With their last three games of the regular season, the Spokane Indians did exactly what they wanted to do: gain momentum heading into the Northwest League Championship Series.
Spokane’s 3-1 win over Boise on Wednesday capped a 51-25 regular-season record, the best in the league by eight games and Spokane’s best since 1987. Tonight at 6:30, the Indians start a best-of-5 series against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (40-36) at Avista Stadium.
Salem-Keizer and Eugene finished with identical records and split their season series 6-6. The Volcanoes were awarded the West Division title by virtue of the second tiebreaker – having the best record against West third-place finisher Vancouver.
“Not a lot of guys get to win championships – at all,” said Indians utility player Jared Bolden. “To be able to have a chance to go after one for your first time – first being in the league, first time playing pro ball with wood bats and everything – it’s a very big deal.”
The Indians head into the series with a 7-3 record over the Volcanoes this season. But Spokane manager Tim Hulett is quick to point out that, in the postseason, records don’t mean a thing.
Each team’s lineups have changed a bit. The Indians lost a big bat in Mike Bianucci and a starting infielder in second baseman Jason Ogata, each out with broken hands.
Outfielder Eric Fry clearly remembers the Indians’ first game against the Volcanoes in June, a 14-2 massacre in which Spokane committed six errors.
“It’s kind of good knowing that we’ve been able to beat these guys consistently,” Bolden said. “But when the playoffs start, it’s a whole different story.”
Salem-Keizer is the two-time defending champion, while Spokane last won the championship in 2005.
Hulett thinks the Indians’ momentum – Spokane won eight of the last 10 games – should give them a leg up in the championship series.
The biggest thing the Indians have going for them is solid pitching.
Spokane led the league on the mound with a 3.46 team earned-run average. Salem-Keizer’s ERA was 4.22 heading into Wednesday’s 8-5 loss.
“Usually, in playoffs it is pitching – the team that gets the best pitching is usually the team that wins,” Hulett said. “As a general rule, playoffs are usually lower-scoring games anyhow.”
Bolden said he thinks the three-game sweep the Indians completed Wednesday against Boise has helped them prepare for the postseason. On Monday, Spokane came from behind in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Hawks 3-2. On Tuesday, the Indians rallied late in the game for a 6-4 victory.
Wednesday’s game was another close one. Though Boise threatened in the last few innings, the Indians held the Hawks at bay.
But, no rest for the weary. The Indians host the Volcanoes tonight.
“If I gotta tell them something to get them motivated to play in the playoffs, they’re probably doing the wrong thing,” Hulett said. “I think everybody’s excited about it. And we talked more about it a couple days ago, of just finishing strong and creating the momentum. And the guys have done that, so we’re ready.”
Watch for these players in the championship series:
•Joey Butler: Maintained one of the league’s best on-base percentages (.416) all season. He got off to a sizzling start in June, batting .528, before settling down to his regular-season average of .301. He has just four home runs, but leads the Indians in walks with 40.
•Eric Fry: Hit .296 and is the last holdover Spokane player from last season. His batting improved every month, from .289 in June to .304 in July to .310 in August. He snuck into the last spot on the NWL’s regular-season top-10 batting list.
•Jake Kaase: If he hadn’t jumped among a handful of teams this season he would be fifth on that list with his .320 average. The shortstop returned to the Indians in August, bringing another powerful bat to the offense and a dependable glove to the defense.
•Wilfredo Boscan: Indians fans voted the right-hander this season’s team MVP and for good reason. The 18-year-old put together the NWL’s best record, 9-1, and secured a 3.12 ERA. He also had the fourth-most strikeouts in the league with 70. He will start tonight’s opener.
•Ryan Schlecht: Hulett has said he doesn’t worry when reliever Schlecht is on the mound. The righty (4-2) got five saves in six opportunities, and in 23 games struck out 45 with a 1.48 ERA.
•Kyle Higgins: A relatively unassuming player all year – until the past three games. Since Monday, the second-baseman’s batting average has jumped 47 points, from .224 to .271 after batting .667 in the three-game Boise series.
•Mike Loberg: The first baseman batted .292, led the league in RBIs (49) and was second in runs scored (53). He was tied for third in the league with eight home runs.
•Michael Ambort: Finished second in the league with nine home runs and batted .328. His slugging percentage was .664 in 34 games.
•Mike Loree: He was the league’s leading pitcher with a 2.44 ERA. The right-hander topped the league with 81 innings pitched. Though his record was only 4-3, Loree finished second in the league with 75 strikeouts.
•Andrew Reichard: The right-hander finished just behind Reichard with a 2.87 ERA. He finished with a 3-2 record.