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Victoria HarbourCats well armed for run at WCL title

Tuesday's West Coast League game, against the Port Angeles Lefties, will be the first at Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park since 2019.
Outfielder Daniel Sawchyn and the HarbourCats got some practice in Monday at Royal Athletic Park in preparation for Tuesday night's WCL season opener. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

It’s usually a whirlwind when players head for summer baseball after their university and college seasons end.

Liam Rocha from Cal Baptist flew out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County on Monday night, and will say quick hellos to his new Victoria teammates this afternoon, before possibly being on the HarbourCats’ mound Tuesday night in the season opener, in his first time outside the United States.

The West Coast League game, against the Port Angeles Lefties, will be the first at Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park since 2019. The U.S.-based WCL teams played last year but the pandemic wiped out both the 2020 and 2021 seasons for the Victoria club.

The WCL is a circuit featuring college and university players extending their seasons into summer after their NCAA or NAIA seasons have concluded. You may glimpse a rising star or two at Royal Athletic Park. A total of 59 WCL alumni appeared in MLB games in 2021 and 305 in affiliated pro ball. The dream doesn’t start here, but the journey can pass through the many summer collegiate leagues spread across North America.

It took Rocha to the Alaska Baseball League last summer with the Peninsula Oilers in Kenai, a club whose alumni list includes former Blue Jays stars Dave Stieb and John Olerud, four-time MLB all-star Jimmy Key, Cy Young Award-winner Frank Viola and Golden Glove-winner J.T. Snow.

Even though he’s a Southern California guy, Rocha prefers the cooler summers for pitching. So Alaska, and now Victoria, were and are perfect fits for him.

“I don’t like hot summers and I prefer pitching in colder weather,” he said.

Rocha knew what he wanted to achieve after watching his first NCAA Div. 1 game at age 12 in the USC Trojans Stadium. He got to that level at Cal Baptist, a program that stepped up to NCAA Div. 1 in 2019.

A reliever at Cal Baptist, which went 36-20 this year and 118-64 over the past three seasons, this will be Rocha’s first start since summer ball in Alaska last year. He said he is prepared for the transition.

“I’m really excited and ready to go,” said the six-foot-one, 192-pound right-hander.

“The starter’s job is to set the tone for the rest of the game.”

The 20-year-old native of San Dimas, California, is the ­latest HarbourCats player from Cal Baptist, a program that has ­provided a steady stream of ­talent to the Victoria club.

“I like to throw strikes and torch hitters,” said Rocha, who went 3-2 this season with Cal Baptist, with three saves in 23 appearances, and a 4.29 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 35.2 innings pitched.

“I like to control the game and own the tempo and sometimes show emotions in big spots.”

Summer ball is not a lark. The serious players take it as a time of learning. Rocha will get plenty of that as Victoria head coach Todd Haney is a former pro infielder who played five seasons in MLB with the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. HarbourCats pitching coach Mark Petkovsek played nine years in the MLB while Victoria bench coach Greg Swindell played 17 seasons in the majors, giving the HarbourCats a staff with a combined 31 years of MLB playing experience. Haney, Petkovsek and Swindell were teammates in the NCAA with the Texas Longhorns and know what these college players are going through.

“The Victoria coaching staff has so much knowledge and experience and I’m really excited to learn from them,” said Rocha.

Rocha will be on the HarbourCats’ mound this season along with six-foot-five lefty Sam Walbridge from the Longhorns and Noah Takacs, a six-foot-three righty out of the Victoria Eagles youth system and from NCAA Div. 1 Sacramento State. Also throwing will be hometown pitching brothers Eric and Owen Luchies out of Eagles system and now with Lower Columbia College.

A key position player to watch for this season is utility-player Cole Posey from the University of New Mexico Lobos, who can be inserted all over the diamond. Sacramento State has historically provided top talent for the HarbourCats and will continue to do so this season with Takacs and utility-players Josh Walker from the Victoria Mariners youth system and 2019 Atlanta Braves draft-pick Josh Rolling.

The HarbourCats were 39-15 in 2019, the third-best all-time WCL regular-season record, before losing to the Corvallis Knights in the league playoff final.

Meanwhile, the Nanaimo NightOwls will play their first WCL game in franchise history Tuesday night in Portland against the Pickles ahead of their home opener Friday night at ­Serauxmen Stadium against the Edmonton Riverhawks.

Joining the HarbourCats this season among five Canadian franchises in the 16-team WCL are the Kelowna Falcons and expansion NightOwls, ­Riverhawks and Kamloops NorthPaws. There are 11 teams in Oregon and Washington state.

The 2022 regular season runs through Aug. 7.