After drawing average attendances of around 2,700 over the first month of the season, suddenly the Canadians were pulling in consistent 4,300-person crowds, and the C’s players duly rose to the occasion to show the fair-weather fans why they should be buying season tickets.
But when Buck is no longer gracing the Nat Bailey Stadium playing surface (and rumor has it that he won’t be here for much longer), the man most likely to have the baseball purists drooling is a 155 lb waif of a kid who opened the season with a plethora of strike-outs, and the miserable batting average of just .118.
Mike Massaro, a Colorado State, Pueblo outfielder who was plucked from the 13th round of the 2005 draft by Oakland, took total advantage of a recent Canadians roster shake-up by grabbing the lead-off spot, and putting on a slap-hitting, walk-drawing, base-stealing clinic that has seen his average climb to a healthy .320 with a .407 OBP in just two weeks. This radical turnaround in Massaro’s form has led some Vancouver fans to grace him with the nickname, “Michiro”.
Last night, in a rare 12-4 drubbing of the Canadians by the Salem-Kaizer Volcanoes, Massaro notched up a 2-3 performance with two walks, a double, a run and another batted in, while the attention-getting (and .360-hitting) Travis Buck went just 1-4 with 2 K’s and an error.
“Justin Sellers and I are kind of splitting the lead-off duties,” Massaro said. He added that “we’re going 1-2, which isn't bad for me because it's basically the same role.”
And platooning his position is something Massaro has had to grow used to, especially when the C’s squad started the season with over 40 players.
“When you have six outfielders, you expect that it’s going to be tough to get any sort of flow going, but you just do the best you can do when you actually do get a start, and hopefully you play well enough in those spot-starts to earn an everyday role,” Massaro said.
“Once that happens and you begin to find your rhythm, then you can really get going. I'm just finally getting comfortable, finally getting enough at bats so I can get my rhythm down and see the ball better - actually, a lot better. It's starting to all come together now, so hopefully I can keep that up and solidify my spot in the organization.”
Not everyone is enjoying the platooning role – Isaac Omura and Wilber Perez have been playing dueling errors at second base, Haas Pratt (.260) and Steve Kleen (.275) have been clamoring for the first base spot. Chalon Tietje (.228), Jeff Bieker (.231) and Chad Boyd (.294) have been pushing and shoving for the left field slot and Jose Garcia (.182) has been expelled from right field by the arrival of Travis Buck. The three-way logjam in the catching position has given the Canadians an embarrassment of backstop riches, while the players themselves jump from catcher to DH to bullpen warm-up man on a seemingly daily basis.
2002 high school catching recruit, Ty Bubalo, has finally seen the return of his home run power, hitting two in the last week (one in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Nat Bailey Stadium) and getting his average up from the half-Mendoza range that it had been anchored at in the early part of the season to a growing .190. 2005 18th rounder from Alvernia College, Anthony Recker, has been gunning down base-runners like he’s armed with an Uzi, all the while inching his batting average up to a respectable .245 and putting the occasional long bomb out of the park himself.
The struggler of the three, no surpise, is the guy who has only been allocated 32 at-bats over limited outings – Shawn Callahan. The 22nd rounder from Central Missouri State has struggled at the plate, hitting just .156, but he looks good on defense and would probably benefit from everyday starts in a big way, whether that be in Vancouver or in Arizona. As it stands, Callahan looks the most likely to be shifted, while Bubalo and Recker are pushing each other to perform better every day.
But if individual struggles have been a concern for Canadians players, the unity of the team has never been better, and the results that followed have been awesome. Saturday’s 4-3 win over Eugene has the Vancouver club able to boast that they have won every single series they’ve played so far this season, and their 24-9 record gives them a healthy 5-game gap over second-place Salem-Kaizer in the NWL western division as the All-Star break looms.
This week’s games ran the gamut from incredible to terrible, as they opened the week with a 4-1 away series win over Tri-City, and continued that form back home with an 11-1 shellacking of Eugene on Thursday night.
Jimmy Shull continued ‘Shull-shocking’ the opposition, conceding just two hits over 5 innings of work, and working with Ron ‘Mayday’ Madej and ‘Long’ John Herrera to shut the Emeralds out with a combined four-hitter. Shull’s four strikeouts on the night brought his K:BB ratio to an incredible 24:1, which tells you a little about how dominant he’s been at this level.
In offense, Jeff Baisley produced four RBIs in a 2-5 outing with a double. Baisley has shown good power in the past, but more recently he seems to have discovered an ability to place the ball selectively and keep runners moving around the bases, rather than swing for the fences every time up. He’s carrying a middling average of .253, but his RBI production, at 23 runs batted in, puts him in the top four in the NWL for the stat, with Spokane’s league-leading slugger Steven Murphy (7 HRs) only two RBIs ahead of the 12th round draftee from the University of South Florida.
Friday’s home game against the Em’s wasn’t quite so much fun as Joe Newby lived up to his surname, conceding seven runs in 0.2 innings of work as starter. From there, both teams hit freely and ended proceedings at a score of 12-5, with Travis Buck going 2-4 with a walk and two runs scored, while Haas Pratt went 2-3 with a double, and Anthony Recker put a three-run dinger over the long Nat Bailey Stadium wall in right center.
Defensively, ‘Dangerous’ Bradley Davis threw 3.1 innings of emergency relief and kept his 0.00 ERA intact, first baseman Steve Kleen guest-starred on the mound and threw .2 innings of no-run ball as a fill-in, and Jason ‘Death’ Ray rediscovered his control, striking out 3 of the 4 batters he faced and bringing his ERA down to 1.59.
Ray has been the quintessential ‘Nuke Laloosh’ this season:
Joe: He struck out 16 batters.
Larry: New league record!
Joe: He walked 16.
Larry: Another new league record! In addition he hit the sportswriter, the public address announcer, the bull mascot twice... All new league records. But Joe, this guy’s got some serious s***.
Ray throws a 95 mph fastball when he’s feeling the love, but he’s found it tough to rein in that fireball so far this year… until this week. Maybe it was the lack of pressure in relieving in the middle of a blowout, or maybe he’s just found his touch, but either way, if the Death Ray is hitting his spots over this coming week, opposing hitters will tremble.
Saturday’s game saw the Canadians fight back hard to prove the previous night was just an anomaly, edging out the Em’s 4-3 in a game that went down to the last pitch, where Brad ‘Killer’ Kilby had to strike out hot-hitting Chase Headley with bases loaded to get the win. The C’s had kept Eugene to just five hits all night, but errors had proved costly and nearly fatal.
If not for some daring small-ball and tactical genius by coach Juan Navarrete, and the speed of second baseman Wilber Perez, the game would have been lost. Navarrete had the C’s bunting for singles, stealing third, and exploiting Eugene’s shaky infield D to the max, while the pitching staff did its level best to keep their hitters in the game by showing some of their stingiest stuff of the week.
Sunday saw the Canadians start a road trip that would take them to Salem-Kaizer in Oregon, and then to Boise Idaho, and they responded to that bus ride by leaving starter Joe Piekarz hanging out to dry, committing errors and screwing up plays which would cause the recently promoted pitcher to lose his nerve and concede 11 hits in 4.1 innings. When John Herrera let in 5 earned runs in the bottom of the 8th, the game was well lost, and the Volcanoes had got just the series start that they were looking for.
They’ll need it – the C’s and Volcanoes play 12 games against each other this NWL season, and as the Everett AquaSox flounder, it looks like these two teams are going to fight to the finish for the Western Division pennant.
Chris Parry is a Canadian-based writer and journalist for Unreel Media, who covers the Northwest League for Oakland Clubhouse. He can be heard on CJSF 90.1FM Vancouver every Sunday morning from 11am-1pm… as long as the Canadians aren’t playing at home. He is also the author of a blog about the Vancouver Canadians called “Notes From the Nat”.