Canadian content important to Lugnuts' playoff run

By: Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

From the very beginning of the season, the Lansing Lugnuts squad had a special feeling to it.

Justin Atkinson knew it right away, coming into the team for his second consecutive year, this time as a catcher, after being converted from playing the infield previously. But it was different because of more than just that, with a strong lineup, a great pitching staff, and some guys who had won before, as champions of the Northwest League two years ago. 

“I feel like this team is stronger than last year’s,” the 22-year-old said before the Midwest League season got underway. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, a couple returning guys. For myself, I want to play as many games as I can and obviously everyone’s goal is to stay healthy. I want to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Now, that team is in the playoffs, after clinching a post-season spot by winning the Eastern Division with a 42-28 record in the first half of the year, and experiencing a lot of roster movement during the latter part of the season.

“The team we had coming out of spring training was pretty strong,” Atkinson said. “We had Rowdy [Tellez], [Ryan] McBroom, we had all those guys. But then we clinched the first half and then everyone started to disappear.

“Rowdy and [Anthony] Alford left [to join the Dunedin Blue Jays], and all those guys left. Now, we’re just trying to rebuild that strength that we had at the beginning of the year, get that momentum back and take it into playoffs so we can keep rolling and start beating teams and get a ring.”

The Lugnuts were the most Canadian team in all of baseball when the season began. The roster was home to four Canucks in Surrey, BC’s Atkinson, Saint John, NB’s Andrew Case, Drayton Valley, Alta.’s Shane Dawson, and Ladner, BC’s Tom Robson, who began the year on the disabled list as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery.

From April to September, all four experienced very different seasons, three of them on an eventual path right back to Lansing to head into playoffs with the only minor-league team in the Blue Jays organization to make it beyond the regular season. None remained with the Lugnuts for the whole year.

Robson was the only one who didn’t travel to Michigan’s capital city out of spring training, continuing his rehab in Dunedin, Fla., for a couple of additional months. Remarkably, the 22-year-old right-hander made his return to the mound in an official game less than a year after his procedure, getting into his first matchup with the Bluefield Blue Jays on July 7 after surgery on July 15 last year. He joined the Lugs to start the month of August.

“My arm is doing great and it feels pretty good to be back in games,” Robson said. “They had already clinched before I got here, so it was nice…and I’m excited. I think the whole team’s excited to go to playoffs. They start Wednesday and everyone’s looking forward to it. Shane Dawson’s starting, so he should give us a good game, and I’m excited for that.”

Dawson’s season has been a little bit of a whirlwind, and an incredible one at that. He began the year in Lansing and seemingly held the league lead in wins for the entire duration of his stay. When the 21-year-old southpaw left to join Team Canada in July for his first shot to play for his country at the Pan Am Games on home soil in Toronto, Ont., he had already racked up 12 victories.

After two stellar outings for the back-to-back Pan Am gold medal champion Canadian squad, Dawson returned to Lansing briefly before being promoted to the Dunedin Blue Jays. Between the two teams, he notched 15 wins this year – the highest total for a Canadian since Scott Diamond had the same number seven years ago – in 22 starts and 127 2/3 innings, striking out 120. He might have had even more, if not for missing time for the Games and for his sister Jade’s wedding, both well worth the time away.

“When I’m healthy, I can do good things on the baseball field,” Dawson said. “And I feel like I’ve proved that this year. The offence in Lansing has helped me steal a couple wins here and there, so I give a lot of credit to them, plus we have probably the best defence in the league, so it made it easy on me to just go out there and pitch.”

Like Atkinson, Dawson saw a lot of potential in the squad they both started the year with, downplaying his own contributions in helping the team to get to where they are now.

“Coming into every season you hope to be a championship contender,” he said. “This team kind of proved it right off the bat, with how we came out of the gate. Even though there have been a lot of changes to this lineup and this pitching staff, the core guys are still here and these guys are a group of leaders. Some of the guys who lost in Vancouver last year are really hungry because they want to win a championship this year.”

Dawson, Atkinson and Robson all spent time on the 2013 Vancouver Canadians roster, eventually winning the team’s third consecutive Northwest League championship that September. After his start in Lansing this year, Atkinson returned to Vancouver once more and didn’t know if he would get a chance to be with the Lugnuts on their current run and experience what he did two years ago. 

“I was in playoffs in 2013 and that was a great feeling, and we won the championship,” Atkinson said. “Then last year in Lansing we didn’t make it, so we just didn’t have that feeling anymore. This year when we clinched, I knew we were going to have that feeling again. And then obviously I got sent down [to Vancouver], so I didn’t know if I was coming back. Now that I’m back, that feeling is coming back again, and I’m ready to play baseball.”

Atkinson’s role with Lansing was clearly defined from the beginning of the year. The former utility infielder was the third catcher behind Danny Jansen and Michael De La Cruz, and would play wherever he could whenever they were able to fit him in. When the roster got crowded, he lost his place and needed somewhere he could play on a regular basis.

“I knew what my role was here in Lansing,” Atkinson said. “Then Danny was hitting well and I just couldn’t figure it out. I mean, obviously the numbers showed it, they just kept dropping and dropping, and I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to.

“Then [manager Ken Huckaby] pulled me in and said, ‘Hey listen, we’re going to make a move. It’s not a demotion, it’s not this, it’s not that, we’re just going to make sure you play every day.’ So I took that as an advantage. I went down there, did what I had to do, and played every inning. That’s what I wanted and that’s what I got, and obviously everyone can see what happened. Then I got promoted back up here and that’s going to keep going forward.”

In 52 games with the Canadians this season, Atkinson hit .294/.327/.402 with three homers, 12 doubles, a triple, 25 runs scored and 33 runs driven in, and was named the team’s Hitter of the Year.

“On the scoreboard it showed where I was stronger, and sometimes I would step up if the crowd would cheer; it was a good feeling,” Atkinson said of playing at home. “It was a good feeling this year because I was hitting and putting it together like last year. It was a good atmosphere and some of those games we should have won, we lost, but that happens.”

Case, who also went from Lansing to Vancouver this season, thrived in the bullpen for the short-season squad and made it a Canadian sweep for the Canadians, earning Pitcher of the Year honours after notching 10 saves. Between the two teams, the right-hander posted a 3.10 ERA over 52 1/3 innings, with 18 walks and 44 strikeouts.

Robson made a pitstop in Vancouver before joining the Lugs, working to find his command and stay consistent in his mechanics after being away from the hill for 12 months. With a 4.91 mark over 12 games and 36 2/3 innings with 19 walks and 35 strikeouts, the former fourth-round pick is dissatisfied with the results he’s found so far and is looking forward to having more time to sort through it.

“I haven’t been happy with it,” Robson said. “There’s a lot of mechanical stuff going on and I’m just trying to work it out. Jeff [Ware, pitching coach] has been really good about it, and Sal Fasano, our pitching coordinator, so we just keep working hard on it. I’m going to [the Fall Instructional League] as well, so I’ll have five weeks there to figure it out too.”

But Robson is confident in his ability to give his team a chance to win, and in their production. After pitching in the post-season two years ago, he is excited to perhaps get another chance to do just that, and would take the hill for the third game of the best-of-three series against the Great Lakes Loons, should he be needed.

“Honestly, to get an opportunity to pitch in playoffs is awesome,” the righty said. “I’m looking forward to it, whether it happens or not. If we win in two games, I think I’m starting the first game of the next series, so it should be fun no matter what. I can’t wait to see what happens…

“From what I’ve seen from our team, on any given day we can win for sure. We’ve got a really good offence, our defence is really good, and our pitching staff is solid. So if we can just keep our heads on straight, we should do well.”

Dawson will take the hill for the first game of the post-season, looking for a playoff win on his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. He is pumped about the team Lansing has to take to the field and is hoping for more of what he experienced when he was with the Lugnuts to start the year.

“I’m excited,” Dawson said. “I want a chance to win a ring so that’s why I’m here. I’m excited to be here and hopefully we can pull a championship run together here…There are some small changes to the team, but I feel like this is a good group to try and win a championship with. Everybody wants to win it and I feel like everybody will set their egos aside to try and win this championship.”

Amidst their busy years, all of the minor league Canuck up-and-comers have been watching their big-league affiliate do something they’ve never seen before – hold first place in the final month of the regular season. Dawson, Atkinson and Robson were all born during the summer before Toronto’s second World Series championship, just newborn infants when the team won. But now they’re excited to see what their country’s squad can do, and hoping they can find the same success.

“Drew [McDonald] and I, our trainer, are always talking about it,” Robson said of the Blue Jays. “He’s from Toronto and obviously I’m BC, so I’ll get the score updates from him during our games so I know what’s going on. It’s been unreal the way they’ve been playing. I’m a big fan of the Blue Jays so I’m stoked. I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Atkinson said:  “It is especially cool watching the Blue Jays play right now. I mean, you’ve got I don’t even know how many all-stars on that team, and watching Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson obviously, it’s going to be good for the city if they get into playoffs. Obviously it would be the first time since 1993, so it’s good for them.”

Added Dawson: “It’s really exciting to be a part of an organization that is finally starting to win – I guess you could say – at the big-league level. The atmosphere is different. It just seems like every game they go out, they expect to win, instead of just going through the motions and hoping for the best. This team expects to win and it kind of trickles down upon the minor leagues because they see guys like that up in the big leagues and those are the guys they have to try and emulate and beat out for jobs, so that puts a good atmosphere within the whole organization.”