By Jonathan Hodgson
The exhilarating ride that was the 2016 Victoria HarbourCats baseball season has come to a close.
In an abrupt ending to an all-around tremendous season, the HarbourCats were swept in two-straight games by the Bellingham Bells in the West Coast League north division final last week.
After falling on the wrong side of a close 3-2 final in game one at Joe Martin Field in Bellingham last Tuesday, the Bells ran away with the deciding game two at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria, scoring two runs in the first inning and five in the second, setting the tone en route to a 12-1 victory over the HarbourCats, sweeping the best-of-three series and advancing to the WCL championship Series against the Corvallis Knights.
For the HarbourCats, it ended a memorable, record-setting season of firsts that raised the bar for the club going forward in many ways.
Between the white lines, they set franchise and league records for wins (40), winning streak (19), and tied a league record for home wins with 23. A team-record eight current or former HarbourCats were also selected in this year’s Major League Baseball Draft.
The fans of Victoria responded and created an electric atmosphere at Royal Athletic Park all summer, setting new franchise and league attendance records in the process including season total (60,466), per-game average (2,239) and single-game (5,133 on June 30).
The HarbourCats saw increased attendance and raised their win total for the fourth straight year, each year of their existence, and on June 30, clinched their first-ever playoff berth by winning the WCL north division first half pennant with a 23-4 record.
It was not only the franchise’s first playoff berth, but meant that playoff baseball would return to Victoria for the first time in 64 years. Victoria has a proven love for baseball, with a long history of well-supported teams, but prior to this HarbourCats squad, none had played postseason baseball since the Victoria Tyees class-A minor league team won the 1952 Western International League pennant.
On the final day of the regular season, an 11-4 win over the Yakima Valley Pippins gave the HarbourCats a record of 40-14, the best ever in WCL history as the first team to ever win 40 games.
The early playoff exit certainly comes as somewhat of a disappointment after the type of season it was in Victoria, but does not dampen the excitement within and surrounding the club as they head into their fifth season in the West Coast League.
Much of the season was uncharted territory for the HarbourCats as they checked numerous firsts off their list. In 2017, this club will be a seasoned contender that is not happy simply to be there, but will be hungry, and will have the experience to take the next step.
The current state of the HarbourCats can be likened in ways to the emergence of the Toronto Blue Jays. Last season was their first time for everything, and they ultimately bowed out to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals, a franchise that had been to the playoffs the year before.
That dynamic holds true in the WCL. The Bellingham Bells who were in the playoffs for the third straight year and won the 2014 WCL championship were the team that eliminated the HarbourCats. The Corvallis Knights advanced to the 2016 championship series out of the south division in their remarkable 10th straight playoff appearance and are looking for their fourth title in their eighth trip to the finals.
The Victoria HarbourCats and the fans of Victoria left no doubt that the B.C. capital is a great baseball town. The future of baseball in Victoria has never been brighter.