During Tim Hulett’s first six years as Spokane Indians manager, he strived to guide his players to a Northwest League East Division title over challenges from Boise, Yakima and Tri-City.
Hulett won’t operate with that directive this season.
The Indians skipper still has an appetite for winning, but his goal will be different after the NWL’s dramatic shift.
The Yakima Bears have moved to Hillsboro (Ore.) and become the Hops after 23 consecutive seasons in Yakima. The NWL responded by splitting the league North-South rather than East-West, shaking up the divisions.
Now Spokane’s objective is to win the North Division against Tri-City, Everett and two-time defending NWL champion Vancouver.
Hillsboro, Boise, Eugene and Salem-Keizer are in the South Division.
Hulett welcomes the change, for the most part.
“Other than having to go to Vancouver twice on three-day trips, I like it,” Hulett said. “You don’t pay a lot of attention to it anyway. You just go out and whoever you play, you play.”
The 59th NWL season begins tonight with Spokane hosting Everett for the first of three games at Avista Stadium.
In prior seasons, the Indians played a five-game series at Everett and a five-game series against the AquaSox at home. Now the Indians and AquaSox will meet 12 times, with both hosting a pair of three-game sets.
Everett is also hosting the second NWL All-Star Game on Aug. 6. Spokane hosted the prior all-star game as part of the league’s 50th season in 2004.
The Indians, eight-time NWL champions, are entering their 11th season as a Texas Rangers affiliate and their 31st season in the league.
Hulett said he’s pleased with the team’s pitching depth, catching potential and hitting prowess, although not necessarily from a power standpoint.
“I look at it and I see the personality of this team is going to be competitive at-bats,” Hulett said. “Guys that can be tough outs, move the ball around the field, situational hitting. … We’re not going to be up there swinging for the fences and striking out every other time at bat.”
Spokane’s starting rotation for the season-opening series will be right-hander Alex Gonzalez, lefty Yohander Mendez and righty Collin Wiles. Gonzalez was selected in the first round of last week’s draft and Wiles was a first-round choice last year.
“The last few days have been a dream,” said Gonzalez, who met Ivan Rodriguez and Nolan Ryan before coming to Spokane. “I’ve been in the clouds, basically. … It’s just like a big inspiration to get to this spot.”
The NWL is operating a split schedule for the fourth consecutive season, allowing four of the eight teams to qualify for postseason. The first half will end July 22. First-half divisional winners will meet second-half winners in a best-of-three series to qualify for the best-of-three league championship series.
The Indians had the league’s worst overall record (28-48) last season but placed second in their division during the second half.
“The fans here are great,” Hulett said. “They’ve always supported us, whether we’ve been really good, really bad or indifferent. I’d like them to have the opportunity to support a really good team.”
Spokane begins the season with 11 of its first 14 games at home.