For the second year in a row, the Spokane Indians had their Northwest League season end unceremoniously.
In 2018, they were eliminated in the championship series by a walk-off balk – by a pitcher who would pitch in the major leagues the next season – and this year in the North Division series on a walk-off walk by a pitcher who walked just 10 batters in 45 2/3 innings.
“It was tough ending, obviously close games there,” Indians first-year manager Kenny Hook said. “If you walk ’em and you give them some free bases and let them get on base without earning it via hitting, it’s a bad recipe. And that’s kind of the tale of that game.”
Despite that, the 2019 Indians season has to be categorized as an unmitigated success.
The Indians won the first- and second-half division titles and finished with an overall record of 45-31 – the most victories for Spokane since the 2008 squad went 51-25.
“I think you have to look at the total body of work,” Hook said. “Anytime you win both halves in a season, it’s very difficult to do just because at that level, there becomes a lot of inconsistencies in your play.
“I think that’s something that I’m probably most proud of is we stayed pretty consistent in our play, and we actually got better.”
Other notable achievements included:
First baseman Blaine Crim was named the NWL MVP.
Hook was named NWL Manager of the Year.
Spokane led the league with five NWL All-Star selections: Crim, catcher David Garcia, pitcher Daniel Robert, outfielder Kellen Strahm and pitcher Ricky Vanasco.
Crim, Garcia and Werner Leal were named to the NWL Year-End All-Star Team.
It was an impressive season on the field for the Indians, but it was a record-breaking year at Avista Stadium.
The Indians set a club attendance record of 200,273 as a short-season Class A affiliate.
Spokane became the sixth short-season team since 2005 to crack the 200,000 barrier for season attendance. The Indians also joined the Vancouver Canadians as the only teams in the NWL to have accomplished the feat.
The Indians got off to a fast start, winning nine of their first 11 games, with a team mostly comprised of last year’s high school draft picks, international free agents and two pitchers – Vanasco and Josh Javier – dominating early starts.
The MLB draft in early June saw the parent club – the Texas Rangers – draft more college players than normal, which gave the Indians a bunch of reinforcements roughly two weeks into the season. That’s when Crim and fellow All-Star Strahm joined the club.
But the Indians lost eight of nine games heading into the July 4 holiday, falling back to .500. They went to South Division-leading Hillboro and swept the Hops – a feat no previous Indians team had managed to do – and finished the first half on a 6-3 run to clinch a playoff spot.
Vanasco and Robert were promoted to Low-A Hickory after the All-Star game, but outfielder Alexander Ovalles and Derwin Barreto were promoted shortly after. The roster got a late-season bump when Davis Wendzel – one of the Rangers’ first-round picks – and prospects Heriberto Hernandez and Osleivis Basabe were added after the pair helped the Rangers’ Arizona Rookie League team win a season championship.
“The biggest thing you have to be conscious of is how (roster fluctuation) affects the mentality and the overall vibe of your of your team,” Hook said. “These kids are so impressionable at that age, where sometimes they tend to look at things that they can’t control.
“I think the consistency of the staff and the leaders of the group is to get them to buy in that, that everyone has a purpose here, and everyone needs to find a way to contribute not only for their own development, but for the sake of our team and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Hook said while sometimes that’s easier said than done, the entire roster chipped in throughout the season.
“I think something I’m most proud of is that we got contributions from everyone,” he said. “And big major moments that impacted our season, and whether they were having a banner year, or maybe a disappointing statistical year in their mind, they were able to come through in moments that really impacted games, which impacted our season.”
At the beginning of the season, Hook confided that managing wasn’t something he always aspired do as a career hitting coach. But he took to it and enjoyed the experience.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said. “I think most of my enjoyment came in just seeing how the winning happened, and and some of these players’ reactions to being a part of something like this.”
Being a first-time manager led Hook to discover some of the organizational responsibilities.
“Any time you experience all the the ins and outs of running a club from the daily preparation, to dealing with your staff, and dealing with what it takes to communicate with the front office and the league and the trainers … is very valuable, because whatever role or direction I go from here, that’s something that I’ll be able to take with me.”
He didn’t realize how big an impact he would make with some of his young players.
“I think when you see that impact made, and those guys maybe getting a little bit better in certain areas that maybe you helped make them aware of – to see that come to fruition with some of them, I think that’s probably the biggest enjoyment.”
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