Tri-City Dust Devils

On paper, Dust Devils have NWL title wrapped up

PASCO -- If you look at the Northwest League website, you'll see that the Tri-City Dust Devils have vastly superior numbers to the Vancouver Canadians.

The Dust Devils swept the first half and second half East Division titles, and then went on to sweep Boise in the best-of-3 NWL divisional playoffs.

The Canadians didn't win either half in the West and backed into the playoffs after losing five of their last six regular season games.

Tri-City ranks higher in almost every major statistical category -- both at the plate and on the mound -- while Vancouver is in the bottom half of the league in everything but strikeouts on offense (the C's were third with 633 whiffs).

So why even play the games? This thing is over even before they play Game 1 at 7:15 p.m. tonight at Gesa Stadium.

Right?

"Especially in baseball, that's not the case. It's the team that plays the best on the field," said Dust Devils pitcher Christian Bergman, who will start Game 2 at 7:05 p.m. Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia. "We can't go in thinking we have this one on paper. It's whoever goes out and plays the best game of baseball."

Tri-City has a right to be wary of the Canadians, who lost Game 1 of the NWL West divisional playoffs to Eugene before coming back to win the next two games to clinch a spot in the championship series.

"They're feeling pretty good about themselves right now," said Dust Devils skipper Fred Ocasio, who earned his second NWL manager-of-the-year honor this season. "For me, the stats don't mean anything. We've got to go out and play well all around."

There's concern that Vancouver could come into Pasco today and keep that good fortune rolling. As the Emeralds found out, the Canadians are good enough to do it -- even without all-star left-hander Justin Nicolino, who was called up to the Low-A Midwest League in late August.

"They're competitors who will battle you," said Tri-City outfielder Tyler Massey, who hit .400 with nine RBIs in 10 games against the C's this season. "They like to throw a lot of offspeed stuff. I was able to get into some fastball counts against them."

Here's a breakdown of what could make either team your 2011 NWL champion.

Why the Dust Devils will win

1) Pitching. Tri-City led the NWL with a 3.03 ERA, the lowest team ERA in the league since Salem-Keizer posted a 2.95 in 2006. And yes, the Volcanoes did win the title that year. The Dust Devils also recorded league lows in hits (7.9), runs (3.74) and walks (2.93) per game.

2) Defense. The Dust Devils had the fewest errors in the league with 83 while posting the best overall fielding percentage of .972. If pitching and defense wins championships, Tri-City has a tough combination to beat.

3) Chemistry. Winning always helps a team's demeanor, but the Dust Devils have shown remarkable character even in losing situations. They might be trailing, but the team usually finds a way to score runs in the late innings.

4) Situational hitting. Tri-City finished second in the NWL with 26 extra-base hits but part of what made the offense go this year was its dedication to getting quality at-bats and moving runners along.

5) Despite getting only one game at home, the Dust Devils still have one thing going in their favor: Tri-City's batting average actually went from .244 at Gesa Stadium to .257 on the road. Every other team's batting average (except Eugene) suffered away from home.

Why the Canadians will win

1) Home field advantage. The home team won over 63 percent of the time in NWL this year. With these two teams, that percentage increased to 80 percent (each team took 4-of-5 at home).

2) Confidence. Sure, they didn't finish the regular season that well, but how can you not feel great about winning back-to-back road games to put yourself in the NWL championship series?

3) All-Star presence. Second baseman Jon Berti was the NWLs top second baseman, hitting .291 with 37 runs and 23 stolen bases. In 10 games against Tri-City, he hit .342. Closer Drew Permison led the league with 15 saves, not including a clutch playoff performance in Eugene.

4) Momentum. Nothing prepares you better than live pitching, and Vancouver is primed after pulling out a pair of gut-wrenching thrillers Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Dust Devils have been idle for two days after sweeping Boise. Could it cost them?

5) The underdog factor. After going 15-23 in the second half, nobody was expecting the Canadians to make much of a playoff run. Maybe that's why Eugene players are on their way back home now instead of playing for a title.

* Jack Millikin; 509-582-1406; jmillikin@tricityherald.com; Read his Walk in the Park blog at sportstricities.com.

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