Saturday, June 6, 2015

Falcons claw back to tie series

Even novice baseball fans know that leadoff walks are costly, but how about two walks to start an inning? Even deadlier. But that’s just what happened to HarbourCats starter Mikey Wright on Saturday night and he paid the price for his slow start. Wright walked Brandon Grimsley and Vinny Esposito to start the game, both came around to score, and the Falcons had a lead they would never relinquish. Final score: Kelowna 5, Victoria 2.

Josh Walker
Wright, who was making just his second start since the end of Victoria’s 2014 season, still has a bit of work to do to shake off the rust from his absence from collegiate baseball. He was fortunate to only give up two runs in three innings of work, because he walked five and gave up three hits and things could have been much worse for him on this night. Fans should be patient with Wright, because he can only get better as the season progresses.

After getting through the Home Opener without walking any batters, Victoria pitchers combined to walk seven hitters while only striking out six. Walking more than you strike out is quite simply a recipe for trouble.

The best pitcher on the night for the hometown squad was Grand Canyon University’s Josh Walker. The undersized but feisty right-hander held the Falcons to only one run on two hits and a walk in three innings of relief. One of my favourite plays of the night was the popup that Walker induced to the middle of the infield in the top of the fifth. Although pitchers are typically told to vacate the premises immediately to allow one of the infielders to take a popup, Walker waved his arms wildly to call off the entire infield and emphatically make the play. I really like this young man's moxie.

The guy who stole Victoria’s thunder was Kelowna starter (and winning pitcher) Tyler Gillies, a sophomore at the University of British Columbia. Gillies mixed up his pitches well and kept HarbourCats hitters off balance for much of the evening. He was a key component in UBC’s recent NAIA West Grouping Championship, so we shouldn’t really be surprised by his solid outing this evening.

PJ Floyd was the only HarbourCat to register more than one hit on the night, as he went two-for-four at the plate, but he also committed one of Victoria’s three errors. Evan Willow and Matt Bryan made the others.

The ‘Cats and Falcons play the rubber game of the three-game set tomorrow afternoon when Shawn Kennedy takes to the hill for the 'Cats against Elias Bedolla. The winner of the game will take home the inaugural Accent Inns Trophy, as the Falcons and HarbourCats will not meet again in 2015.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Opening night - what a show, what a performance, what a crowd

It was a night for the history books at RAP tonight. The HarbourCats started their third year in the WCL with a decisive win over their BC brethren Kelowna Falcons. Over 4600 fans witnessed a gem of an opener that featured hot starting pitching, some clutch hitting, and a lopsided score for the home side.

New jersey, new logo, no numbers
First off, lets talk about the debut of the new home uniforms. Big-league style pants start the professional look, topped off with a new set of jerseys that sport a new V-Cat logo on the front instead of the smaller number that had been present in the previous version. It's a clean look, but the removal of the number makes for more difficult player identification - especially this early in the season. While I like the logo, I think I'm going to miss the numbers...

On the crowd side, Ticket Rocket - the new on-line ticket site of the 'Cats - seemed slower that the old system, with pre-game lineups to get into the park extending well down the block outside the park. Tickets are scanned by iPhones which seemed to take longer than the old scanners while they focus and find the barcode - but I want to go through the gate a couple times before offering judgement.

Food and beverage sales were brisk, and lineups were pretty crazy for most of the game, meaning a inning or more wait for any sort of concession. To be expected with 4600+ fans all wanting to eat and drink - I suspect with regular attendance numbers, things will flow smoothly.

Overall the crowd was...calm? A very quiet home crowd who had a lot to cheer for, and did the obligatory amount. This blogger didn't hear anyone out of the ordinary - no loud obnoxious fans, and nothing really in the way of heckling. Too early in the season to be getting on the other team perhaps?
4627 Fans means lots of folks on the soccer grandstands. A full park is a happy park!

On the field, the team looked pretty good. Not the final expected roster by a long shot, but a group of guys who played a good game and made the plays as expected. Starting pitcher Alex Rogers showed fans he's upped his game since last year - he has grown into a true power pitcher with great control and a stellar fastball. He pitched the first 6.1 innings giving up only a single run on 5 hits. At the plate, the 'Cats were led once again by Victoria boy Chris Fougner. Foggy had another stellar night at the plate going 3-5 with a run scored, earning him Player of the Game honours.

Mr. Rogers shows this is absolutely his neighbourhood
Scoring was as balanced as possible, with every single starter scoring a run, scattering 11 hits and 7 walks across the 8 innings at the plate. Dane Fujinaka was impressive at 3B, going 1-4 with a couple RBI, as was catcher Jackson Thoreson who went 2-3, also with 2 RBI.

Cats pitchers showed control all night long, surrendering only 8 hits and giving up not a single walk. Seems like a rare feat, but it's actually the 9th time in team history 'Cats pitchers have not offered up a free pass.

Kelowna isn't the biggest powerhouse in the league, but a solid start in front of an enthusiastic crowd set the HarbourCats on the right track early. With Mikey Wright starting Saturday, it could be more of the same from the mound, which should mean a similar result on the scoreboard. For a team that is still missing quite a few of it's expected final lineup, that's about as good as anyone could ask for.

Great to have baseball in town again, get out to the park and take in a game!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

2015 Season Preview

Summer's back, baby!
In a few short hours at Royal Athletic Park, a West Coast League umpire will scream out one of my favourite phrases in the English language -- “Play Ball!” -- and that in itself will be cause for celebration.

It may seem like ages ago, but back in December certain members of the mainstream media broke the story of ex-owner John McLean losing control of the Victoria HarbourCats in a BC Supreme Court civil suit. Somehow, this personal financial issue was twisted into a story about baseball allegedly failing once again in the Garden City (huh?!?). As we fully expected, there wasn’t exactly a shortage of interested buyers for the club and a local ownership group gained control of the team early in 2015. Victoria sports fans can rest assured that elite-level baseball is here to stay for many years to come.

With Opening Day upon us, we can now turn our attention to what happens on the baseball diamond, and this summer looks to be an entertaining one for HarbourCats fans. If you like offense then you’re in for a treat this season, because the ‘Cats will certainly have no trouble scoring runs.

Nanaimo’s Griffin Andreychuk will be back to set the table once again near the top of the order, although the roster is loaded with a slew of on-base types who can also play that role. First baseman Gabe Clark has committed to return to the team, and the fan favourite from Riverside, California is poised to take over the “Mr. HarbourCat” moniker in his second season with the club. Clark was an offensive force in the heart of the HarbourCats lineup last season and he should take another run at the league home run title this summer.

Josh Mitchell is another breakout
candidate on Adame's staff
After struggling to find a regular third baseman in their first two seasons, the HarbourCats now have plenty of talent at the hot corner. Michael Gretler and Chase Lambert both have what it takes to be an everyday third sacker at this level, and the University of New Mexico’s Carl Stajduhar looks like a bona fide West Coast League All Star, although his status for the season is still unclear. The versatile Lambert may end up seeing action at a variety of positions, as he can play anywhere other than catcher (or does he catch too?).

The team also has plenty of skill behind the plate. Although the HarbourCats have four quality backstops signed to full-season contracts, we expect Jackson Thoreson to emerge as the number one catcher due to his strong defensive skills and potent bat. The outfield is solid with Kevin Collard, Austin Guibor, Reno Rankin and Chris Fougner at the ready. Collard could potentially be an early-round selection in Monday’s MLB draft, so there is a chance that his stay in Victoria could be a short one. But no matter what happens on Monday, Collard has a bright future in the baseball world. Fougner, a Victoria native, was dazzling in the HarbourCats' three-game exhibition season and he should have an outstanding season.

As with all baseball teams, the HarbourCats will only go as far as their pitching will carry them. Alex “A-Rog” Rogers and Mikey Wright return to anchor the starting rotation, while the team has added potential closer Henry Omaña to the bullpen. Pitt Panthers lefty Josh Mitchell could emerge to be an elite late-innings reliever as well, but the HarbourCats need a couple of unheralded hurlers to have a breakout season if they are going to compete for a playoff spot. At this point it appears that pitching is the team’s Achilles’ heel, but pitching coach Alec Adame is the type of guy who can get the most out of his players, so I wouldn’t be shocked to seem them over-achieve on the mound.

While the 2015 roster is full of highly-skilled players, it is still light on experience as compared to the elite West Coast League teams. Although the HarbourCats made a valiant attempt to recruit an older squad, 17 previously-signed (full-season) players have withdrawn for a variety of reasons, and that group skewed heavily towards the older age range. Back in March, 47% of players signed to full-season contracts were upperclassmen (sophomores and juniors in the context of the WCL), but that figure has dropped to only 39% after the rash of recent cancellations and it could drop further. By comparison, the two teams in last year’s WCL Championship, Corvallis and Bellingham, featured 65% and 59% upperclassmen on their rosters, respectively.
A few days into the 2014 season I put the over/under for ‘Cats wins at 27 and I took some flak for being too pessimistic, even though they went on to finish with a disappointing 25-29 record. This year’s team reminds me a lot of the 2014 HarbourCats at the outset of the season -- lots of offense, a little light on pitching and a roster that is realistically too young to compete for a WCL championship.

So what's the over/under for HarbourCats wins in 2015? While making sports predictions is risky at the best of times, I’m not prepared to stick out my neck just yet. I'll need to see how many of our 33 full-season players actually report (only 11 were in town as of last night), who gets signed to replace the last-minute cancellations and what happens in the MLB draft that takes place next Monday to Wednesday.

But enough about predictions. It's almost time to head out to the ballpark, grab a hot dog and a cold beverage and enjoy the fine summer weather that Victoria offers. Ahhh, baseball. The only reality show out there that's worth watching. Season premiere is Friday night at 6:35...

  • Nanaimo's Alex Rogers has earned the Opening Day start against the Kelowna Falcons. He'll face Jayse Bannister of Holy Names University (NCAA Division II).
  • Mikey Wright goes for the HarbourCats on Saturday night against Tyler Gillies from the University of British Columbia. 
  • Shawn Kennedy takes to the hill for the 'Cats in the Sunday matinee against Ohlone College's Elias Bedolla.

Click 'Play' for the blog's official Opening Day theme song by The Baseball Project.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

'Cats close out preseason with ugly win

Dane Fujinaka made his HarbourCats
debut at -- surprise -- third base!
Your prospects usually aren’t very good when you get outhit 14-8 and only score run(s) in one inning of a ballgame, but the HarbourCats defied the odds on Wednesday night by salvaging a 6-5 victory over the pesky North Sound Emeralds of the Northwest Collegiate Baseball League (NWCBL). The win gives Victoria a 2-1 record in their brief “spring training” leading up to Friday night’s regular-season home opener.

The HarbourCats did all of their scoring in a six-run fifth inning that included four hits, a walk and three errors by the Emeralds. The key blow in the inning -- and game -- was a clutch two-out, two-strike base hit by Chris “Foggy” Fougner that scored fellow Vancouver Islanders Brady Rogers and Matt Bryan. Those two runs put the HarbourCats up 5-1, but Fougner would come around to score on a bad-hop single by Jackson Thoreson.

Fougner had another impressive night for the ‘Cats: 3-for-4 with two RBI and a run scored. He finishes the exhibition season with a .583 average (7-for-12), three RBI, five runs scored and a pair of stolen bases. Look for big things from Mr. Fougner all summer long.

The HarbourCats pitching was less than spectacular on this frigid evening. Shawn Loglisci, a 30-year-old pitcher on loan from the Victoria Mavericks, did a good job holding the Emeralds to one run over the first four innings. However, Sean O’Toole, Josh Walker and 10-day player Mike Gershman stumbled through the last five innings to make a game of it. Gershman got the final out on a fly ball to Zane Takhar with the bases loaded to preserve the victory.

  • The all-Canadian outfield flashed some solid defense in tonight’s game. Matt Bryan cut off a ball in the gap and threw to second to nail a runner trying to stretch a single into a double in the fifth inning, while Chris Fougner made a nice running catch and strong throw home to prevent a runner on third from scoring on a fly ball in the eighth inning.
  • Shawn Kennedy, PJ Floyd and Dane Fujinaka are the latest players to arrive in Victoria, so there are now 11 of 33 full-season players in town. Expect another six or so to arrive in the next couple of days.
  • HarbourCats home games will be broadcast (delayed, not live) on Shaw Cable channel 4. You can also expect games to be shown multiple times.
  • The radar gun has been tested and a small display board is expected to be installed on top of the pole on the far end of the third-base dugout for Friday’s home opener.
  • Christmas has come early for our bloggers. Earlier in the preseason we were informed that Bubba’s favourite urinal in the bathroom under the grandstand has been fixed, but today the clock on the scoreboard was also repaired. Yes, Darth, there are competent horologists in Victoria. It’s a Christmas miracle!
  • The team has also announced that a fireworks show has been added after Friday night's game, since approximately 3,400 tickets have already been sold for the game (there will also be fireworks after Saturday’s game). Due to the removal of the GA bleachers behind section seven, capacity in the main section of the park has been reduced by roughly 200 seats. That means that there will be a lot of people sitting in the soccer stands on Friday night. If you have GA tickets then I suggest you arrive when the gates open at 5:00.
  • Check back on the blog early Thursday evening for our 2015 Season Preview.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

'Cats drop one to the Emeralds

'Cats Starter Connor Suing "changin' it up"
After extinguishing the Blaze on Sunday (gotta' love the journalistic cliché!), the Victoria HarbourCats were back at it tonight against the North Sound Emeralds of the Northwest Collegiate Baseball League (NWCBL) which is based out of Seattle. Being that I was out of town for the first exhibition game (as Deputy Dawg would say...Dagnabit!), this was my first live baseball of the year so needless to say, I was fired up!

In what was a bit of a sloppy affair, the HarbourCats actually outhit the Emeralds ten to five but ended up on the unhappy end of a 7-4 scoreline. The 'Cats spotted their cross-sound opponents a 7-1 lead before making some late noise and even getting the tying run on base in the eighth before fizzling out in the ninth.

About 280 hardcore fans were in attendance on what was definitely a "two-fleece" evening in downtown Victoria. In the
Cotton, pickin' pesky errors!
end, it was the four HarbourCat errors that really played into the outcome with only three of the seven North Sound runs being earned; cotton pickin' pesky errors!

New arrival Connor Suing from Western Oregon got the start, giving up only one hit but issuing four free passes in his three plus innings of work. Six runs crossed the plate on his watch but again, only two of those were earned.

Of the remaining Victoria pitchers, sidewinder Riley Edmonds probably pitched the best, keeping hitters mostly off-balance with his unique delivery. Edmonds gave up two hits and one run in his three innings on the bump, while striking out four and walking two.

North Sound starter Thomas Deboer went a solid seven innings, scattering seven hits and allowing three runs. He struck out six and walked no one before turning the game over to his bullpen which definitely wavered a bit, but pulled it out in the end.

In general the HarbourCats hit the ball pretty well but it always seemed to be right at somebody or just not quite deep enough. Both Chris Fougner and Sean Murphy had two-hit games for the 'Cats. "Foggy" also made an amazing slide at home, lifting his left arm out of the way just as the tag was being applied in a "now you see it, now you don't" move to score a run in the eighth inning.

It was also good to see a couple more regular faces trickling in such as Connor Suing and Shawn Kennedy from Georgetown (NAIA). In addition to these players, the full coaching staff was behind the bench, including Graig "Hollywood" Merritt in his first appearance as the Victoria head coach.

Baseball aside, there were a few other things that caught my eye tonight:
  • the "K" guys are back doing their stuff along the right field line - good to see you again!
  • it saddened me to see that the clock in centre fields STILL has not been fixed - perhaps there is a shortage of good horologists in the Greater Victoria area
  • the Spinnaker's Kolsch has also returned and looks as cold and delicious as I remember. Aside from Gabe Clark, this has to be my favourite returnee
  • I asked for a radar gun for Christmas for the 'Cats, but I didn't see one out there. I'm hoping they are saving it for opening day
  • and Bubba will be happy to see that all urinals are in full functioning least for a while
Now for a bit more on the NWCBL itself (the league that the Emeralds play in). It is a unique league where eligible players must be enrolled at a collegiate baseball program, be high school seniors with a national letter of intent signed or have played professionally and be looking to sign a pro contract. The latter category of player (more aimed at the pros) is encouraged to sign up with the Emeralds who not only play teams in this league, but also play exhibition games against other clubs (like the 'Cats...and the Bend Elks in prior years) and go into higher level tournaments throughout the season. The Emeralds are the only team in their division most likely because of their unique schedule. I guess that's one way of ensuring a pennant every year!

To get in this league, you simply pay your entry fee and then - assuming you meet eligibility requirements and there are still available slots - you are placed on a team based on your ability and experience level. Similar to my Sunday night beer-league hockey, you can ask to play with your buddy as well! Special note, Canadian players are welcome too!

Anyway, despite the outcome of the game today, it was still a great first night (for me) at the yard. Even though the weather was a little chilly and overcast, it was exciting to be in the friendly confines again. The green grass (with far less weeds than mine at home), the crack of the bats and the smell of ballpark food were like welcoming back an old friend. Yes Victoria, baseball has returned!

CWS 2015 has minimal impact on 'Cats roster

With Regionals weekend of the 2015 College World Series in the books, the HarbourCat roster has mostly become unburdened by the remainder of the tournament... Last week I reported six HarbourCats going forward into the tourney - a couple with a pretty good shot at moving forward, but thanks to a couple of upsets and some underdog wins, all but one have ended their college year and will not move on.

Henry Omana, still in the hunt...
Henry Omana's Cal State Fullerton squad emerged out of their regional with a perfect 3-0 record, including two wins over Nick Wojitysiak and Chase Lambert's Pepperdine squad, who finished second at 2-2. Oregon State had a tough tourney as well, going 1-2 and bowing out early, despite a win Friday that featured a clutch RBI by Michael Gretler. After that dramatic win, Gretler and Gabe Clark were sent packing with two straight losses.

In the most surprising upset of the tourney so far, UCLA was ousted in a two-game final by Maryland, ending the college season for Scott Jarvis.

While not a great feeling to be eliminated this early, it's great news for Victoria fans, as we will have the majority of our signed roster here much sooner than we did last year. We will miss Omana's closer talents for sure, but it will be nice to start the year with mostly full-time players.

Good luck to Henry Omana as he moves forward to next weekend's Super Regional in Louisville KY!