VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Spokane Indians have known since July 21 that they would participate in the Northwest League playoffs.
Now they’ll find out if they’re more like the team that played before or after July 21.
The Indians will open the best-of-3 North division playoffs at 7:05 tonight against the three-time defending NWL champion Vancouver Canadians at Nat Bailey Stadium.
Spokane took the league by storm in June, winning 10 of its first 11 games and led Vancouver by four games on July 13 with a 22-8 record.
The division first-half title and postseason berth should have been in the bag with eight games left, but Spokane cooled off while the Canadians went 7-1 down the stretch. The Indians defeated Everett 3-0 on July 21 to tie Vancouver at 25-13 and earn the playoff bid because of their 4-2 record against the Canadians.
Spokane never caught fire in the second half, losing its first four games and spending the majority of its time in the cellar. The low point was a 2-9 stretch that started in mid-August and included six straight losses.
Vancouver also started slowly in the second half, but the Canadians won 12 of their final 17 games, capped by Monday’s 4-1 victory over the Indians that completed a three-game weekend sweep, to earn the right to host Game 1.
Game 2 is set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Avista Stadium, where the Indians were 24-13 this summer. Game 3, if necessary, would be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Avista.
Indians manager Tim Hulett never expressed concern during the second half, as the Indians battled a few injuries, had outfielder Zach Cone (eight homers) and catcher Marcus Greene (.318, .446 on-base percentage) promoted, and tinkered with their lineup and pitching rotation.
Jon Daniels, president of baseball operations/general manager of the Indians’ parent Texas Rangers, agreed with Hulett during a recent visit to Spokane.
“(The Indians) boat-raced the league in the first half,” Daniels said. “The good thing about winning the first half is it gives you a chance to line things up for the playoffs. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do just that and get hot at the right time.”
Outfielder Luke Tendler, a strong candidate for NWL Most Valuable Player, had no doubt about the Indians as they won five of six during a late-August flurry.
“We know what we’re capable of,” said Tendler, who sat out Monday’s game and tied for the league lead with 11 homers and was third with 57 RBIs. “I feel pretty confident in our team. … When we swing the bats and pitch like we can, we’re a hard team to beat.”
“I think we’re starting to come together again and it’s certainly coming at the right time,” Indians catcher Charles Moorman said during the team’s final homestand. “If we get rolling in the first inning, then I know we’ll be good. Once (Eduard) Pinto gets on, I know it’s going to be a good day.”
Pinto, an outfielder and Spokane’s leadoff hitter, went 1 for 4 Monday to edge Christian Arroyo of Salem-Keizer for the league batting title, .335-.333. Indians infielder Seth Spivey was third 332 after going 0 for 2.
Hulett said he expects to use a four-man rotation, depending how the games go.
“It’s probably going to be (Derek) Thompson (4-6, 3.21 earned-run average, team-high 73 strikeouts), (Richelson) Pena (5-5, 3.36, 67 Ks), (Nick) Gardewine (6-3, 4.54, 60 Ks),” he said. “Those three are definitely going to be starting and the fourth one I’d like to be (Reed) Garrett (6-1, 4.06).”
Spokane dominated the North with a 22-14 record, 6-6 against Vancouver.
The North winner will advance to the NWL Championship series against the South Division winner, Hillsboro or Boise. If Spokane advances, Game 1 would be at 4 p.m. Friday at Avista.