Pitcher Claire Eccles is one of between eight and 10 players expected to return to the Victoria HarbourCats at some point this season. The club plays two West Coast League home-and-home exhibition games, Wednesday night at Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park and Thursday in Port Angeles. The Cats’ regular season-opening weekend begins this Friday night with the first of three games against Wenatchee. Don Descoteau/Victoria News

PLAY BALL: HarbourCats test WCL waters with exhibitions, open season at home Friday

New-look Victoria looks to improve on successful 2017 baseball season

In their five seasons in the West Coast League, the Victoria HarbourCats have been a team of firsts.

They were the first franchise in the collegiate level baseball league to win 40 games in a season (2016), a campaign that saw them reel off a WCL record 16 straight victories. And last summer they became the first to have a female player on the roster (Claire Eccles, 2017) and the first to sign players from Taiwan (Po-Hao “Bernie” Huang) and the Bahamas (Chavez Fernander).

This season is proving no different, as the trend-setting club has signed two 20-year-old Cuban pitchers – Alejandro Ortega Lopez and Adriel Quesada Pena – another first for the league. Pena is slated to start Wednesday’s exhibition game (May 30) at Wilson’s Group Field at Royal Athletic Park against the Port Angeles Lefties, while Lopez is expected to pitch in a relief role.

The two are also teammates on the Union de Reyes under-23 team scheduled to play an exhibition tour on Vancouver Island this summer, including a game against the HarbourCats on July 30 at RAP.

READ: HarbourCats finale Saturday should be Victoria’s hot ticket

HarbourCats manager Brian McRae, entering his second season with the club, likes the international flavour of his team.

“If you look at the demographics of the rosters in this league, we are pretty spread out all over the country and the world, more so than other clubs,” he says. “We have kids from Florida, we have kids from all over. For me I think that’s the neat thing is to have kids from all over the country, and international kids here, all being together and learning.”

Like other teams in the WCL, the early season roster often looks far different than the season end list. McRae says up to 10 players from last year’s squad could be back for 2018, including pitcher Ethan Fox from Campbell River, the projected starter for Friday’s home opener against Wenatchee (first pitch 6:35 p.m.).

Others expected back include pitchers Eccles and Garrison Ritter, and outfielders Ethan Lopez and Hunter Vansau, last year’s team home run (8) and RBI (34) leader. While Vansau has struggled at Mississippi State this season, McRae says, his team is heading to playoffs, meaning he won’t likely arrive for a while yet.

“Every team is in the same boat. You have a lot of players who will get to you late or may not get to you at all depending on what their situation is at their school and if they’ve gone on to play playoffs,” he says. “The big key and what most teams try to do early is keep your head above water until you get all your players and don’t bury yourself in such a deep hole that you can’t get out.”

Having players signed to 10-day deals to get through the early lean times helps. Some of those players emerge as keepers, too. One of those players, utility man Riley Jepson from Kamloops, hit .351 in Canadian college play with University of the Fraser Valley this season and is a projected MLB draft pick in June. McRae says it’s possible that half a dozen or more HarbourCats players, either part-timers or those who stick, could hear their name called.

The mix of offensive threats and defensive strength, while different than last year, could make the difference toward an improved season, McRae says.

“Last year we struggled pitching wise, but offensively we set some league and franchise records,” he says, noting the HarbourCats posted the league’s best fielding percentage. “I don’t expect those things to happen again offensively, but I think our pitching should be better and if our pitching is better and we play decent defence, we don’t have to hit to win ballgames like we did last year.”

editor@vicnews.com

HarbourCats on the prowl

2017 record: 29-25 (overall)

Playoffs: Reached WCL final, lost two games to one to Corvallis

Top hitter: Shane McGuire (.451 average, 37-for-82)

Top pitchers: Adam McKillican (5-3 record, 4.03 ERA), Jack Owen (4-1, 1.01 ERA)

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