By CJ Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
Travel has never been much of an issue for the Okanagan Athletics, so they sure don’t mind going on one extra trip this season.
After finishing the regular season in fifth place, the Kelowna squad had to make the four-hour drive to face the fourth-place Langley Blaze in the Final 8 round of the BC Premier Baseball League playoffs – a best-of-three series with the winner moving on to the Final 4 in Victoria. The Blaze entered the series as the defending champs and a perennial powerhouse each season, whereas the A’s came in as a bit of an underdog.
Okanagan head coach Evan Bailey felt a bittersweet sensation when he realized that his team would be playing Langley; the Blaze are a team no one wants to face in the playoffs, but it also brought an opportunity to do something special and take them out.
Langley jumped out of the gate to take Game 1 of the series, as they scored five in the bottom of the sixth and held on for the 5-2 victory. Cooper Misic took the win for the Blaze, while Kristjan Storrie helped power the offence with a two-run home run.
The A’s knew they’d have to play desperate baseball in the next game to keep their season alive, but they didn’t panic. Part of the confidence came from having their ace Matt Brodt on the mound, as he had no-hit Langley earlier this season. He proved that that performance was no fluke, shutting down the Blaze again by allowing just two hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings, and then he finally got some run support in the bottom of the seventh.
The A’s didn’t even need to hit the ball in that frame to bring the winning run around, as a hit-by-pitch and three walks gave Okanagan the 1-0 walk-off victory to force a Game 3 on Sunday.
The Blaze averaged over five runs per game during the regular season, but their bats fell silent again in Game 3. Okanagan’s Easton Forrest twirled seven scoreless innings, and the offence scored a bit earlier on in this contest – plating one in the second and three in the third to lead the way to a 4-0 victory.
“We had a really good start from Easton Forrest, and then we were able to capitalize early,” said Bailey. “We had a couple of big, timely hits and then from there we kept the momentum with us. Your pitcher is going out there and putting up zero after zero, and we just never really allowed them to get going.”
Okanagan will join the North Shore Twins, Nanaimo Pirates, and host Victoria Eagles in the PBL Final 4, all of whom swept their first round series.
First-place North Shore kept the Abbotsford Cardinals off the scoresheet during their series, rolling to 7-0 and 5-0 victories. Matteo Vincelli took the ball for North Shore in Game 1 and allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out 10 over seven scoreless, while eight different Twins recorded a hit to pace the offence. In Game 2, Braeden Toikka managed to best Vincelli’s performance, firing a no-hitter while walking three and striking out seven.
Over on Vancouver Island, the third-place Nanaimo Pirates battled the Whalley Chiefs. The Pirates emerged victorious from a pitchers’ duel in Game 1, with Whalley’s Isaac Greer and Nanaimo’s Josh Burgmann going head-to-head, but Shawn Arabsky broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth with an RBI double to help the Pirates to a 2-1 win. In game two, Nanaimo’s high-powered offence came alive to roll to a 7-2 victory, with Zach Diewert leading the way by going 3-for-4 at the plate.
Further south on the island, the Victoria Eagles battled the North Delta Blue Jays, who were back in the Final 8 for the first time since 2010. The series lived up to being a low-scoring affair, but the Eagles recorded the timely hits and advanced with 4-0 and 3-1 wins. Ethan Skuija allowed just two hits and one walk for the complete game shutout in game one, and Fynn Chester picked up the win in Game 2 with 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball. Mackenzie Marquis, who owned a .392 batting average during the regular season, had three of North Delta’s five hits in Game 2.
There’s no clear-cut favourite of the four remaining squads. North Shore heads in as regular season champ thanks to their 34-10 record, but Victoria and Nanaimo were right behind at 32-13 and 31-15, respectively. All four possess strong pitching staffs and balanced lineups, with each possessing an edge in a certain facet of their game.
“They’re all good teams,” said Bailey. “Nanaimo’s a high-powered offensive team – that’s their thing. Usually you’re going to have high-scoring games against them. North Shore and Victoria are a little stronger on the pitching side and they can hit as well … all three of those teams have really good lineups. They’re going to be tough.”
As for the A’s, they’ll again enter as a bit of an underdog, though they embrace the role in hopes of taking teams by surprise – somewhat like they did to Langley last weekend.
“I think the playoffs are all about timing,” said Bailey. “I think that you can basically everything out in the regular season. If anything, we’re not the team with the pressure on us. It’s about executing; teams are going to have chances, and the team that gets that big two-out hit or that big timely hit [will execute] – and obviously those teams that make the basic plays.
“I think one of the keys to winning is just keeping your emotions in check and playing an even keel the whole time, and not getting too high and getting too low. I like our chances as much as anyone else, just for the fact that it’s a three-day tournament … you get hot at the right time, you ride momentum, and anyone can win it.”
The Final 4 starts Friday, July 31 at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria. There will be a round-robin format, and the team with the best record will advance straight to Sunday’s final. The second and third-place teams will then play to advance to the gold medal game.