The East and West Divisions took very different paths to the 2012 Northwest League playoffs.
The East was decided weeks ago as the Boise Hawks bounced back from a dismal 13-25 first half to post the best divisional record in the second half. The Yakima Bears, who used a 21-17 first-half record to secure their seat in the playoffs, has home-field advantage in the opening round.
The West, on the other hand, went down to the wire. Though the Everett AquaSox punched their ticket to the postseason with a dominant first-half record of 28-10, they remained unsure of their opening-round opponent until the waning moments of the season. The Everett AquaSox rode a strong 28-10 first half but watched their opponent -- the defending champion Vancouver Canadians -- pull out a playoff berth in the waning moments of the season.
Yakima Bears (36-40, East Division first-half champions) vs.
Boise Hawks (37-39, East Division second-half champions)
Yakima won the season series, 7-5
Game 1 at Boise, Sept. 3 at 8:45 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Yakima, Sept. 4 at 10:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Yakima (if necessary), Sept. 5 at 10:05 p.m. ET
The Boise Hawks are a hard-hitting club, belting more homers and scoring more runs than any other competitor in the Northwest League. In their season series with Yakima, however, the Hawks were faced with one of the league's stingiest pitching staffs and got outscored, 61-51.
The Bears, hoping to cap their final season in Yakima with their first league title since 2000, have a trio of starting pitchers among the top eight in the league in ERA -- Daniel Watts, Blake Perry and Alexander Carreras. The Hawks, on the other hand, who last took home the title in 2004, boast league batting champ Stephen Bruno as well as sluggers Rock Shoulders and Daniel Vogelbach.
"We match up pretty well against them, for what our pitchers bring to the table," said Bears pitching coach Doug Bochtler. "We're going to do what we can to silence their bats."
Still, the pressure for the playoffs can be another matter, giving young players invaluable experience on a bigger stage while offering their organizations a chance to see who steps up when it matters most.
"You're looking to see who elevates their game and who does the things that they've done on a consistent basis," Bochtler said. "It's one of the most important tools in development."
Everett AquaSox (46-30, West Division first-half champions) vs.
Vancouver Canadians (46-30, West Division second-half champions)
Everett won the season series, 8-4
Game 1 at Vancouver, Sept. 3 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Everett, Sept. 4 at 10:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Everett (if necessary), Sept. 5 at 10:05 p.m. ET
Before 2010, the AquaSox hadn't won a Northwest League championship since 1985. Now they're seeking their second title in three years. Unlike their counterparts from the East Division, though, they didn't know their opponent until the final moments of the regular season. Turns out they'll face last year's champion, the Vancouver Canadians.
Everett has produced on both sides of the field, sporting two of the leagues top run producers -- Taylor Ard and Patrick Kivlehan -- and a pair of pitchers near the top of the pack in strikeouts -- Victor Sanchez and Dylan Unsworth.
Vancouver manager Clayton McCullough said he hopes the Canadians can build on a late-season run that propelled them into the postseason.
"We've been playing backs against the wall for six weeks now," he said. "Eugene kept playing well. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and the whole time they kept winning games. We just had to keep winning, and you hope that carries over into the playoffs."
Everett took the season series, but McCullough is well aware that just about anything can happen in the postseason.
"They put it to us this year," he said. "We've played them well. The games will be tight."
Starring roles: Everett first baseman Ard and catcher Mike Zunino were named Northwest League Postseason All-Stars, while third baseman Patrick Kivlehan was voted league MVP. Kivlehan was fourth in the league with a .301 average and third with 49 RBIs.
Away game? No problem! The Yakima Bears are having a playoff viewing party at Sports Center, located in downtown Yakima, for Monday night's opener. The event will be hosted by public address announcer, Todd Lyons, and fans will also have the ability to purchase tickets to Tuesday's home game.
He said it: "If we haven't prepared them by now, then we haven't done our jobs. It's constant preparation for situations like this. We're preparing them every day to play that way, and play under the same intensity and approach and metal awareness." -- Bears pitching coach Doug Bochtler on player preparation in playoff scenarios