By Jonathan Hodgson
The Victoria HarbourCats broke new ground in 2017 on many different levels.
The team was handed the challenging task of trying to surpass the successes of a historic 2016 season that saw the HarbourCats win a West Coast League record 40 games, and qualify for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
A WCL-record 19-game winning streak helped the team win the north division first half pennant with a 23-4 record, ensuring playoff baseball in Victoria for the first time since 1952.
The HarbourCats embraced the challenge, and turned in another season of firsts that won’t soon be forgotten in Victoria.
The team entered a new era with the hiring of new head coach Brian McRae shortly after the end of the 2016 season. The former major league outfielder who played 10 years for four teams, came to Victoria with the mission of returning the HarbourCats to the playoffs, and bringing playoff success.
The team made multiple ground-breaking signings as it assembled its roster for their fifth season in the B.C. capital, the longest tenure for a Victoria-based baseball team since the Athletics/Tyees (1946-54).
First came the signing of Po-Hao Huang. The utility player from Kaohsiung City, Taiwan became the first Taiwanese-born player in WCL history. Huang, who attends Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, had played in North America once previously, playing in the New York Collegiate Baseball League in 2016.
Huang was a strong contributor, primarily playing first base and hitting .280 with seven doubles, a home run and 13 RBIs in the regular season. His defining moment came in the WCL Championship Series, delivering a walk-off double to lift the HarbourCats over the Corvallis Knights in game one of the series in front of Royal Athletic Park at Royal Athletic Park.
The pitching staff also had some international flavour, with right-hander Chavez Fernander becoming the first Bahamian-born player in league history. Fernander, who plays collegiately at Polk State College in Florida, worked out of the bullpen for the HarbourCats.
The boldest signing of the season came in May, when the HarbourCats announced the signing of left-handed pitcher Claire Eccles. The momentus move made Eccles, a native of Surrey, BC, the first female player in West Coast League history.
Eccles, a member of Canada’s Women’s National Baseball Team and UBC softball, appeared in seven regular season games, starting one. On June 29 in Victoria against the Cowlitz Black Bears, she became the first female in league history to earn a regular season win, having also earned an exhibition win on June 18 against the Kitsap BlueJackets at Royal Athletic Park.
As the HarbourCats reputation as a top summer-collegiate baseball destination continues to spread, so to does the team’s partner school connections. 2016 saw the team draw talent from a pair of SEC schools. Southpaw Jack Owen, an incoming freshman to Auburn University, starred in Victoria and received some seasoning prior to beginning his collegiate career.
Owen was 4-1 with a 1.02 ERA with the HarbourCats, recording 48 strikeouts in 44 innings pitch. That effort resulted in Owen being named WCL Pitcher of the Year.
A pair of sluggers from Mississippi State, one of the most storied programs in college baseball, enjoyed outstanding summers in Victoria.
Outfielder Hunter Vansau led the team with eight home runs and 34 RBIs, hitting .359. He also finished as the runner-up in the WCL home run derby on all-star weekend.
Infielder Harrison Bragg clubbed seven home runs and drove in 24 in 28 games.
The HarbourCats also turned to new elite programs like Baylor (Big 12) for talent for the first time in 2016.
When the games were most important, coach McRae’s team came through. The HarbourCats won the WCL North Division second half pennant on the final day of the regular season. They then won the first playoff game, and series in franchise history when they swept the Kelowna Falcons to advance to the WCL Championship Series.
Huang’s heroics gave the HarbourCats their first-ever victory in a championship series game. They played two highly competitive games in Corvallis but ultimately fell in a three-game series.
It has been a memorable, groundbreaking year for the HarbourCats, who have been unafraid to find success through unconventional means. As the focus turns to 2018, motivation remains to now find a way to accomplish the last goal that every team strives for; win the final game of the season.