Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart
August 15, 2017, Corvallis, OR – It was one game for all the marbles in Tuesday night’s best-of-three West Coast League (WCL) Championship final and it was the experienced Knights, who have been to the finals nine times in 11 years, who came out on the winning side, with a tense 4-2 win over the Victoria HarbourCats in front of an announced crowd of just over 1,400 fans at Goss Stadium in Corvallis.
The win gives the Knights, one of the founding members of the WCL, their fifth WCL title and second in a row after defeating Bellingham in 2016. Their other wins came in 2013, 2011, and 2008.
The Knight’s win capped off an extremely dramatic final series that saw the HarbourCats score two in the bottom off the ninth for a walk-off 5-4 win last Saturday in Victoria and then the Knights break open a scoreless defensive battle on Monday night with a huge six-run eighth inning to win 6-0 in game two.
Tuesday’s game was equally as exciting, with the HarbourCats having the tying runs on second and third in the top of the ninth before closer Hazahel Quijada struck out the final two batters to win the game and send the Knights dog-piling on to the field.
Victoria had a chance to break open the game early, loading the bases with nobody out on Corvallis starter Trenton Toplikar, but then had their momentum broken on a controversial interference call by base umpire Tod Ellis on a sliding Tucker Johnson at second – a call that was never enforced any other time on the HarbourCats this season – that resulted in a double play being awarded. While the ‘Cats would push a run across after that on a wild pitch, one can only wonder if the outcome in the inning would have been better for Victoria without the controversy.
Toplikar would settle in after that and his offence would score runs in each of the second through fifth innings, including a solo, lead-off home run from Zak Taylor off Victoria starter Blake Hannah to get things started in the second, to give him a 4-1 cushion before leaving the game after the seventh inning.
The gritty HarbourCats would keep battling though, getting a run in the top of the eighth off Knight’s reliever Tanner Howell, when Justin Orton would double and later score on a sacrifice fly by Shane McGuire. Then in the top of the ninth, DJ Porter and Po-Hao Huang started the inning with back-to-back singles off of Howell. After Quijada entered the game, a failed sacrifice bunt attempt from Harrison Bragg forced Porter out at third, but both Huang and Bragg would move up on a wild pitch to set the stage for the closing dramatics.
Unfortunately for the HarbourCats, Quijada shut the door, striking out pinch-hitter Noah Prewett and Orton to save the 4-2 win.
Zak Taylor and Elliot Willy led the Knights eight-hit attack with two each, while Victoria’s Huang had two of the seven hits for the HarbourCats.
Toplikar gets the win, going seven innings and allowing one run on four hits, walking one and striking out four. Hannah takes the loss for Victoria, going six full innings and allowing the four Corvallis runs on eight hits, walking none and striking out six.
Despite the loss, the HarbourCats, making their second straight appearance in the WCL playoffs, can hold their heads high. That they even made it this deep into the 2017 playoffs was a testament to a gritty bunch of players and a coaching staff of Brian McRae, Jason Leone and Mike Spears that had to deal with a depleted roster and hold it together seemingly, with masking tape, paste and string, with some smoke and mirrors added for good effect.
On Tuesday, the HarbourCats were down to just nine position players, a total that would have been eight, had outfielder Ethan Lopez, who left the team earlier in the season, not rejoined the team for the final series. They were also limited in the bullpen with just nine pitchers, counting starter Hannah and two or three who were probably not available like Garrison Ritter, Taylor Prokopis, and Mike Musselwhite, who pitched extended innings in game two and Adam McKillican who pitched in game one. They did however get some much needed help when another earlier season departee, Radd Thomas, came back for the two games in Corvallis, pitching Tuesday night and shutting the Knights down over the last two innings.
In total, the HarbourCats, in a severe case of WCL roster attrition, lost 23 players from their roster between July 1st and the beginning of their series with the Knights. Despite that, Victoria battled neck-and-neck with Bellingham and Wenatchee over the last few weeks of the season, eking into the playoffs after an epic 17-16 loss to Port Angeles in their final game and then sitting and watching as Corvallis, ironically, defeated Wenatchee in a final make-up game of the year that gave Victoria the tie-break for the North Division title over Bellingham.
They then went on to defeat Kelowna in a two-game sweep in the first round, their first ever playoff wins (they were swept last season by Bellingham) and then on to the finals with Corvallis. In the process, the team also set a number of team records in just about every offensive category, including among others, total hits (551), total runs (345), RBIs (304), team batting average (.293) and home runs (45).
Those numbers were built on the backs of stand-out offensive players such as the late arriving University of San Diego freshman Shane McGuire and former ASU Sun Devil Andrew Shaps, who only went on to lead the team in hitting, finishing with .451 and .441 averages respectively, which would have easily won either of them the WCL batting title had they had the minimum number of at bats needed to qualify. They were also buoyed by Mississippi State outfielder Hunter Vansau who led the team in home runs and officially finished fifth in the league batting race with a .359 average, as well as leadoff hitter Harry Shipley who led the team in games played, hits, runs, walks, hit-by-pitch, triples and stolen bases.
On the mound, Victoria fans were treated to the likes of rookie Jack Owen, an incoming freshman for Auburn University, who ended up leading the league in ERA and the emergence of local and UBC product Adam McKillican, Victoria’s selection for Pitcher-of-the-Year. Then of course there was the debut of knuckleballer Claire Eccles, the first woman to play in the WCL and the first to ever record a win, getting that in a dramatic ninth inning come-from-behind win over Cowlitz in one of the craziest games played in Victoria in the five seasons of the club.
“This has truly been an incredible season and the last three weeks of it have been like a playoff game every night,” said HarbourCats GM Brad Norris-Jones the morning following the loss to Corvallis. “With a lineup strung together with bubble-gum and shoestrings, our players battled it out until the end. Our roster was depleted due to injuries and school, but even those early exits gave us everything they had before they left. The remaining players were warriors and dug deep each and every night to keep us in it. The boys played for the fans of Victoria.”
“This was a summer that none of them will forget,” added Norris-Jones. “Just one more hit and the final chapter would have been different. See you in the finals again next year Corvallis.”