And yet, here we are, in the final weeks of the season, and even with the NWL West second and third place teams faltering down the stretch (Everett is 5-5 in their last 10, while Salem-Kaizer is 4-6), the Vancouver Canadians have seen their lead reduced to just two games coming in to their second-last home-stand of the year.
The reasons for this collapse are many – an over-reliance on dominant pitching, a collapse in the form of several formerly reliable hitters, fundamental fielding errors, even base-running errors like running towards a base that already has a runner perched on it.
Is this just a case of averages evening out? Is it just an inevitable case of college players struggling to keep up with every-day baseball? Is it a lack of confidence? Is it too much confidence?
Whatever the reason, even as the C’s fall back to earth, there’s plenty to enjoy about their last week of play… if you look hard enough.
1. TY BUBALO IS BACK: High school catching draftee, Ty Bubalo, a 2002 26th rounder, has been a fixture at this level of the Oakland organization over the past four seasons, lighting it up in Arizona in 2003, taking a back seat to Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki in 2004, and subsequently having to fight teammates Shawn Callahan (22nd round 2005) and Anthony Recker (18th round, 2005) for every at-bat this season. Bubalo has had injury issues, with an early season oblique strain contributing to some shaky form with the bat for much of the year, but recently Bubalo worked his way over the Mendoza Line for the first time, and it seemed as if a huge weight was suddenly lifted off him as he began unloading on NWL pitching. He’s still only sporting a .212 average, and he strikes out like a crazy man (8 walks to 48 K’s at press time), but his three home runs and 20 RBI’s are keeping the C’s scoreboard ticking over. To put that in perspective, regular clean-up hitter Haas Pratt has only driven in 4 more RBIs with 3 more home runs and 70 extra at-bats.
2. CHAD BOYD WILL NOT BE DENIED: If there’s a bigger gamer in the Vancouver team right now than Chad ‘Tum-Tum’ Boyd, he’s keeping pretty well hidden. Boyd picked up his nickname from having worked as a stunt double on the feature film ‘3 Ninjas Kick Back’ when he was a kid, and not only has he won over the Vancouver fans with his ninja-like moves in the outfield, and his attitude is so well respected, on and off the field, that he has an unofficial fan club in the works. With the lumber, the 2004 9th rounder out of El Camino High School is only hitting .281, but when you consider he went nearly two weeks without a hit during a road trip in early August, his recent turnaround has been solid.
3. HAAS PRATT – PICKING UP THE SLACK: For a 30th rounder from 2004, Haas Pratt is defying expectations with a late season form spurt that has him ready to take back the starting 1st baseman gig from the slumping Steve Kleen. Pratt opened the season with 3 dingers in the opening series against the Yakima Bears, but then came back to earth with a thud, going from star of the team to sometime-DH over the subsequent months. But as the C’s offensive lynchpin, Jeff Baisley, has found himself walked more often than pitched to in recent weeks, the job of protecting him in the line-up has fallen increasingly to Pratt, and the 6’5” Arkansas University grad hasn’t disappointed. Just over the last three nights (three low-scoring losses), Pratt has gone 2-4 with a run scored, 2-4 with a homerun and 2 runs scored, and 2-5 with 2 runs scored and an RBI. At the same time, his main competition for a starting spot, Steve Kleen, has managed 1 hit in his last 18 at-bats.
4. JOE NEWBY: DOMINANT FORCE: Yes, that’s right, I’m calling a guy who wasn’t even drafted by any Major League team over 50 rounds a ‘dominant force’. The A’s picked this kid up for nothing after he was overlooked in the 2004 draft, and though he had a couple of early scrapes where he got beat up, Joe Newby has battled back to show that he’s worthy of a good long, hard look by the A’s brass. His last three starts have seen him rack up numbers of 18 innings pitched, 12 hits, 3 earned runs, 2 walks, 8 K’s. Not “Oh my god, get this kid to Oakland” numbers, but certainly a sign that his 94 mph fastball is worth tracking for another season of pro ball. On an aside, nobody has eaten up more innings in the Vancouver rotation than The Newb’.
5. MIKE MADSEN IS INSANE: A record of 5-1, with a league-leading 1.86 ERA, 11 walks against 46 strikeouts. Two starts ago Madsen threw 8 innings of 2-hit scoreless ball, walking nobody and striking out 6. Send this kid upstairs already!
6. ‘DANGEROUS’ BRADLEY DAVIS: The last two innings of baseball he threw resulted in 6 strikeouts, no hits, no walks, no chance for the hitter at all. He’s 4-1 on the year with a 0.62 ERA, and his walk to strikeout ratio is 8:38. Lights out.
7. JIMMY SHULL DEALS THE SHULL-SHOCK: Through gritted teeth and a sneering, determined look, 2005 4th rounder Jimmy Shull instills fear in hitters before they even see the velocity on his fastball. But when he deals the pain as he did in his most recent start – going 6 innings while conceding only 2 hits, striking out 7 and walking 1, you just know he’s headed for bigger things. Shull has gone 24.2 innings in his four most recent starts, giving up 15 hits, just 3 earned runs, walking 3, and striking out 25. He’s the real deal. He’s now 3-2 on the year, with a 2.62 ERA that includes 7 walks and a whopping 57 strikeouts.
8. JOE PIEKARZ IS HERE TO STAY: Earlier in the year, Joe Piekarz was sent down to Arizona for there were simply too many pitchers on the Vancouver roster and he was considered the surplus-to-requirements man in the pack. He was quickly back when Mighty Joe Scott and Mike Mitchell were promoted to Kane County, and, though he struggled a little at times, the last few outings have announced Joe Piekarz as being worthy of his spot – and then some. The 6’2” lefty was an after-thought free agent pick-up in 2004, but in his last two starts he has gone 12 innings, given up 7 hits, 1 earned run, 2 walks and notched up 8 K’s. He’s now 3-2 on the year with a 3.67 ERA, which looks pedestrian alongside some of Vancouver’s pitching stats, but on any other team in the NWL would give him Rotation Ace status.
The NWL winds up in early September, and if Vancouver can keep their slender 2-game lead, they’ll play-off against the NWL East winner, which in all likelihood will be a sub-.500 team, so the coming weeks are all important. Can they hold on? Can they keep their stars? Will the in-form 8 continue dominating, or will they be joined by their currently-slumping teammates? Check back here for updates.
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”.