Championship teams are almost always composed of players willing to sacrifice.
Pitcher Aaron Celestino did just that in helping the Victoria HarbourCats capture the West Coast League North Division first-half championship and playoff berth that goes with it.
The pitcher out of Incarnate Word was scheduled to start tonight against the Ridgefield Raptors, but was willing to come out of rotation earlier than planned and pushed his arm in relief Sunday afternoon in the winner-take-all game against the Bellingham Bells to decide the first-half North Division crown.
Celestino (2-1) took the 8-1 win by pitching five scoreless innings to close out, with only one hit and one walk allowed and four strikeouts, at a soggy Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park.
Victoria starter Jack Neely had gone four innings with no hits and one run allowed, with three walks on four strikeouts.
All told, it was a one-hit gem spun on the HarbourCats’ mound to win the first-half championship as either Bellingham or Victoria could have captured the title with a victory.
The Bells (16-11) had created the deciding-game situation with blowout victories in the first two games of the series Friday and Saturday.
“We asked Aaron [Celestino] after the game Saturday night if he was willing and available to work Sunday’s game, even though it would make it a very short week for him,” Victoria head coach Todd Haney said.
“He said he would do anything for the team. That speaks to his competitiveness and the competitiveness of this group. They push each other and also help each other out.”
Haney, whose five seasons in MLB included a stint with the Montreal Expos, said the players met before the season and laid out their goals. Among them was to win the first-half North championship and follow it up next month with the league championship.
Mission accomplished on the first part, but it wasn’t easy. The Bells needed a sweep against Victoria in the final series of the first half and took the HarbourCats to the final game, with the title hanging in the balance.
“Championship teams come back and rally to win when the chips are down,” Haney said.
Victoria product Jason Willow, a former Canada U-18 captain and a 2017 Baltimore Orioles draft pick, and shortstop Harrison Spohn from Cal Baptist provided the big hits Sunday with home runs.
First-half champions of split seasons in baseball and other sports always face the question of motivation for the second half. Haney said there will be no loss of incentive for the second half of the season just because a playoff berth is sewn up.
“The players love playing and have pride on a daily basis,” he said. “The players want to win a championship for the city and want to prepare for that, and build off the first half.”
The HarbourCats began the second half of the WCL campaign with a three-game set starting Monday night at Royal Athletic Park against the Ridgefield Raptors from Clark County near Vancouver, Washington.
The Raptors were 13-14 in the first half and placed third in the six-team South Division behind the champion Corvallis Knights (21-6) and runner-up Walla Walla Sweets (18-9).
The Raptors won the opener of the set Monday 4-3 despite a home run by the HarbourCats’ Tyson Hays.
Victoria (0-1 in second half and 18-10 overall) and Raptors (1-0 and 14-14) meet again tonight and Wednesday at RAP.
But don’t expect to see Celestino on the mound for either game. He earned his arm a bit of a rest after being named WCL pitcher of the week Monday for his total 10 scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts in two outings over the last seven days.
In a bit of a scheduling quirk, the HarbourCats will dip into Ridgefield for a game Thursday night en route to a three-game weekend set against the Elks beginning Friday in Bend, Oregon.