After a quarterfinal sweep of the Welland Jackfish, Josh Matlow and the Barrie Baycats have to be feeling pretty good.
“We’re playing good baseball and that’s all I can ask from these guys this late in the season,” the Barrie manager said ahead of Wednesday night’s semifinal series opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Christie Pits.
The Baycats have every reason to head into the best-of-three matchup against their rivals from The Six with great confidence. Barrie won four of five regular-season games between the teams, while scoring a jaw-dropping 74 runs.
Still, Matlow knows all that means little come playoff time.
“Yeah, we played them well, we did all the right things, but the playoffs are a brand new ball game though,” said the Baycats GM and manager. “So, I really like to wipe that slate clean and start from scratch because I don’t want to go in there with the mindset that we’ll score 15 runs against them every game because we won’t, especially playoffs.
“I think we match up well against them. We’re in the right position and we definitely want to play the Maple Leafs because they’re one of the teams to beat and I also think we’re one of the teams to beat. It’s going to be a good series.”
The two long-time rivals have plenty of storylines going into the series. The six-time defending Baycats are looking to keep their historic run going, while the Leafs snagged star infielder Jordan Castaldo back this season.
While it’s great to face their old rivals, Leafs manager Damon Topolie is keeping his eye on the prize.
“To be honest with you it wouldn’t of matter who we played in the semis, our goal is to get to the finals and win a championship,” Topolie said. “If it means meeting Barrie in the semifinals, it means meeting Barrie in the semifinals.
“Yeah, that’s one of our rivals and we have a player in Castaldo who was a Leafs before he was a former Baycat and (Sean) Reilly has played in Barrie and it’s probably our closest team in geographical wise. It’s just a natural rivalry we’ve had going since they’ve been a franchise since 2001.”
The Leafs boasted the Intercounty Baseball League’s top offence and it wasn’t really close. Their team .323 batting average, .525 slugging percentage and .430 on-base percentage were tops. They also led the way with 59 home runs, 267 RBI and 288 runs scored.
Catcher Justin Marra led the attack with a league-leading 13 homers and 43 RBI, followed closely by teammate Garrett Takamatsu who posted 12 long balls and 38 RBI. Marcus Knecht, with 11, Castaldo with 7 and Jon Solazzo rounded out a Toronto armed with five of the top 11 over the fence leaders.
“I think that’s what makes them so dangerous,” Matlow said of all that power pounding long balls over the fences at Christie Pits. “Even though they play in Toronto, one through nine (in the order) can hit a home run at any point in any park.”
The Baycats lineup did receive a boost with the late-season additions of outfielder Avery Tuck and infielder Royce Ando.
“The good news is when we go there, so can we,” Matlow said of going deep. “We did hit four or five home runs in the games there. Limiting the base runners, limiting the damage and just pitching each guy one at a time, properly, we’ve learned a lot in the five games we played them. We know who’s who and what’s what.
“We’ll come in with a proper plan and well prepared. These guys know who they’re facing and I hope Toronto guys know who they’re facing too.”
The Baycats got two stellar performances on the mound from Andrew Grieder and Juan Benitez in the opening-round sweep of Welland and they’ll need both to be just as strong against Toronto’s high-powered offence.
“I think the pitching is the most important part to limit that offence,” Matlow said. ” Grieder and Juan pitch the way they’ve been pitching down the stretch, they give us a real true shot.”
Toronto’s pitching rotation has been bolstered with the return of Buffalo native Justin Cicatello, who couldn’t get over the border until August.
The Leafs ace was lights out in completing the sweep against Hamilton in the first round, tossing seven shutout innings while giving up a mere two hits and a walk.
“Cicatello was dominant in that performance against Hamilton, giving up only two hits,” Topolie said. “He was ahead in counts and it was classic Cicatello, and it was great to see.”
“We have a pretty good one-two punch with (Marek) Deska and Cicatello as our starters and (Dustin) Richardson in the backend,” Topolie added. “We have a good, solid pitching staff to go with our offence. If we play good defence and pitch well, I think that will be the key in the series.”
One thing both managers agree on, with it only be a best-of-three series, a slow start can be fatal.
“There’s no time to figure it out,” Matlow said. “You have to go. The good news is that the boys have only one speed and that’s go. I’m excited, they’re excited.”
Toronto scored 11 runs in the opening two innings of the series against Hamilton and never looked back.
“You need to get off to a good start right away and that changes the momentum not just of that game, but the next game as well,” Topolie said. “You have to play fast, because as you can see all three first-round series were sweeps.”
A strong finish to the season allowed Toronto to clinch second place in the IBL standings and that all-important home diamond advantage.
For the Leafs, that means getting to open in front of another big, boisterous mid-week crowd at Christie Pits.
“The mid-week crowds are unbelievable. I’ve never seen that many people at a mid-week game,” Topolie said. “The only time that rivals that is that Game 7 in 2007 when we played Brantford.
“That was Game 7 of a finals and these are quarterfinals and early playoff matches and just the amount of support we’re getting at Christie Pits is unbelievable and it’s kind of awesome.”
Matlow plans to send Grieder to the mound in the opener.
“The lefties kept Toronto at bay throughout the year and I think starting off Grieder first is the right thing to do at the Pits and bring it home to Juan,” he said.
Matlow says he’s proud of how his club has come together this season in such a short time. He’s excited and so are his players.
“It’s going to be a great series, no question,” he said.
Game time tonight is 7:30 p.m. Game 2 returns to Coates Stadium on Saturday at 4:05 p.m.
Game 3, if necessary, is Sunday night back in Toronto at 7:30 p.m.