The names and faces, for the most part, are new. The expectations that come with being a member of the Barrie Baycats come playoff time, well those remain very much the same.
And no one knows that better than Josh Matlow.
The first-year Baycats manager and his lineup of fresh faces put together a solid finish to the 2021 season, but the fact remains they head into their best-of-three quarter-final series against the Welland Jackfish Thursday night as the six-time defending Intercounty Baseball League champions.
“No pressure, right?,” Matlow said tongue-in-cheek. “Expectations continue. A whole new team. There’s no question I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a ton of pressure. And no one is putting pressure directly on us, but we know there is.
“Every single guy that is part of this knows what’s at stake and I think they’re all up to the task. I’ve said this from Day 1, I think we are the team to beat. Obviously, I’m biased, but I truly believe that and if we put it all together at playoff time, I think we’re going to be a very dangerous team.”
While the Baycats finished fifth overall (14-16) in the standings, they were a mere two games out of second in a season where just five games separated six teams.
Barrie finished with three wins in its last four games and is heading into the playoffs with some solid momentum.
“I feel like we’re playing our best baseball and there’s no better time than right before the playoffs,” Matlow said. “We’ve had a lot of challenges this year, but where we ended up we ended on a respectful note and playing our best baseball and that’s where you want to be.”
Matlow believes his team is much better than its record shows.
“There was a stretch we lost three in a row and we had the lead of two or three runs in the ninth inning in each of those games after a four-game win streak, and then we won again,” he explained. “We could have won eight in a row had we held those leads. We would have won eight of the last 10 to end the season, so we’re playing our best baseball.
“We’re excited about the playoffs. It’s what we’ve been working towards all season.”
The Leafs dropped three of five games to Welland (15-15) during the regular season and Matlow knows they’ll have their hands full with a Jackfish lineup led by infield slugger Dane Tofteland, whose .417 batting average and 36 RBI placed him third among the IBL’s top hitters in both categories, and starter Chris Boatto, whose 3.98 ERA was sixth-best among pitchers.
“Welland is a great team,” the Baycats manager said. “We’re lucky to be playing such a great team because I feel that’s where we want to be right off the bat.
“You want to play the best teams, the best guys. We’re excited.”
Matlow believes his lineup, led by a pair of hometown stars in veteran cleanup hitter Ryan Rijo and speedy outfielder Jake Wilson, can compete at the plate with Welland.
For Matlow, Barrie’s biggest strengths on offence came this season in its ability to put runners in scoring position, stealing at the right times, putting on the hit and run, and working walks.
Now, the manager says, they need some timely hitting to go with that.
“I think it’s time now where we need hitting to score those runs,” he said. “If we can do that, we’d be a very, very dangerous team.”
On the mound, the Baycats rely on big starters Juan Benitez and Andy Grieder. Benitez finished the season with a 5-2 record and his 3.08 ERA was trailed only the London duo of Pedro De Los Santos and Owen Boon at the top of the league.
Grieder will get the start in Game 1 tonight.
“He’s a horse,” Matlow said of his hard-throwing lefty. “He likes to challenge guys and he trusts his defence. A lot of the younger guys want to always throw it by everybody and it doesn’t work that way.
“Grieder understands he’s got to pitch either to contact or pitch around guys and not give them anything to hit. When he does, we have a defence behind him. He understands it well. That’s all you can ask from a guy heading into the playoffs.”
Matlow says he’s learned a lot about his club over the year and what stood out was their resilience, especially for a team the came into the season with so many fresh faces.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “We’ve been hurt a lot and we’ve gotten to know who are our guys and who is willing to put the body on the line. (Before the season) we didn’t know what our character would be. I think we came into a lot of character. A lot of the guys stepped up.”
Now it’s time to see how the Baycats handle the playoff pressure and the big expectations that come when you’re vying for a seventh-straight IBL crown.
“I guess that’s something we’re going to find out,” Matlow said. “We’ve never played a playoff game together. We know our players, we know what they’re capable of.
“We just hope they know what to bring and if they all bring it on the same night, I think we’re going to be in very good shape.”
Game 1 at Welland Stadium tonight begins at 7:30 p.m., before the series returns Saturday afternoon to Coates Stadium for 4:05 p.m. start.
Game 3, if necessary, is back at Welland Stadium on Sunday afternoon with the first pitch set for 4:05 p.m.
feature image: courtesy Barrie Baycats