Christian J. Stewart
Less than 24 hours following one of the craziest finishes to the West Coast League regular season ever, where two teams with nothing to play for decided the fate of two teams who had already completed the season, the Victoria HarbourCats and Kelowna Falcons kicked off their North Division Championship series Tuesday night, with the HarbourCats earning an 8-2 win over the Falcons in Game 1 of their best-of-three set in front of 1,720 fans at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria.
The HarbourCats, who were an out away from clinching the North title in their last regular season game on Sunday before a controversial two-out, bases-loaded balk call in the bottom of the 11th inning allowed Port Angeles to tie the game and then win it one batter later in a crazy 17-16 walk off Lefties win, had to wait an extra day and then get some help from Corvallis, who defeated Wenatchee 12-1 Monday night, to sneak into the playoffs as the second-half North Division Champion.
In another quirk of fate, had Wenatchee won their game against Corvallis Monday, then the Bellingham Bells would have been second-half North Division champions and the HarbourCats would have been cleaning out their lockers instead of hosting game one against the Falcons, the first-half North winners. Instead, the Bells find themselves on the outside, despite finishing the season with the best overall record in the North at 31-23.
Tuesday's Victoria-Kelowna game had not nearly as much drama as the final three days of the regular season and proceeded rather quietly in comparison to the first few innings.
The HarbourCats and starter Garrison Ritter would spot the Falcons a 2-0 lead on a second inning solo home run from Kade Hall and a third inning sacrifice fly from Taylor Wright, but then respond with two of their own in the bottom of the second thanks to a wild pitch that scored Justin Orton, who reached on a one out walk and an RBI single from Andrew Shaps that scored Shane McGuire, who had doubled.
The 'Cats went to reliever Cole Masik to begin the fourth and he did not fare well, walking the bases loaded on the first three Falcons he faced. That brought in left-handed pitcher Ethan Fox, returning to the HarbourCats after a stint with the Okotoks Dawgs and he killed the threat, retiring the first three batters he faced, two on strikeouts, to get the 'Cats out of the inning unscathed.
The HarbourCats would respond with a run in the bottom of that frame and then break out for three more in the bottom of the sixth on the strength of a two-run home run from Harrison Bragg, his third homer in the last two games, and a back-to-back shot from DJ Porter deep to left-centre field to put Victoria up 6-2.
That would spell the end for Kelowna starter Cal Hehnke who would give way to Ryan Smith for the seventh. Smith would not fare any better, loading the bases and walking in a run with two outs and then giving up a wild pitch that allowed another run to score, extending the HarbourCats lead to 8-2.
Fox meanwhile, remained brilliant for Victoria, keeping Kelowna scoreless through the seventh inning, giving up just three hits and striking out four, before giving way to Mike Musselwhite to start the eighth.
Musselwhite, a Grade 11 product from Victoria, was equally as good, retiring the Falcons in order in the eighth and then doing the same in the ninth to close out the 8-2 win.
For the HarbourCats, three different players finished with two-hit evenings including Hunter Vansau, Shaps, Kevin Collard, Bragg and Porter. Bragg and Porter added two RBIs each while Po-Hao Huang walked twice, had a hit, RBI and two runs scored. Alex McGarry had two of the four hits for Kelowna.
Fox takes the win in relief of Ritter, while Hehnke takes the loss for Kelowna going six innings and giving up six runs on nine hits while walking two and striking out five. Trey Evans finished off the final one and a third innings for the Falcons.
The 'Cats and Falcons now head to Kelowna for Games 2 and (if needed) 3 in the series on Wednesday and Thursday night. Game time at Elks Stadium in Kelowna on both night's is 6:35 PM.
In other playoff action on Tuesday night, the Corvallis Knights and Yakima Valley Pippins began their best-of-three South Division Championship, with Yakima defeating Corvallis 9-3 in the in Game 1 in Yakima. Games 2 and 3 (if needed) go Wednesday and Thursday in Corvallis.
Game Notes: Victoria's Shane McGuire and Andrew Shaps finished the regular season hitting .451 and .441 respectively. Had they maintained those averages and obtained the minimum number of at bats to be eligible for the batting title, they would have easily finished one-two, as Bellingham's Austin Shenton won the title with a .409 average. Officially, Victoria's Hunter Vansau (.359) finished 5th in the batting title race.