(Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium - Vancouver, B.C.) - They had heard about the championships, expectations and ballpark that was louder and more intimidating than all the others - and yet when the 2013 Vancouver Canadians arrived to Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, the players themselves still felt they could live up to the hype.
A collection of second-year players, coveted free-agent signings and a coaching staff that had delivered just a year before made for an optimistic front office hoping to do something only two teams had ever done before in the Northwest League, win three consecutive championships.
The Canadians would stumble out of the gates going 1-3 through the first four games including a 10-1 drubbing at home on Opening Night in front of a sold out crowd that hours earlier had watched the organization unfurl a 2012 Championship banner for all to see.
Perhaps it was that sobering moment that would elevate the Canadians play as Vancouver would win the next five games and re-establish the city's faith in a collection of young men fighting toward a first half pennant.
Standing in the Canadians way was the Everett Aquasox who would start the year 14-3 and be the first of the eight teams in the Northwest League to 'break from the pack'.
Canadians RHP Eric Brown was a story early going 5-0 through his first seven starts before finally dropping an outing just before his promotion to Lansing of the Midwest League. Brown was a third-year Vancouver Canadians standout, and sprinkled his experience through the clubhouse and helped the starting rotation to one of the lesser known first half stats. In the 38 game first-half, 35 times did a Canadians starting pitcher go at least five innings.
Brown, RHP Jeremy Gabryszwski, LHP Colton Turner, LHP Kyle Anderson and LHP Bobby Brosnahan would start the season off on the right foot as the Canadians rotation was as formidable as any.
Offensively the first-half had its challenges as Dickie Thon, Christian Vazquez and Justin Atkinson would all get off to slow starts. Thon in the month of June would hit .228 (13-for-57) before finally hitting his stride in July where he would bumped his average significantly hitting .291 (30-for-103) with a home run and a pair of triples before slipping behind home plate on a soggy night in late July to stop his season in its tracks (ankle).
"Jordan Leyland was on-pace to be considered one of the greats to play for our team and when he was promoted to Lansing of the Midwest League, that took a little wind out of our sails. The good news is that his departure opened the door for a handful of other players like NWL MVP L.B. Dantzler to take center stage and deliver," states Canadians broadcaster Rob Fai.
The Canadians would keep pace in the newly-aligned North Division (Spokane and Tri-City replaced Eugene and Salem-Keizer) but eventually watch the Aquasox claim the first-half pennant on the second to last day of the first half collecting a 23rd win to Vancouver's 22 first-half victories.
For Everett, it was a ticket to the post-season whereas the Canadians had to start the chase all over again in hopes they could claim the second half pennant with Tri-City and Spokane getting a second lease on life.
Vancouver started the second half with eight straight road games taking two of the first three in Spokane while dropping three of five in Eugene against a pesky Emeralds team that featured 1st round standout RF Hunter Renfroe. The Canadians would hold Renfroe to a .263 (10-for-38) mark on the season, but watched the bullpen get torched in three straight losses with leads in the 7th inning or later. It would be something that would put the Canadians playoff hopes in jeopardy as solid starting pitching outings would fall by the wayside with underperforming efforts out of the bullpen.
But help was on the way, and shortly after the calendar flipped to August, the Canadians would 'get right' with the mid-season additions of LHP Matt Dermody and LHP Scott Silverstein. Both pitchers would get a few starts before manager Clayton McCullough would pull back on their innings count to form a solid backend to the bullpen.
Canadians closer RHP Chuck Ghysels also went through a mid-season slump, but got hot with a few weeks to go trademarking his post-game ripping of the jersey for each of his 11 saves cataloged for Vancouver.
"There were a few subtle moves that changed the way we saw the Canadians," stated C's broadcaster Rob Fai who travelled with the Canadians for a sixth straight summer calling his seventh season behind the microphone.
"I can think of three key second half moments that changed our fortunes. One being the additions of Matt Dermody and Scott Silverstein, who came just a bit before the break, but deep enough to give us a lift. The addition of Dawel Lugo at short was huge as once Dickie (Thon) went down we had a glaring hole at that position. Lugo made a few errors early on and took a bit to get his bat going to the high level he was facing, but once he got things settled - man was he a key to our success. Finally, the addition of RHP Tom Robson and RHP Shane Dawson was key. Dawson would come out of the gates swinging winning NWL Pitcher of the Week just seven days after arriving in Vancouver - and Robson would go 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA down the final stretch."
August was a month to forget for the Canadians dropping four out of five in Boise before coming home to lose two of three to Everett to put Vancouver five games out of first with just 14 games to go.
"At that moment, I was a doubter. No question about it, I didn't think this team could get back in the race - and when I saw that we had five with Salem-Keizer (first-half South Division winner) and then three more in Everett - I thought we were done for," adds Fai.
Vancouver would drop two of their first three in Salem, OR including a 15-5 beat down at the hands of the Volcanoes that had Spokane, Tri-City and Everett discarding the Canadians from the race.
"We ended up taking the final two games from Salem to actually win the series believe it or not - but then we went down into Everett and got swept, outscored 21-8 in those three games and off went the Aquasox on their way toward a second straight pennant. But hold the phone - as Everett winning both halves actually wasn't the worst thing in the world as the NWL puts the remaining three teams records against each other should a team claim both halves. Suddenly, thanks to that respectable 22 win first half, we were still in the mix despite being 8-12 in the month of August coming off of that three game beatdown in Everett. We were still in the hunt if Everett could continue their winning ways."
Vancouver would come home licking their wounds from that three game series in Everett and now had to face the Spokane Indians who had just come off of a series victory over Tri-City to get back in the race in the North.
"We were leading Spokane 2-1 at home heading to the top of the 8th inning and knew that this series would determine would had the tiebreaker in the North should Everett win both halves. The Indians score a run in the 8th on an error and score the winning run in the 9th when Canadians 3B Justin Atkinson tries to throw home on a tough play as opposed to taking the out at first base. After that loss, you could hear a pin drop in that clubhouse - it was a tough, tough moment for the team".
Fans came out in droves the next two nights despite the Canadians struggles and behind strong efforts from LHP Kyle Anderson and LHP Scott Silverstein would take the final two games of the series to grab the highly-coveted tiebreaker.
"We needed that on about three or four different levels and to see Chuck (Ghysels) slam the door in the series finale for a 3-1 victory - it was if our club had gotten a shot in the arm and things could finally get back to normal after an awful month".
Vancouver would finish the second half with six against Tri-City, while Spokane then had to battle Everett for six straight knowing they had to win one more than the Canadians did over the final six games to leap past Vancouver and into the post-season. Or, Spokane could take 5-of-6 from Everett and just the division outright - which was a tall order considering the Aquasox had won five of the first six meetings during the summer.
The Indians tried.
After losing their opener, Spokane would suddenly rattle off three straight wins over the Aquasox, to move to within just one game of top spot in the West, but still needed to take the final two games to win the North and send the Canadians home for the summer.
Vancouver meanwhile was winning as well, but knew that the out-of-town scoreboard meant a lot to their fortunes and C's fans, suddenly became Everett fans knowing that should the Aquasox win the second half, Vancouver was in with a victory combined with a Spokane loss.
On the second to last day of the regular season, the Indians were up 2-0 heading to the bottom of the 8th inning and were six outs away from moving into a tie for top spot in the North with the Aquasox. Everett would score an early run in the inning when Phillips Castillo would double and score shortly after on a groundout from Lonnie Kaupilla - but shortly after the RBI groundout, Abel de la Santos would walk Ian Miller to put the tying run on-base. After Spokane's manager Tim Hulett brought in reliever John Straka, Everett manager Rob Muamau brought in pinch hitter Chantz Mack who would do the Canadians a huge favour parking a fastball over the outfield fence in Everett to give the Aquasox a 3-2 lead.
The Indians would never recover losing to Everett which gave the Aquasox the division crown - while down in Tri-City, the Canadians would top Tri-City 2-1 to advance to the post-season on the second to last day of the regular season.
It took Vancouver 75 of their 76 games to find a way into the post-season, but the two-time, defending Northwest League Champions were back in the Playoffs, and now it was four teams with no wins, no losses and a sprint toward the Bob Freitas Trophy began as the Boise Hawks would meet the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in the South while the Canadians would face the Everett Aqaasox in the North.