be awesome!

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One last look at 2016: A beautiful way to spend the summer for sure!

Stay tuned over the next week – the blog will have some year-end interviews and recap, and will announce our player of the year! I know, you can’t wait can you 😉

Thanks for reading everyone; it’s been a fun year.

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HarbourCat backs against the wall in game 2

Yesterday’s game one between the Bells and HarbourCats went pretty much exactly as planned… Two excellent pitchers dueling into the evening with nether giving an inch. Austin Dondanville and Jon Olsen both got past some early jitters and settled into a battle royale that lasted until both were out of the game. Olsen got the better outcome, as the Bells scored late to take the game 3-2. The Bell’s ace was excellent through 7.1 innings giving up only six hits while walking none.

He was also a bit fortunate to leave with the lead…In the top of the fourth inning, Tommy Jew stood on first after a 1-out single. With a 3-1 count on C Riley Guntrip, Jew took off for second on a steal attempt. Bells catcher David Banuelos had called a pitch-out on the play anticipating the move and Jew was a sitting duck, tagged out trying to return to first by HR derby champ Jake Vieth. Of course as the baseball gods would have it, Guntrip would then lace a double to the wall that would have easily scored Jew on the play. That would have put Victoria up 3-2 at the time, and significantly changed the complexion of the game.

As expected, Cameron Schneider was the first out of the pen for Victoria and pitched himself into and then out of a bases-loaded situation in the sixth, before putting two more on in the seventh. Greg Casper came into the game looking for a key strikeout but ended up giving up the hit that brought in the eventual winning third run. It was the only blemish in his 1.2 innings of work, but it was enough to give Bellingham the lead for good.

Game 2 Preview

So let’s stop dwelling on the past and what could have happened shall we? Tonight’s game 2 back in Victoria should be a much different experience for both teams. While the 1,558 fans in Bellingham last night provided some noisy support for their home team, it will be nothing like tonight’s crowd at RAP that could get close to 5,000.

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Tyler Palm – At 6’9″, his pitches seem to drop from the sky…

As mentioned in the series preview, we have another unknown pitching match-up tonight for both teams. Victoria brings 7-game winner Josh Mitchell to the mound,  while Bellingham responds with 6 foot 9 inch right-hander Tyler Palm. Neither pitcher started a game in the two regular season series, and Mitchell faced only a single batter in relief. Both teams will have to rely on scouting reports tonight.

Palm performed in 9 games for the Bells this season, starting 6 of them. He brings a 1-1 record and a 2.07 ERA to the hill. Despite the lack of decisions on his record, Bellingham ended up 7-2 in games he pitched. A Oakland University senior, Palm started 11 games for the Golden Grizzlies this year, sporting a 4-5 record with a 4.29 ERA. He threw 63 innings, striking out 37 while holding opponents to a .246 batting average. He has maintained those numbers in his summer work, striking out 25 in 39 innings pitched, holding batters to a bit higher .264.

On the home side, Mitchell has been a true workhorse for the HarbourCats this season. His 62.2 innings pitched is the highest on the staff. He strikes out more batters than he allows on base (51 hits and 9 walks, against 61 Ks), and he throws 2.4 strikes for every ball. Oh and Victoria is 12-1 in games Mitchell pitches in.

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Mitch has been working a serious playoff beard for weeks now. Actually, he shaved this morning…

Around those two, don’t expect to see many changes tonight. Seven different HarbourCat batters picked up a hit last night, while nobody had more than 1. Ben Polshuk had the only 2 RBI, and Guntrip’s double was the only extra-base hit on the night. For Bellingham, SS Chase Strumpf and 2B Gunnar Schubert had two hits each, and DH Dean Lawson continued his excellent play against Victoria going 1-1 while drawing 3 walks.

Listening to the game last night from Bellingham, these two teams are really close in many respects – from the way the team was put together, to the team management style, to the club’s  desire to win. This is a series meant to go the distance to crown a winner – let’s hope Victoria holds up it’s end of the deal tonight and knots the series at 1-1!

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  • 7fc47e7f1ae4776ede961b3d1e172ca6Don’t forget to wish HarbourCat owner and Managing Partner Jim Swanson a very happy birthday tonight. Not much of a secret what he’s hoping to get for it either – about 5,000 of his closest friends saying “See you tomorrow for game 3!”.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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…

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  • 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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Regular season coming to a close with Yakima Valley in town

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.

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Scott T. Pippin signs boxes of his bobble-head, given out this week. Photocred: Pippin’s Twitter

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.

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Kyle Mora looks to lower his ERA Sunday

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.

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Ben Polshuk on his usual corner

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.

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Platoon players like Tommy Jew have no chance at a WCL batting title…

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.

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That’s probably an out. Victoria has a .972 fielding %

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!

 

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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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The HarbourCats see big challenges from Bellingham and Corvallis

The blog is on holidays for a week or so, so not much time for in-depth coverage, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give a couple quick updates right?!

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Maybe it’s the hats? Bells 1B Jake Vieth sports the awesome blue camo third hat…

First off lets talk about the Bellingham series… It doesn’t seem to matter where the teams are in the standings, nor the players themselves, but the Bellingham Bells always seem to play Victoria tougher than most teams. There really is no explanation for it other than the fact that the team is perennially well managed and well put together. They just seem to be a force, and always have been. Last week’s three games at RAP continued that feeling and I must say it’s the first time this season the HarbourCats seemed on the ropes for long periods of time. Bellingham took two of three games to hand the HarbourCats their first home-series loss of the season, only their second of the year – and they almost staged a miracle comeback to steal the third game as well.

The Bells had better pitching than Victoria did. Maybe not individually, but certainly as a collective. Individually of course, Will McAffer was absolutely masterful through seven no-hit innings, and the night before, Blake Hannah had another fine start looking dominant through the first four. In the final game, Cameron Schneider carried the team through seven innings of 4-hit ball. Starters get an A+ for their work in the series for sure. The relievers were a different story – a 7.77 ERA, and 15 runs scored in 8 innings of relief work wasted all but Schneider’s effort. By comparison, Bellingham relievers gave up only 2 runs in 13 innings of work.

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Guibor breaks out of a slump

Offensively the Bells were simply more consistent. Victoria survived the series with respectable efforts from a few, while others continue to struggle mightily in the dog-days of the season. The team hit a light .252 on the series, led by AJ Alcantara who went 4 for 8 on the series – all of them in the third game. Matt Lautz took advantage of some increased playing time and also hit .500 for the series (3 for 6). Austin Guibor broke out of his slump, picking up hits in the two of the games he played in, as did C Riley Guntrip who hit 3 for 7 in the series. Lautz and PJ Floyd were the only HarbourCats to cross the plate more than once in the series.

One thing worth mentioning, was how clean the games were. Bellingham committed only 2 fielding errors in the three games, while Victoria had only 3. We’ve seen some fairly costly errors this season from opposing teams, and at least once a game you can expect to see a ball thrown away or getting by a fielder, but such was not the case in this series. Victoria leads the league in clean play, committing only 33 errors so far this season. Bellingham had 53 coming in, nearly double, but did a great job of not giving anything up in the three games.

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AJ Advisory: Balls be coming back!

Other notable things included AJ Alcantara’s leaping grab in left to bring back yet another home-run ball giving him 5 runs saved on the year – talk about a pitcher’s best friend. Oh and let’s not forget about Bells reliever Jared Horn who came in on Wednesday night and started out by throwing three fastballs that clocked in at 95, 97, and 96 MPH on the gun. Impressive but not insurmountable, PJ Floyd tagged him with a solid single, he walked Guntrip, and then gave up an unearned run on a wild pitch and an error.

 

In all, the Bells turned out to once again be a worthy opponent, and one Victoria will need to adjust for this week when they play down south. This would be a team to watch out for in the playoffs should they get in.

Clash of the titans in Corvallis

Corvallis_Knight_New_Logo.pngThe current stop for Victoria is down in Corvallis Oregon to play the Knights. If ever there was a true rivalry for Victoria, it’s probably with this team. Perennially Division and/or league champs, the Knights are another team that always provides a challenge. Off the field, Corvallis is usually nipping at Victoria’s heels in attendance as well but are averaging just over 1,300 fans a game this year (almost 700 fewer than Victoria).

The Knights are the only team to have more all-star selections than Victoria this year with 7 despite some questionable numbers…   SS Andy Atwood has been at the top of the batting charts all year, although he’s lately slumped a bit, and now sits at .315. He still leads the Knights in RBI with 21 and hits with 39. Center fielder Kyle Nobach is the real deal, and is hitting .337 on 28 hits. Catcher Adley Rutschman got the all-star nod despite hitting .256 with 2 RBI in only 10 games played. By comparison, Joe Prior who was left off the North side goes into tonight’s game hitting .302 with 24 RBI, 4 HR, and 19 runs scored… Maybe the south isn’t known for its tools of ignorance… The other 4 selections were all left-handed pitchers. Rare to have a stable of all-star lefties, but Corvallis is rich with them. Of the four, starter Hazahel Quijada is the star of the show, he’s 2-0 in 5 starts with an ERA of 0.71, striking out a batter an inning in the 25 he’s pitched. Reliever Trenton Dupree has also been impressive this year, sitting on an ERA of 0.36 over 10 appearances.

 

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What’s up with Lyons? 10.123 ERA in his last 3 games

Game 1 went to Victoria as once again, Josh Mitchell proved his deserving all-star status by going 6 strong innings giving up 2 runs on 9 hits. The game was in the bag it seemed until the bullpen let a starter down again, as Holden Lyons gave up three runs in the ninth to bring Corvallis back to even. Greg Casper took over in extras and pitched 3 strong giving up only a single hit, and Colin Ashworth came in to record the save – made possible by a clutch 2-out triple by Austin Guibor that drove in 2 runs in the 12th. Guibor seems fully out of his slump now, as he recorded 3 hits in the game on 6 AB. Alcantara continued to light it up as well, going 4-5. Dakota Dean and Matt Lautz both went 2 for 3.

Game 2 features Austin Dondanville (5-0, 1.48 ERA) going for his 6th win of the season against All-star Ryley Widell (2-1, 2.82 ERA). Game 3 has Blake Hannah (1-2, 3.91 ERA) trying to build on his good start against Bellingham up against another all-star Cameron Bishop (1-2, 0.40 ERA).

A couple of all-stars in the way of Victoria victories, looks like Corvallis is trying to prove something this week. With Victoria taking the first game, it should be a fight to the finish!

Periodic updates for the next week or so, but the blog will be back in full to end the season with ya!

Safe travels wherever they may take you this week!

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HarbourCats pitching toward the playoffs, Bellingham in town

So quite a lot has happened since the last blog post… I hadn’t previewed the second Bend series – but then again we had just seen them and there wasn’t much new to tell… or so I thought? Actually there’s a bit going on worth bringing you up to speed on…

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Will McAffer – Doesn’t like the road unis?

Starting with the previous series down in Gresham, which was interesting for a couple reasons. The GreyWolves took two of three from Victoria dishing out a couple of 9-8 and 9-6 losses, with a 12-4 Victoria win sandwiched in. Austin Dondanville was the only pitcher with a win in the series, while All-star Will McAffer suffered his second loss. Interestingly, McAffer is 0-2 on the road, and 4-0 at home… Giving up 9 runs twice in a series is also something we haven’t seen this year, and even the victory was a little less than spectacular – Gresham left 13 men on base or it would have been much closer. It was the first series-loss for the HarbourCats since the opening one of the year.

Then three games in Bend, and the games followed similar script as the week prior. Two wins (by identical 7-3 scores) around a (4-2) loss as Victoria took 2 of 3. The obvious highlight of the series was Josh Mitchell’s complete game 9-hit, 2ER game in which the All-Star proved he deserved every bit of it, striking out 7 while not giving up a single walk. Game three saw Cameron Schneider avenge his previous start against Bend as he tossed a masterful 6 innings giving up only a single run on 6 hits and 3 walks (much better than the 5 run, 9 hit outing against the Elks last week). The middle game featured a good start by Blake Hannah, and a surprising loss by Holden Lyons, who gave up his first two earned runs in a month and a half (he gave up runs in his first start of the season – none since).

With Hannah, he became the 13th HarbourCat pitcher to be given a start so far this season. Seem like a lot? Same as 2015 actually – 13 different starters went last year as well.

So lets stick with the pitching story this week shall we? The staff down the right-field line is beginning to morph a bit as the season goes on. What seemed like a fairly solid rotation with some established bullpen roles during the streak has altered into a more dynamic mid-season machine working its way toward the playoffs. Injuries, player moves, and workload are all adding to the mix, making arm-planning one of the most critical jobs for the coaching staff. As Jim Swanson loves to say, “That’s why they call it managing, not coaching in baseball. It’s like walking through a minefield some times”.

What’s happening to the HarbourCats this year is not unusual, nor is it unexpected. In past years, the team has limped into the last few weeks of the season with tired arms, players shutting down for the season, and players heading home early. This year, Victoria has had it’s share of issues, but due to better pre-season planning, it’s not impacting quite as much as it has. There have been a few departures however:

  • Dalton Erb of course, after dominating his first start was selected in the draft and signed with the Padres.
  • James Kannenberg had four quality starts in June before feeling a tweak in the elbow of his throwing arm. He returned home for tests and has been working with the SF Giants medical staff, and has been shut down for the summer as a precaution.
  • Ryan Steindorf gave up only 2 hits in a couple relief stints before he too felt something in his arm. He returned home for tests, and felt it best to take the rest of the summer off rather than risk further fatigue.
  • Casey Costello had found his stride coming out of the bullpen, picking up a couple of wins during the streak. He’s hasn’t pitched since Canada Day as he had to return home to deal with some school issues and is awaiting the results of some tests (academic not medical). He may still return later in the season.

The remaining staff is holding together admirably. Starters Mitchell, McAffer and Dondanville show no signs of slowing down their dominating play, keeping their spots in the rotation firmly solidified. The question now, is what to do the rest of the way?

Victoria now starts a stretch of 18 games in 19 nights to end the year. The only day off comes on August 4th, just before the year’s final series against Yakima. A day off after that series and the playoffs start, with games set for August 9-11 potentially. So that’s 21 possible games in 23 nights, 10 of them on the road. That’s a lot of innings for not many arms. Here’s some numbers on just how much work that is…

Let’s assume home games all need 9 innings of pitching, while in the road games, Victoria wins every series 2-1, and pitchers are needed for 9 innings twice, and 8 innings once.  That means a total of 185 innings are needed to the end of the first round of the playoffs. Lets also assume a 5-man rotation – at least, that means that each of those three get four days off between starts.

Dondo averages a solid 6 innings per start, McAffer a little less, and Mitch a little more. Overall, lets use an average of 6 innings for each of them. Realistically, using a 5-man rotation they could each get 4 more starts including the three of them each starting one first round playoff game.

Top 3 starters: 72 innings pitched. That leaves 113 innings remaining.

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Schneider eyes up a rotation spot

The other two starts in the 5-man rotation are really coach’s choice at this point. Don’t forget – this is still a development league, with players playing roles they don’t usually play in their regular college year. Starts are given to players based on performance to date, work done in practice, timing and availability… and numerous other personal and performance-related factors. In the end, it’s about giving a player a chance to be successful and contribute – that’s why these guys are here for the summer. So lets roll out the Mora’s, Wolger’s, Hannah’s, and Schneider’s of the world and see what they can do! At this point, it looks like Schneider is a likely candidate to be the full-time fourth consistent starter, so give him 4 more starts as well, averaging slightly less at 5 innings a start. The fifth spot let’s leave as a rotation, and hope for 4 innings from whomever goes out there. Four of those and that’s 20 starts, so let’s give 2 rotation spots in the last series for a total of 21 games to line up for the playoffs.

Schneider: 20 innings pitched.

Rotation: 20 innings pitched.

Innings remaining, 73.

So that’s not bad actually. With the signings this week of Ethan Skuija and Indigo Diaz, there are 10 arms in the bullpen for the coaching staff to play with. Even if 3-4 of them are used in the rotation spots, there should be enough arms to finish most games off at this point without overworking key guys like Greg Casper and Holden Lyons.  It’s easy to see though that each one of the staff will play a key role in getting the team through the season and past the first round of the playoffs. Oh yeah, I didn’t include the WCL finals in my numbers above – all hands on deck for those 2 or 3 games!

Bells In Town for three

BellinghamAs for the Bells preview, they come to town with the same second-half record as Victoria at 5-4. A perennially strong team, Bellingham is 15-8 against Victoria all-time. They also have arguably the best uniforms in the league, their home Dodger-esque are SHARP!

Bells 1B Jake Vieth won yesterday’s Home Run Derby hitting 4 in the final round, although he’s hit only 2 in the regular season so far. He leads the Bells with 13 RBI, tied with SS Chase Strumpf and OF Elijah Skipps. Another pair of outfielders find themselves at the top of the Bells offense as well: Shane Hanon leads the club hitting .342 on 39 hits and 21 runs scored, while Andru Cardenas is close behind as .327 on 33 hits and 22 runs scored. Overall the team comes in hitting .251 with 8 home runs and 151 runs scored in their 36 games.

Victoria bats are cooling off quite a bit lately – but not all of them. Outfielder AJ Alcantara now finds himself on the top of the charts at .347. PJ Floyd has turned it on of late, going 6/15 in his last 5 games and sits second .343. Jarron Silva had been held hitless in six games and saw his average get as low as .304 before rebounding to go 3-4 Sunday in Bend. Likewise, Griffin Andreychuk is in the midst of a tough 3/27 slump and has seen his average plummet down to .275 – his lowest point since August 2014.

On the mound, Bellingham is led by a trio of respectable starters and some solid bullpen arms. We will see only one of their top starters in Jody Matulovich. He’s suffered a bit of late losing his last 2, but was lights-out in his previous 5 outings giving up only 4 runs total while striking out 34 22.1 innings. Newly minted starter Spencer Howard also gets a start, he’s yet to give up a run in 10 innings of work, 8 as a starter.

As a team, Bellingham comes in with a 2.81 ERA, a half-run lower than Victoria’s 3.34 which has been going up steadily since the streak ended back on July 1. Matchups for the series look like this:

Nick Silva (1-1, 1.80 ERA) vs. Blake Hannah (101, 3.00 ERA) Wednesday

Spencer Howard (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Will McAffer (402, 2.64 ERA) Thursday

Jody Matulovich (2-3, 2.97 ERA) vs. Cameron Schneider (2-0, 4.09 ERA) Friday

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A few more lineup points worth mentioning as this series gets underway…

  • Griffin Andreychuk took a fastball to the head during Sunday’s game in Bend. He’s fine, but sat out Tuesday’s All-Star game to rest rather than take a chance. No alarm bells or serious concussion issues, he’s just taking a couple days off. Expect to see him at some point this series.
  • Cody Snider has left the team due to a medical issue with his back. Again nothing overly serious, but a nagging injury is no fun to play through as a platoon outfielder. While he possibly could return, my money would be on not seeing him again this season.
  • The All-Star game held yesterday in Cowlitz was a success by all accounts. Six HarbourCats were selected and four made it into the game (Griff sat it out, and Will McAffer was scheduled to pitch the ninth inning but wasn’t needed as the South didn’t need to bat. Jarron Silva played the whole game and went 1-4 while Ben Polshuk subbed in and went 0-2. Dondanville and Mitchell each pitched an inning, giving up a run each. 1,823 fans took in the game, overall a good showing.
  • On a final note, the Toronto Blue Jays organization released 1B and ex-HarbourCat Gabe Clark last week. Gabe was in Vancouver playing for the Canadians (the Jays Short-Season A team) after spending the previous year with the Bluefield BlueJays down in West Virginia. Gabe has decided to hang up his cleats, return to school, and take his life in a new direction. We here at the blog – along  with every HarbourCat fan I’m sure – wish Gabe nothing but the absolute best in the next phase of his life. He’ll always have a special place in Victoria’s baseball history – and a special place here on the blog (yes that’s him still proudly adorning our header graphic). Best of luck Gabe.

 

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HarbourCats bent but not broken – head to Gresham for three

Well that was quite the weekend down at RAP wasn’t it. We saw a bunch of things we haven’t seen this season, and I think we learned a few things in the process…

We saw our first home-team loss, we saw our first true come-from-behind victory, we saw our first walk-off. We also saw some spotty pitching and some desperate attempts to win games – one that fell short, but one that worked in the long run.

We also saw an opposing team better than any we had, and if nothing else they showed us that the rest of the season isn’t going to be an easy road and that nobody is going to just give us the WCL crown. Not that we seriously thought anyone would, but when you win that many games in a row, sometimes you forget that these teams are gunning for you. In the end though, Victoria took two of three from the Elks, and had it not been for some unfortunate situational timing in the bullpen, they could have easily swept.

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Welcome home, Joe Prior

Saturday’s game one started well thanks to a first inning 2-run shot by Joe Prior. That would be enough most nights with Will McAffer on the mound, but he struggled through a tough second inning that saw him walk in a run before getting a bases-loaded strike out to keep the lead intact. I was surprised his night ended there, but the inning had taken it’s toll and he left after throwing a whopping 56 pitches. Blake Hannah and Greg Casper stole the show from there – Hannah pitched 5 innings of 1-hit ball to get the win, while Greg Casper looked dominant again giving up only a single walk in the final two innings to earn the save.

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Joe Fabs tries to right the Wolger ship

Sunday the ‘Cats just ran out of pitching, simple as that. Relievers Casey Costello (School) and Ryan Steindorf (medical) are currently not with the team while they attend to matters (they will both return), and with rotations and workloads in mind, the bullpen was fairly light on arms. A lot of hope was resting on starting pitcher Jack Wolger to go deep into the game to preserve the pen, but that didn’t happen. Wolger struggled mightily and didn’t get out of the second inning, after giving up 5 runs in the first on two home runs, and two more in the second on a well-placed double. Kyle Mora came in fared not much better, giving up 5 more runs in another 4.1 innings. Colin Ashworth helped out in the final 3 innings, but gave up 3 more. Funny thing is, with any kind of pitching support at all, Victoria could have won this game as they put up 8 runs themselves. In fact with a couple clutch hits – the left 2 men on in the 4th, 6th, and 7th innings – they could have pulled it off regardless. As one would guess, the runs, hits, and home runs were the most given up by the team this year. Four home runs were given up Sunday, matching the team’s high in a single game.

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Cannon: Monday Hero – but don’t forget about Dakota Dean’s lead-off Single!

Monday night looked like more of the same after Bend jumped out to a 4-1 lead on starter Cam Schneider. So what do you do when you need a win but have limited bullpen arms? You give a couple of All-Star starters some side work. Josh Mitchell got the nod to join the game in the 5th inning in the middle of a bases-loaded 2-out situation. Mitch was a bit rusty coming in on short notice and was less than impressed with himself after throwing a 4-pitch bases-loaded walk to bring in a 5th run. He rebounded to finish the inning and go one more scoreless. Keeping with the trend, Will McAffer got some light work tossing an inning of no-hit ball before giving the rock to Holden Lyons. Lyons was outstanding through 4 innings – his longest outing of the season – giving Bend reliever Sam Boone a chance to tire himself out before exiting the game. Boone couldn’t be touched in his 3 innings of work, and the change proved to be all Victoria needed as they loaded the bases before Cam Cannon finally brought in a run in the 11th – Dakota Dean, who had the biggest hit of the inning, starting it off with a sharp single to right-center.  The key play of the game however occurred with one out in the top of the 10th with Bend runners on first and third and out, LF Jack Anderson lined out to Cameron Cannon on a hit and run that hung George Mendazona out to dry and he was doubled up at first to end the inning and preserve the tie.

The win was Victoria’s first walk-off win of the season, and the celebration released a couple games of pent-up emotions in front of the remaining fans. Overall, the HarbourCats hit .285 through the series, walking 13 times while striking out 17 times. Bend hit .291 on 34 hits and 16 walks, striking out 18 times.

With the home loss Sunday, that officially ends all the teams prolonged winning streaks, but one streak is still alive – it took 2B Griffin Andreychuk until the 7th inning, but a sharp single extended his consecutive on-base streak to 22 games.

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Lyons – Big Relief

A side note on Holden Lyons… From 1976 to 2012, there used to be a MLB award called the “Rolaids Relief Man” award, which tracked the performance of relievers and their contributions to their team’s win/loss record. Pitchers got 3 points for a win, 2 for a save, and -2 for a blown save. By that formula, Lyons has been piling up the points, and after Monday’s win, sits at 21 points on 5 saves and 3 relief wins. If it was a WCL award, he would be in second place, trailing only the Corvalis Knight Chase Kaplan at 23 points thanks to his 7 saves on the season. Holds is certainly putting out some fires in key situations this season.

 

So who’s hot right now? It has to be Jake Stone. Stone is hitting .421 on 8/19 in the last two series. Joe Prior has 5 walks and 5 RBI in his last 5 games, and Andreychuk has been on base 10 times in 27 trips to the plate. On the mound, team ERA has climbed a bit thanks to Bend’s 15-runs on Sunday, but six pitchers ERAs actually went down thanks to clean slates (Dondanville, Mitchell, Lyons, Casper, Henderson, and Hannah). Jarron Silva (3 for 18 in his last 6 games) and Brad Pluschkell (2 for 14 in his last 5 games), and Austin Guibor (1 for 8 in his last 4 games) are really struggling.  Silva’s recent slump has knocked him down to 8th place in the batting race at .320.

GreyWolves.png-largeNext up for the HarbourCats are the Gresham GreyWolves as they begin a 6-game road trip through Oregon. Gresham if you remember is the relocated Klamath Falls team, moved to a larger population center to help improve attendance numbers. It’s been a tough go to this point, with the team averaging 322 fans a game. The GreyWolves are riding a bit of a high to start the second half, sweeping Kelowna and taking 2 of 3 from Wenatchee to sit atop the South division at 5-1.

OF Riley Smith his 6 hits to go along with 5 walks, driving in 7 of Gresham’s 26 second half runs. OF Josh Adams went 9/23 last week after going 1/14 in limited duty before that. OF Jeff Mitchell still leads the team on offense, sitting at .327. On the mound, Gresham’s great week was made possible by three solid starts from Aaron Shoup (7 innings, 0 ER 5 hits), David Wallum (9 innings, 1 ER, 3 hits), and Andrew Heideman (9 innings, 2 ER, 10 hits).

As a team, Gresham enters the series with a team 3.48 ERA, and a team .240 batting average – sixth in league numbers in both categories. Victoria sits at a 2.95 ERA (4th in the WCL) and a .280 BA (1st in WCL).

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Skyler Henderson: He’s your huckleberry (ok that might be Val Kilmer there..)

Matchup wise, Victoria is rolling around to the top of its pitching order once again – but not before Skyler Henderson (0-0, 4.50 ERA) gets his first start of the season. A bit of a surprise starter, neither Henderson nor his moustache have pitched more than two innings in a game all season, and I’m guessing he’s hoping for more tonight. He will go up against the aforementioned Andrew Heideman (3-1, 3.03 ERA). Wednesday Austin Dondanville (4-0, 0.62 ERA) goes up against newcomer ace Rilyn Lewchuk (3-0, 0.75 ERA) in what could be the hardest fought game of the series. Thursday Will McAffer (4-1, 1.46 ERA) gets David Wallum (2-1, 1.67 ERA). No bad ERA’s on the mound this series…

After these three games, Victoria heads to Bend for an instant rematch against the Elks. More on that series later!

 

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