2016 brings thrills, experience and lessons learned for HarbourCats

By Jonathan Hodgson

(Also published on the Canadian Baseball Network)

The Victoria HarbourCats showed during the 2016 West Coast League regular season that they are ready compete among the league’s elite. The playoffs also proved that assembling the puzzle pieces to a championship is a process that is not often completed in one year.

Make no mistake about it; Victoria’s fourth season in the West Coast League, a summer-collegiate circuit for North America’s top collegiate talent, was a “no-doubter” grand slam success.

The momentum began building with a 21-8 finish to the 2015 campaign that saw the HarbourCats finish just two games out of the playoffs. The organization used the off-season to re-tool and brought back several key pieces on all sides of the baseball.

Nanaimo, BC’s Griffin Andreychuk (Seattle U) returned to man second base for his third summer, outfielder AJ Alcantara (UC Irvine) was brought back, and valuable utility man PJ Floyd re-signed, each for their second seasons. Right-handed pitcher Austin Dondanville (Cal Poly) and lefty Josh Mitchell (Pitt) returned to lead the pitching staff.

The veteran contingent complimented by a talented crop of newcomers quickly meshed and the club began 2016 right where they ended the previous August. After a season-opening sweep at the hands of the Walla Walla Sweets, the HarbourCats reeled off a WCL-record 19-consecutive victories, easily surpassing the previous league record of 14-straight by the 2011 Wenatchee AppleSox.

The streak also more than doubled the previous franchise record of nine straight, achieved twice, and with win number 18, the HarbourCats clinched the WCL North Division first half pennant with six games still remaining.

The league switched to a split-season playoff format for 2016, similar to that of the short-season Northwest League, allowing the HarbourCats to clinch the first playoff berth for a Victoria-based baseball team since the 1952 Victoria Tyees of the class-A Western International League with still six weeks and 33 games remaining in the regular season.

They would finish with a 23-4 record in the first half, which included a perfect 15-0 record at home, where they would start 16-0 before finally falling to the defending league champion Bend Elks on July 10.

Also factoring in to the remarkable first half for the club was the all-time high of eight former or current HarbourCats selected in the 2016 MLB June Draft, including the starter of the 2016 home opener, Dalton Erb who, days after taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Victoria, signed with the San Diego Padres.

Speaking of no-nos; HarbourCat took a no-hitter into the sixth inning or later six times in 2016.

Baseball fans in Victoria took notice of what was unfolding. The pennant-clinching 11-1 win on June 30 took place in front of a WCL single-game record 5,133 fans at Royal Athletic Park on the corner of Caledonia Avenue and Vancouver Street in the B.C. capital.

By season’s end, 60,466 fans had passed through the gates of the historic ballpark that has been receiving a steady facelift in recent years by the HarbourCats for a per-game average of 2,239. Both were franchise and league records, and represents an increase of over 10,000 over last season’s figures, or 329 more per game over a year ago.

Six HarbourCats went to the 2016 WCL All-Star Game at David Story Field in Longview, WA, home of the Cowlitz Black Bears. They included their top three starting pitchers as well as Andreychuk, Alcantara, and outfielder Jarron Silva (UCLA).

With a playoff spot in their back pocket combined with the everyday nature of baseball and a lack of depth after the departures of a number of players, the HarbourCats torrid pace levelled out somewhat in the second half.

Even so, they still posted a very strong 17-10 second half record, tying them for top spot in the division with the Bellingham Bells, who won the second half pennant based on season series.

After losing the opener of their final regular season series against the Yakima Valley Pippins and sitting at 38-14, the HarbourCats needed to win their final two games of the season to set a new WCL record for wins in a season.

That is exactly what they did, defeating the Pippins 6-2 and 11-4 on the final two days of the season to become the first WCL team to win 40 games, eclipsing the previous mark of 39-15, also set by Wenatchee in 2011.

When a team wins 19-straight and sets a league record for wins, there is no one reason for their success, but a combination of contributing factors.

The HarbourCats offense led the WCL scoring 331 runs, good for 6.1 per game. Next best was Yakima, a full 76 runs fewer at 255, or 1.4 runs per game fewer at 4.7

Victoria had the league’s top batting average (.278), and most home runs (26) and tied with Yakima with a league-best 498 hits.

Alcantara led the hit parade with his .333 batting average, also contributing three home runs and 16 RBIs while reaching over the left field fence to make three home run-saving catches. The senior-to-be for the Anteaters of UC Irvine was named the club’s Player of the Year.

Returning outfielder and first baseman Ben Polshuk (Cal Poly) found his power stroke in 2016, leading the club with five homeruns and 23 RBIs.

The pitching staff was an equal factor in the team’s success, pitching to a team ERA of 3.21, good for fourth in the WCL.

Mitchell, a bullpen arm last summer, emerged as one of the team’s three ‘aces’ along with Dondanville and North Vancouver, B.C. righty Will McAffer (Central Arizona). Together the trio would go 19-3 with each posting an ERA below three.

Mitchell set new HarbourCats records for wins (7) as he went undefeated, and strikeouts (61). Dondanville finished 6-1, setting new franchise marks for career wins (10) and career strikeouts (85). The pair were named the team’s Co-Pitchers of the Year.

The back end of the bullpen was lights out, led by right-handers Holden Lyons (Oklahoma City) and Greg Casper (South Dakota State) who ended the season with five saves apiece, setting the new franchise record together. Casper struck out more than a hitter per inning while Lyons pitched a string of 24.2 consecutive scoreless innings.

In all, five HarbourCats were named All-WCL First Team and one (Floyd) was named All-WCL Second Team.

You also do not have a 40-14 season without emergence from secondary and sometimes unexpected sources.

Cochrane, AB catcher Riley Guntrip joined the team on a 10-day contract to begin the season, earned his way into a full season contract ending the year as the team’s primary catcher. Guntrip, who came to Victoria a seldom-used backstop from Siena Heights University (NCAA Div. 2) in Michigan, hit .270 with a home run and 11 RBIs in 26 and will report to the University of British Columbia this fall for his junior year with an opportunity to earn a major role for head coach Chris Pritchett.

Infielder Ryan Anderson (UC Davis) hit just .158 in 12 games during the first half, but after an injury to Andreychuk presented an opportunity, he ended the season with 21 hits and drove in 13 runs on a 14-game hitting streak to finish the season batting an even .300 with 21 RBIs which ranked second on the team.

HarbourCats skipper, Maple Ridge BC’s Graig Merritt, a former Tampa Bay Rays minor league catcher and NCAA Division II national champion at Chico State, was named WCL Coach of the Year in his second season at the helm in Victoria.

The HarbourCats matched up against the Bellingham Bells in the best-of-three North Division Finals. What unfolded during the HarbourCats first-ever playoff series on August 9-10 was reminiscent of what the Toronto Blue Jays went through against the Kansas City Royals in 2015 when the upstart Blue Jays went up against a hungry and established Royals club that went on to win the World Series a year after losing game seven against the San Francisco Giants.

A excited, hot new team that had burst onto the playoff stage for the first time went up against a playoff-savvy franchise that had already learned what it takes to win in playoff time. Bellingham made their third straight playoff appearance in 2016, having won the 2014 WCL Championship, and it showed.

The Bells scratched out a seventh inning run to take a hard fought 3-2 victory in game one at home at Joe Martin Field, the first professional home field of Ken Griffey Jr., as the series shifted back to Victoria.

There was no messing around by the Bells in game two as they took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and stunned the home team, and crowd, with five more in the second to take a commanding 7-0 lead, and would cruise to a 12-1 victory, advancing to the championship series and ending the HarbourCats dream season short.

The early playoff exit will absolutely leave a sour taste in the HarbourCats mouths throughout the off-season, but that should be seen as a good thing. 2016 was a tremendous year of growth and learning for the Victoria HarbourCats.

Winning championships is more often than not a multi-year process that comes about through experience and growth. Just look at this year’s Championship Series matchup in the WCL that pits the Bells against the four-time champion and eight-time finalist Corvallis Knights who qualified for the postseason for the 10th consecutive year in 2016.

The HarbourCats arrived as a legitimate factor this season, and also learned a lot about themselves and what it takes to win when the games mean the most.

Those are very valuable lessons that 2016 WCL Executive of the Year Jim Swanson and the entire organization will use to better themselves and make adjustments that they hope will enable them to take the next step in 2017.

The Victoria HarbourCats organization grew up quickly in 2016. Next year everything won’t be so new, there won’t be so many records, firsts and emphasis on the first 54 games. Next year, eyes will be on winning four games in mid-August.

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