The ebb and flow of the Wenatchee AppleSox’s season has been virtually palpable.
The Sox (29-24) finished the regular season in second-place of the West Coast League North Division, while the Walla Walla Sweets took the title. The Sweets (31-22) will play Wenatchee tonight at Paul Thomas Sr. Baseball Stadium to kick off postseason play. Walla Walla enters the divisional series on an eight game win streak.
“Things change. Every season you’ve got your ups and downs. We’ve had years when we’re struggling, starting slow and there are a lot of games you don’t get,” AppleSox head coach Ed Knaggs said in a phone interview. “But when people are playing well, you roll. I think that’s the nature of the game. It seems like a long season because we cram in 60 games. But they play 162 in the big leagues — good lord.”
Wenatchee will hope to start its own win streak tonight to extend its season into the weekend.
Here is a look at how the AppleSox clinched their 12th straight trip to the playoffs:
June 5 to June 16: Wenatchee’s record — 3-5
Six players played in the Sox’s opening series against Corvallis that are not on the team anymore. (Nate Steffler was supposed to be a temporary player too, but his rangy defensive play earned him a full-time spot.)
Running players out on the field who are probably not in it for the long haul is a common occurrence in summer baseball. Some in the game complain that the season starts too early and ends too late, creating a lot of roster turnover — 37 young men have donned the AppleSox uniform this season, an all-time high.
It was difficult — or maybe just a waste of time — for Knaggs to get a read on the team at this point because he was playing with a lineup that featured a great deal of uncertainty. The Sox only had time to go over signs and take batting practice before playing their first game.
A sign that the opening series wasn’t a harbinger for the season to come? The Sox beat Corvallis — the same Knights team that went 37-17 — twice.
Key performer: Andre Real (two home runs, seven runs batted in, three doubles in eight games.)
Everyday players arrive
June 17 to June 25: Record — 5-4
The team’s lineup was still in flux with marquee players slowly trickling in.
The Sox scored only 27 runs over the nine-game span and only two of those contests were decided by more than two runs — each three-run games.
A series-sweep against the bottom-feeding Kitsap BlueJackets allowed the team to inch closer to .500
Washington State University standout and sixth-round pick Jason Monda was hoped to be a bit of a savior to the Wenatchee offense, but the team and Monda could never reach a consensus on when the lefty should join the team full time, so his series against the BlueJackets was his only with the Sox.
Little did the team know at the time that the left-handed hitter who would really make a difference had already joined the squad during this stretch. Connor Spencer of University of California Irvine played his first game as a Wenatchee AppleSox player in the last game of the Klamath Falls series.
Spencer hit .380 on the summer and just barely lost the batting title.
Key performer:Brett Stephens 10-for-33 (four doubles, three RBI, four runs scored in nine games.)
‘I’ll never forget the first swing he took’
June 26 to July 19: Record — 14-6
Spencer couldn’t carry the bulk of the offensive load on his own and the Sox couldn’t compete as a team that struggled to put runs on the board. So, it was extremely fortunate — or lucky — that Knaggs called Lewis-Clark State head coach Jeremiah Robbins when he did.
“I said we’re looking for an infield bat. And (Robbins) said, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting for this call,’ ” Knaggs said about his fast and furious recruitment of shortstop Joe Mello.
Knaggs recalled calling Robbins before breakfast. Right after the Sox skipper ordered the most important meal of the day he got a call back from Robbins saying Mello was ready to go.
“Before my breakfast got there, we got a call from Joe Mello,” Knaggs said. “We spoke to him and he was there the next day and in the lineup that night. The rest is history.”
Wenatchee went on a tear upon Mello’s arrival. The team plated more than 10 runs for the second time of the summer in Mello’s first game, and averaged 7.1 runs the next 20 games. (Admittedly, a 22-run performance against the last-place Kelowna Falcons might have helped bump that mark up.)
“I’ll never forget the first swing he took,” Knaggs said of Mello. “The whole dugout, you hear guys go, ‘Whoa.’ He turned it loose and let it fly, baby. That’s just how he plays. For us, we didn’t really have that kind of guy. I think that allowed us to put him at the top of the order, which I think Brett (Stephens) was doing fine … But (Mello’s) presence (batting leadoff) tended to relax us. He was kind of our security blanket.”
Key performer: Mello 31-for-77 (two home runs, five doubles, 12 RBI, 23 runs scored, four stolen bases in 18 games.)
July 20 to July 29: Record — 1-7
As much of a spark that Mello gave the Sox on offense, his absence in the lineup took a lot of that production with him.
The shortstop couldn’t get a Passport in time so he could not travel with the team when it traveled north of the border. So the AppleSox lost two of three from the Victoria HarbourCats when the AppleSox made their first road trip to Canada.
“I think a lot of that ‘lull’ could be attributed to Joe not coming with us,” Knaggs said.
But the struggles continued when the team returned to Wenatchee, where it lost two of three to the Bellingham Bells.
“We’re lucky we didn’t get swept,” Knaggs said at the time.
The team looked like it had fallen back into its early season doldrums, but luckily — after being swept by Bend — the team rebounded to make a sprint for a postseason spot.
Key performer: Lars Rider, (5 innings pitched, no runs allowed, six hits surrendered, two strikeouts and two walks over three appearances in relief.)
The dog days
July 30 to August 11: Record — 6-2
Knaggs said in his first interview of the summer that he would know more about his team when the temperature was over 100-degrees, players were dinged up and the sweet freedom of college was in the near future. This team responded to those conditions by clinching by beating the Sweets both times they played, sweeping the HarbourCats and winning a game in Kelowna despite having said goodbye to Mello and doubles-king Ryan Barr.
“I think how they played together — I don’t think we’re always the most talented team in the league — but I think our guys enjoy coming to the ball park and playing hard every day.” Knaggs said when asked what he sees in his team that gives him confidence going forward. “You watch other teams over the years, and you see teams with people who are really excited to get home.”
The Sox did stumble across the finish-line — losing two of three in Kelowna — allowing Walla Walla to take the divisional title, and it will hurt not having Mello in the lineup in the playoffs, but Knaggs said no matter what happens in the postseason, the young men in this group can leave — or in Rider and Mitch Yada’s case, remain in — North Central Washington with their heads held high.
“It’s fun that we’re extending the season,” he said. “There are seven other teams that are packing their bags and going home. It’s a neat accomplishment by these guys to make the postseason. We’ve played well over the course of 54 games, so that’s a reward.”
Key performer:Trevor Lubking ( 14 IP, 9 hits allowed, one run against, 16 strikeouts and one walk over two starts.)
August 13 to TBD: Record TBD
The Sox and Sweets will now battle in a best two-out-of-three series to see who makes it out of the North Division and into the championship series against either Medford or Bend.
Former WVC Knight Beau Kerns will start game one and recent-high-schooler C.J. Burdick will take the ball in game two in Walla Walla.
Knaggs said the team will miss the guys who have already had to return to school, saying, “Our margin for error is a little bit smaller.”
Wenatchee has won three out of five against the Sweets, but that means absolutely nothing in a must-win short-series situation.
“Best of three — anything can happen,” the skipper said. “That’s awfully short.”
Key performer: TBD.