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Five games that made a difference as Spokane Indians win NWL first-half title

UPDATED: Wed., July 24, 2019

The Spokane Indians got off to a hot start to the 2019 Northwest League season, outlasted a two-week dry spell, then won eight of their last 12 to clinch the first-half North Division title, assuring a fourth consecutive postseason berth.

Here are five games that made a difference in the season’s first half for first-year manager Kenny Hook’s Indians.

July 15 – Bouncing back over Everett

The previous night, in the first of a pivotal three-game series with the second-place AquaSox, the Indians lost a 6-3 decision in tough fashion as Everett pulled into a tie with the Indians at 16-14.

Spokane thought it had drawn within one run in the bottom of the ninth on a two-run home run by David Garcia, who appeared to have wrapped a line drive around the right-field foul pole at 296 feet – the shortest distance to the fence in Avista Stadium.

The home-plate umpire originally ruled home run, Garcia rounded the bases and the scoreboard operator put the runs on the board – but Everett started arguing the call immediately. The umpires conferred for a few minutes, then waived to Hook in the third-base box.

Hook immediately got heated and within seconds was ejected. The Indians manager gave the home-plate ump an earful and walked off, then the umpire signaled foul ball and instructed the press box to take the runs off the board.

Garcia eventually grounded out, the Indians lost and fell into a first-place tie with Everett.

The next night, Jonah McReynolds hit a tiebreaking home run in the eighth inning to lift the Indians to a 5-4 win and elevate them back into first place – a spot they did not relinquish the rest of the first half.

“It was really fun,” McReynolds said. “It was a pretty big moment and a momentum shift. So it was really cool to just come through.”

“It was huge,” Hook said on the Press Box podcast on July 17. “ We’re at the point where we are directly competing with (Everett) for first place in the first half. To lose the opener – which we put a high stress on trying to be really good at game one of a series – and to lose that Game 1 with them coming here was a bit heartbreaking, I guess. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to.

“A lot of times you see in the game where you have a really deflating loss like that, where you felt like maybe you were in a position to come back and have a chance to win, it can really stick with you maybe for a couple of days after that. But to come out and play well is huge. To bounce back is huge. That just shows the resilience of some of our players. It’s good to have that, especially in a tight race.”

July 21 – The clincher

The Indians were up three games with left three to play in the first half – all in Everett. It seemed simple enough – win one out of three to clinch the division.

But the AquaSox won the first game of the series 6-4 last Saturday, a game the Indians led 3-0 after the first two innings, and the momentum seemed to shift to Everett.

Things got even more tense Sunday, as Everett built a 3-0 lead through six innings – on solo home runs by Conner Hoover, Luis Joseph and Cash Gladfelter.

Everett starter Tim Elliott, the Seattle Mariners’ fourth-round draft pick in 2019, was tearing up the Indians’ batting order, limiting the road team to one hit and no walks while recording four strikeouts over three innings.

The Indians started to chip away in the seventh. They loaded the bases on a pair of walks and a hit batter off reliever Jorge Benitez. After a mound visit, McReynolds gave the Indians another clutch hit, lining a single to left to plate their first run.

Obie Ricumstrict followed with a two-run single to tie it.

Everett took the lead back in the bottom half on a Cesar Izturis Jr. RBI double, but McReynolds came through in the eighth in another bases-loaded situation – a two-out single that got through the left side to score two runs to make it 5-4.

Daniel Robert struck out three over two scoreless to nail down his second save and start the title-winning celebration.

June 14 – Opening day(s) success

The Indians started on the road for the first time since 2005.

Hook sent out 20-year-old right-hander Ricky Vanasco against the Canadians’ 6-foot-5, 245-pounder Adam Kloffenstein – the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 6 overall prospect in their system.

Vanasco, a 15th-round pick in the 2017 MLB draft of the Texas Rangers, struck out seven in four shutout innings and allowed two hits and two walks, leading to a 9-1 win. He threw 50 of his 80 pitches for strikes but did not qualify for the win since he didn’t pitch five innings.

Teodoro Ortega was awarded the win with two shutout innings of relief with three strikeouts.

Luis Asuncion hit a two-run homer and Cristian Inoa drove in a pair of runs for the Indians. It propelled the Indians to a 9-2 start to the season.

Vanasco was the starter for the home-opening win the next week as well, 9-4 over Boise. He went on to have a dazzling first half. In six starts spanning 28 2/3 innings, he went 3-1 with a 2.51 earned-run average with 44 strikeouts against 15 walks.

His fastball sits in the 94-96 range, and he can reach back for a few more ticks when he needs it. He throws a sharp slider and is working on a changeup that’s been particularly tough on left-handed batters.

“His stuff is electric,” Hook said before the season. “I mean, it’s big velo (velocity) fastball. He’s emotional in a great way. It’s genuine excitement and emotion on the mound and he commanded the change up and showed the breaking ball.

“So I think you’ll see a great arm – it’s just a matter if he can handle his emotions and not try to throw it triple digits every time. So he’s an exciting young kid.”

Vanasco could have started the season at a higher level, but the Texas Rangers organization wanted him to start the season opener and the home opener with Spokane.

“You can’t mimic that buildup,” said Paul Kruger, the Rangers’ assistant director of player development. “For (Vanasco) to have 2 1/2 months to prepare for (the opening day) start is something we think is very valuable. It’s just something you can’t replicate unless you experience it.”

July 4 – Fireworks ignite stretch run

The Indians were coming off their longest stretch of poor play – eight losses in nine games against Tri-City, Vancouver and Salem-Keizer – to fall back to .500 at 10-10 and had to travel to Hillsboro, which was leading the South Division at 14-6.

The Indians got out to a 3-0 lead after four innings and held off the Hops 3-2 to snap a five-game losing streak and deal Hillsboro its second loss at home of the season.

It started a three-game sweep of the Hops – a feat no previous Indians team had managed to do – and a 6-3 stretch that gave the team a one-game lead entering that crucial first series with Everett the last week of the first half.

Kenen Irizarry, Blaine Crim and Maxwell Morales all drove in runs, Theo McDowell tossed 4 1/3 innings of two-hit, one-run ball and Nick Starr struck out two over two innings to earn the save and preserve a key win.

July 19 – Breakthrough for young catcher

Vancouver, which had a rough first half (15-23), salvaged the last of a three-game series against Spokane with a 7-2 win, taking advantage of poor outings by McDowell and Juan Mejia.

But the story of the game from the Indians’ vantage was Garcia, who started in the cleanup spot at designated hitter.

Garcia went 2 for 4 with two solo home runs, accounting for all of the Indians’ offense for the night. The outburst lifted him to sole possession of the team’s home run lead at five.

At the conclusion of the first half, Garcia was hitting .247/.316/.494 with five homers, six doubles and 14 RBIs, fourth on the team.

Garcia, 19, is the Rangers’ No. 29 prospect, according to MLB.com – the only current Indians player in the organization’s top 30.

A former shortstop who moved behind the plate, Garcia signed out of Venezuela for $800,000 in 2016.

He’s still a work in progress behind the dish, but he’s quicker and more athletic than most catchers and possesses a strong arm – though teams continually test him in game situations.

The switch-hitter provides line-drive pop from both sides, though he’s just 1 for 19 against lefties this season.

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