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Indians still want blue ribbon

Playoffs in baseball’s minor leagues are not as pointless as political conventions, but they do have that afterthought feel to them.

At least there are no speeches.

Sure, everybody likes to a win a championship and bling is bling, even if the ring is from a bus league best-of-5 and not the World Series.

But the kids have gone back to school, siphoning off their parents and more than half the fan base – the generally jammed outfield bleachers Thursday night were as vacant as a college dorm during spring break. The twinkling lights of the Fairgrounds midway readying for weekend customers served as another suggestion that it’s time for baseball to move over, as does today’s 1:30 p.m. start for Game 2 of the Northwest League championship series – the last in Spokane this season.

Good luck to the ballclub, is the insinuation, but bring on the blue-ribbon goats and the Steam and Gas Buffs.

Speaking of steam and gas, the Spokane Indians could use a little of both after a rather humdrum 5-3 loss to Salem-Keizer in the playoff opener. Having dominated both the NWL (51 victories) and the Volcanoes (winning seven of 10) during the regular season, the Indians have now surrendered half the home-field advantage they didn’t have in the first place, with three games booked for Keizer.

Still, manager Tim Hulett was unwilling to hype Game 2 as Armageddon.

“When you’re in the playoffs,” he said, “they’re all big.”

Actually, what he might hope to summon is less playoff fever and more of the sure-and-steady performance his team made routine in the regular season.

As much as anything, the 2008 Indians fed off starting pitching – four pitchers in an incredibly young rotation had earned run averages less than 4.00. But on Thursday night, Wilfredo Boscan – winner of nine games and an NWL all-star – was unsettled at best, struggling with his control and getting touched for seven hits in five innings. The Volcanoes’ Andy Reichard, in contrast, was a rock.

Might have been as simple as the difference between sending an 18-year-old out there as opposed to a 23-year-old – and an opening error by shortstop Jacob Kaase couldn’t have helped Boscan’s outlook.

“He seemed a little nervous,” Hulett allowed. “When he struggles with his command, that’s an oddity, because he’s always throwing strikes.”

Spokane has also made a habit of the timely rally – 25 of their victories this season were of the come-from-behind variety, including 11 when it trailed or were tied after six innings.

And while the Indians did put together a three-run seventh, highlighted by Eric Fry’s two-run shot into the short porch in right field, they whiffed on their biggest opportunity – bases loaded in the sixth, quashed by Volcanoes reliever Joseph Edens with strikeouts of Matt West and Doug Hogan.

Whatever the Indians proved during the regular season, the stakes have obviously changed.

“We’re coming off a three-game series with Boise, facing guys who were about to go home,” Kaase noted. “Now you’re facing guys playing to win – playing for a championship. That’s a different setting.”

There is also an obligation to history – since the return to short-season baseball 25 years ago, the Indians have never lost an NWL playoff series. They’re 7 for 7.

Winning works, but it’s amusing sometimes how incidental it seems in the minor leagues – not necessarily to the players who have a grail immediately in front of them, but in the bigger picture.

Hulett and others in the parent Texas Rangers organization will insist that winning certainly is a major part of the development mission – and with four of their affiliates in the postseason and three that posted the best records in their league, the Rangers certainly fulfilled it this year.

That’s one reason why Spokane’s ownership re-upped for two more years with the Rangers this week, having found itself playing for a title for the third time in six years.

But how much of an impression it makes on the average game-goer is debatable. The Indians once again had a great summer at the gate, but not as great as last year when the ballclub was 33-42. There was just as much sunshine and cold beer, so maybe the E goes to the economy.

And then all of 1,587 showed up Thursday night. It’s the summertime thing to do, but not the September thing.

Except for the 30 guys who are on the Rangers’ payroll and want to stay there next season.

Hulett said before the series that one of the things he liked best about his team – that come-from-behind knack – was the result of players willing to give themselves up to start rallies and keep them going.

“Sometimes when you get down three or four runs, a hitter will – not intentionally – start hitting for himself, and you become an easier out in the process,” he said. “Our guys have done things that sometimes cost you points off your average.

“I told our guys, we haven’t reached our goal. Our goal wasn’t to get into the playoffs, it was to win the playoffs. And if you win playoffs, management looks beyond the numbers when they look at you as a player.”

So somebody’s watching. Just not as many paying customers.