17 March 2010

Is This the Year for the Maintaineers?

The buzz in Vancouver will continue for at least a few more days. Canada’s Los Angeles has been the centre (sic) of sports headlines for more than a month with the XXI Winter Olympics coming to town. Quietly, the Vancouver Maintaineers National League Baseball Club has bided its time, patiently building up its case. For the first time in team history, the Maintaineers have a division crown. It’s not just any division’s championship, however; Vancouver paced the Western Division field that had four of the six best records in the NL. Vancouver made the playoffs for just the second time, and as a first also benefited from a first-round bye.

Vancouver went 45-38 (unofficially) from the time the Olympics came to town to the end of the season. Given that distraction and the intense competition in-division, that’s not bad. More impressively, the club was 97-65 overall. The team comes complete with a balanced offense (5 players with at least 22 home runs and 88 RBI) and a rotation built for the playoffs.

Offensively, franchise cornerstones Stan Lee at first base and Danny Carlson, who plays shortstop, are two of the five aforementioned men. Nate Cochrane has been the ideal table-setter for them this season. He combines a .365 on-base percentage with 72 stolen bases on 77 attempts in the regular season. Playoff catchers will have their hands full with his running ways. The other three cogs in the Maintaineers' boppers are right fielder Brian Winston, third baseman Terry Sturtze, and catcher Jimmie Franco. Franco led the team in slugging and home runs while Lee cranked out a 20/20 season.
Vancouver can afford to put Hayes Griffin in the bullpen and let starting pitchers Jamie Bradley, Paul Hayashi, and Esteban Calles carry the starting load. A capable Rip Robinson, in his second season as closer, will likely own the 9th inning in any game they lead. Bradley, a 22-year-old righty, could get the ball in Game 1 against Vancouver’s Division Series dance partner, the Minnesota North Stars.

That’s where things get interesting. Minnesota’s Chief of Baseball Operations is the son of Vancouver’s executive, and throughout the season they have been jockeying for optimal playoff position. Minnesota has backed into October, going 17-22 down the stretch and almost giving away a double-digit division lead to hated New York. This came despite getting reinforcements at the dish and on the mound. The North Stars’ third starter, Don Chang, was a Colt 45 a few months ago and first baseman Bruce Harper came over from Scottsdale in the high-profile deal of the summer. Less heralded but perhaps more important was the acquisition of third-baseman Moose Norton in a salary dump at mid-season. It’s not that Harper has disappointed, but Norton played 75 games and Harper just 48 by season’s end. Norton was the shot in the arm that the club needed from the hot corner. Minnesota ace Kelly Grace is likely the Cy Young Award winner for season 15, but he was needed to rescue the team from a first-round exit via Anaheim, and will likely not pitch until game 4.

So, with family bragging rights on the line, will Vancouver get to continue its party? Or, is Minnesota’s chemistry experiment starting to just now pay off? That’s what these playoffs will decide.