WENATCHEE — Seven of the eight West Coast League Championships have been won by the two teams facing off for this year’s crown — the Wenatchee AppleSox and the Corvallis Knights.
The WCL’s two most successful organizations will kick off the Championship Series — marking the fourth time the teams have squared off in the last six seasons — Saturday at Paul Thomas Sr. Baseball Stadium.
The Sox earned a spot in the title round by beating the North Division regular-season champion Walla Walla Sweets in consecutive games. Wenatchee advanced on the strength of its starting pitching and timely hitting, despite the team’s thin numbers due to several player departures.
The Knights had the best record in the WCL this season and come into the contest on a ten-game win-streak — including a two-game sweep of the Medford Rogues in the Divisional Series.
“Walla Walla had won eight straight,” AppleSox head coach Ed Knaggs pointed out. “We’re all very similar, I’m not worried about playing them, I’m worried about us playing the game.”
Wenatchee has been playing the game well as of late. The team didn’t commit an error — a major problem in the regular season — in its two games vs. the Sweets. Starters Beau Kerns and C.J. Burdick were able to go deep into both contests to preserve arms — of which the Sox are limited — and the nine position players still with the team racked up 23 hits and 14 runs in the first round.
“There isn’t a lot for us coaches to do at this point, there is no motivating this late in the season — not that this team is a team that needs to be motivated,” Knaggs said. “There aren’t a lot of decisions along the lines of, ‘what’s the lineup?’ We’re putting out the guys that we have and hope we play well.”
The Knights will look to stymie the Sox with their pitching. Corvallis pitchers gave up the lowest number of runs and hits in the regular season. The Sox and the Knights were No. 1 and 2, respectively, in issuing the fewest walks.
Wenatchee will hope that first baseman Connor Spencer continues his hot hitting he showed against Walla Walla. The University of California Irvine lefty is 6-for-8 with a double and a home run in the postseason.
“He’s been on a tear all year,” Knaggs said of Spencer, who finished second for the batting title. “He’s not the guy you worry about. Everyone else around him needs to have good games.”
Stockton Taylor, originally of Brewster, has settled in nicely as the No. 5 hitter in the postseason roster. He is 5-for-9 with a double.
Wenatchee Valley College’s Nate Steffler has continued to reach base by drawing walks and has given the Sox better-than-solid defense at the shortstop position, which was vacated by regular season starter Joe Mello when he had to move to Lewis-Clark State.
Corvallis will throw lefty Andrew Naderer in the series-opener. Starting a southpaw is a strategy Wenatchee has grown accustomed to. The Sox struggled against lefties earlier in the summer, but beat a pair of southpaws in the Divisional Series.
“Our better hitters are left handed, so that’s not a bad idea, a pretty traditional strategy,” Knaggs said. “We’ve done better swinging off of the guys we didn’t swing well off of earlier.”
Davis Engel will start game 1 for the Sox. Engel has been far from overpowering, but Knaggs has consistently lauded him as a tough competitor.
“Davis is not a guy that can walk a guy and come back and expect to strike out the next guy,” the skipper said. “He needs to be around the plate. He tends to do a good job of mixing things up so guys don’t get a steady diet of a certain velocity. Hitting is timing and he does a good job of disrupting that.”
Knaggs said he just hopes his pitchers can keep the team in the game because Corvallis has typically had very good pitching staffs.
“They play well in close games,” Knaggs said of the Knights.
But having the first game at home in a best-of-three series is an enormous advantage for the AppleSox. So a win Saturday would be a big boost to the team’s chances of repeating.
Winning the first game is important “because the margin of error for the other team becomes one,” Knaggs said. “And then it’s just the game of baseball.”