What a long, sometimes strange trip it’s been for the Spokane Indians this summer.
The first year of full-season baseball in Spokane in decades started off slowly, as the team won just two of its first 12 games, then treaded water for a couple of months and saw two of its best hitters moved up to Double-A.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, the team caught fire down the stretch. The Indians won 10 in a row in August, erased a 141/2 game deficit and finished the season winning 37 of its last 49 games to end up in second place in the High-A West, clinching one of the two postseason berths.
Indians manager Scott Little said there wasn’t some “secret formula” that led to the winning streak.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “I’m not saying that there was some special thing that happened, I think we just had special people.”
“Coming from where we came from (at the start of the season) this is huge,” Indians infielder Hunter Stovall said. “I mean, we bonded together as a team and put something together and actually started playing to our potential.”
And in a twist of fate, because the first-place Eugene Emeralds can’t host games this week due to the University of Oregon kicking them out of PK Park for fall practice, the Indians will host the entirety of the best-of-five championship series at Avista Stadium, starting Tuesday.
“It’s awesome that we get to play all five here,” Stovall added. “Hopefully it’s a little bit of a home field advantage.”
“We’re excited,” Game 2 starter Chris McMahon said. “I know the team was excited when we clinched in Everett and we’re glad all five (games) are here at Avista. We’re excited to get going.”
Stovall echoed his teammate’s excitement.
“We could be playing in the parking lot,” he said. “If they’re gonna draw a batter’s box, they’re gonna draw two foul lines, it doesn’t matter where we’re at. We’re gonna go out there and play the game.”
All games will have a first pitch of 6:30 p.m. except Saturday’s Game 5 (if necessary), which would start at 1:00 p.m.
Here’s a preview of what to expect this week in the High-A West championship series.
Though the Everett AquaSox led the league for much of the season, they faltered down the stretch and the steady play of the Emeralds and Indians allowed both teams to move past the Seattle Mariners affiliate for playoff spots.
Eugene was second in the league in hitting and second in home runs, while Spokane was fourth in hitting and third in homers.
On the mound, the Indians boasted the league’s second-best earned run average at 4.58 while Eugene was third at 4.61. Spokane held an advantage in the strikeout department, 976-923, and walked an appreciably fewer amount (403-472) in just 10 fewer innings.
Eugene is led on offense by leadoff hitter Ismael Munguia, who topped the league with a .336 average – though for such a high average his on-base percentage was only .366 as he drew just 13 walks in 81 games.
The Emeralds’ power comes from two players – Tyler Fitzgerald and Sean Roby. The pair tied for the second in the league with 19 homers. Fitzgerald knocked in 65 runs and Roby had 58 RBIs, both in the top 10.
Spokane spreads its offensive output throughout the lineup – and everybody runs. The Indians had five of the top 11 stolen base artists in the league, while Eugene’ best base stealer , Brett Auerbach, ranked 14th.
Leadoff hitter Isaac Collins, Stovall and Jack Blomgren make things go for Spokane. All three got on base at a .393 clip or better, and each had 20-plus stolen bases. Blomgren finished tied for second in the league with 30 swipes.
“It’s pretty dang obvious that we got better as the season progressed,” Little said.
Sometimes in the postseason managers will pull back on the reins. Little said they’ll take what Eugene gives them.
“We only run when they let us run,” Little said. “We don’t just run for the hell of it, you know. But if they’re going to be slow to the plate and let us run, we got guys to steal bases.”
With the Indians’ two best power hitters of the first half, Michael Toglia and Willie MacIver, finishing their seasons with Double-A Hartford, Spokane has had to spread the power around. Brenton Doyle leads active players with 16 long balls while Niko Decolati ended up with 11.
On the hill
There were only six pitchers in the league who logged enough innings to qualify for the earned run average title this season, but both Eugene and Spokane had two apiece, with McMahon leading the circuit with a 4.17 ERA.
He tied Eugene’s Travis Perry in wins at 10 – though Perry is a reliever.
Game 1 starter lefty Helcris Olivarez and righty Mitch Kilkenny fill out Spokane’s rotation for the first three games. Olivarez, who turned 21 midway through the season, can be frighteningly good, or equally wild, on any given occasion. Kilkenny is a control specialist and finished with a 3.95 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, leading the staff.
Little said starting pitching is the key to the series.
“He’s not wrong, either,” McMahon said. “These are big games and we’ve got to do what we’ve done all year long – keep this team in ballgames. Obviously our hitters are swinging very well right now. The quicker we can get them back out the better.”
The bullpen is anchored by Dugan Darnell, who was second in the league with 15 saves in 16 opportunities.
Eugene’s closer, left-hander Chris Wright, was sublime this season. In 37 games he went 4-0 with an 0.97 ERA and 17 saves in 18 tries.
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