Victoria HarbourCats’ playoff drive ends with thrashing by Pickles

The Victoria HarbourCats controlled their own destiny. But destiny came crashing down on their heads Wednesday night at Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park.

The mantra going into the West Coast League regular-season finale against the Portland Pickles was: “Win and we’re in.”

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It was that simple, yet in the end, that far away.

Instead, the HarbourCats were pickled by Portland, and bounced out of playoff contention in a 10-3 loss.

It will be the Kelowna Falcons who advance to meet the Bellingham Bells in the best-of-three North Division playoff final beginning Friday in the Okanagan.

The 3,076 Victoria fans were expecting a celebration Wednesday but instead attended a wake as the HarbourCats’ two-year run of qualifying for the post-season came to an abrupt close.

“It slipped right through our hands,” said Victoria outfielder Nick Plaia, who stole a club-record 19 bases and hit two homers this season, to be named HarbourCats’ 2018 MVP.

“But it was still one of the most fun summers of baseball I’ve had in a long time. Playing in front of these fans is something I’ll never forget.”

It didn’t help Victoria’s cause that Hunter Vansau, from NCAA powerhouse Mississippi State, was ill with flu and could not play until a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth inning — the unfortunate turn coming after he had hit a grand-slam in Victoria’s 13-6 victory the night before.

Vansau had his No. 21 jersey retired and added to the HarbourCats Wall of Honour on the main grandstand before the game as the all-time career leading HarbourCats home-run hitter with 14 over two seasons.

“When I think of HarbourCats baseball, I think of two players — Alex De Goti [a three-season HarbourCats shortstop now in Double-A/Triple A pro ball in the Houston Astros system] and Hunter Vansau,” HarbourCats GM Brad Norris-Jones said.

Vansau was taken aback by the honour.

“It’s so cool to see that up there and to see your number retired with the other great players who have played here,” said the native of Crawford, Texas, with the elegant yet devastating swing.

“This honour is something I will hold close to me for the rest of my life. As for this season, there were a lot of ups and downs. But every season with every team, you make 30 best friends, and these guys will always be my best friends.”

Despite the final letdown, Norris-Jones said there was no quit in this year’s Cats squad.

“I am proud of how we battled all year, despite lots of injuries and guys who were drafted or got shut down by their college teams,” said the Victoria GM.

“We battled right to the final game.”

Head coach Bryan McRae, a 10-season MLB veteran, concurred: “We made it interesting right to the end. It would have been nice to repeat what we did last year as a playoff team [making the league final], but that was not to be.”

The HarbourCats, thin on arms in the late season, needed starting pitcher Ethan Fox to go deep Wednesday.

Fox, the 2017 late-season and post-season mound hero, was rocked by the Pickles with seven hits and six runs over three full innings.

The game meant nothing to the Pickles, who had already clinched a playoff berth and meet the defending champion Corvallis Knights in the South Division final beginning Friday.

DIAMOND DUST: With Wednesday’s crowd, the HarbourCats set a WCL record with 62,599 fans through the turnstiles over 27 home dates in 2018, eclipsing the previous record of 60,466 over the same number of games set by the HarbourCats in 2016.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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