Archive for August, 2014

Will the meltdown in Keizer unravel the Dust Devils’ pennant hopes?

Things looked perfect on Sunday evening (August 24) for the Northwest League’s Tri-City Dust Devils, the Short-Season Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

They were ahead of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon. If they hung on, the first-place Dust Devils would take a two-game lead over the idle Vancouver Canadians in the standings for the North Division’s second-half pennant.

Then, the Dust Devils would return home, where they would play their final eight games of the regular season.

The scenario was perfect. Three more outs, and then go back home with a two-game divisional lead.

Tri-City had just gotten out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the bottom of the eighth, and when catcher Robbie Perkins caught Johneshwy Fargas’ pop-up in foul territory to begin the ninth—with the ball coming out of his glove before it settled in at the last moment—the Dust Devils were two outs away.

What happened next was just incredible. With Dylan Stamey on the mound, the Volcanoes loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a walk, loading the bases with one out. In came Josh Michalec, who hit his first batter to force in a run to make it 5-3. Ryder Jones followed with a two-run single off Michalec to tie the game, and Aramis Garcia then delivered a walk-off RBI single, stunning the Dust Devils 6-5.

The divisional lead had shrunk to just a single game.

Then the following night, Tri-City opened its season-ending eight-game homestand by getting blown out 8-1 by the Hillsboro Hops (who had won the first-half pennant in the South Division and had little to play for until the postseason). In Eugene, Oregon, the Vancouver Canadians won their game, 3-1, and suddenly the divisional lead for the Dust Devils was gone.

Both Tri-City and Vancouver had identical won-loss records in the second half entering play on August 26, but the Dust Devils no longer control their own destiny as they do not own the tie-breaker over the Canadians. That means, for the Dust Devils to make the playoffs, they need to finish ahead of Vancouver in the standings with only seven games to play.

It’s so tough because just two nights earlier, they were poised to take a two-game lead when they had that three-run cushion in the ninth inning. With the rest of their games at home following that contest, the second-half pennant was theirs for the taking…

Hey, perhaps they could still bounce back. If you root for underdogs, you would certainly root for Tri-City. For the season, the Dust Devils are 29-40 entering play on August 26, and only a modest 15-16 in the second half, but they still have a shot at making the playoffs. In their way now are a Vancouver Canadians team that has won each of the last three Northwest League titles, so it would be nice if the Dust Devils could somehow eliminate them during this final week of the season and put an end to the championship run. The two teams will not play each other in the season’s final seven games, so Tri-City will need some help in order to finish ahead of Vancouver.

We’ll see what happens over the next seven nights in the Northwest League.

I know this is short-season, and it’s completely different from the majors, but I suddenly thought back to the 1993 major-league season.

The Red Sox, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, would end up fifth in the AL East in 1993, 15 games back of the Blue Jays with an 80-82 record. The Yankees, Orioles, and Tigers all finished ahead of Boston. Just by looking at the standings, you would think they were totally irrelevant all season.

But not so.

On July 25, the Red Sox won their 10th straight game, beating Oakland 8-1 to complete a four-game sweep at Fenway. They had won 12 of their last 13, and were in a three-way tie for first place in the East, along with Toronto and New York. (Technically, they were percentage points ahead of both clubs, with a 55-43 record—a .561 winning percentage—while the Blue Jays and Yankees were 56-44 for a .560 winning percentage.)

The following night, July 26, the Yankees lost 5-2 in Detroit, with Tigers lefthander David Wells outpitching Jimmy Key. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were idle. That meant if the Red Sox won in Milwaukee, they would be in sole possession of first place in the AL East.

Now, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, it was no small feat for the Red Sox to be in first place in the final days of July. With Roger Clemens on the mound, they had a great shot against the Brewers, who were last in the East with a 39-57 record that was even worse than the Cleveland Indians (47-52), who at the time were perennial doormats in that division.

The Brewers had Rafael Novoa on the mound, a rookie lefthander who would go 0-4 with a 5.06 ERA in 22 major-league appearances. He had logged an 0-1 record with a 6.75 ERA with the Giants in 1990, pitched the next two seasons in the minors, and was now making his debut with the Brewers against the Red Sox. It was just his eighth career big-league appearance and third career start.

The Red Sox, who hadn’t seen him before, struggled against Novoa, who gave up just five hits and two walks over 8.1 innings. The only runs the young lefty gave up came as a result of a two-run homer by Mo Vaughn in the fourth with Andre Dawson aboard.

Thankfully, Clemens was even better, tossing five-hit ball with one walk and five strikeouts over 7.2 innings and turning over a 2-1 lead to the bullpen. After lefthanded relief specialist Tony Fossas retired lefthanded-hitting Darryl Hamilton, who was Milwaukee’s No. 3 hitter, on a flyout to end the bottom of the eighth, the Red Sox were three outs away from sole possession of top spot in the AL East.

Yes, again, this was just late July, but considering how the Sox had finished last in 1992, this was a miracle for Boston.

But there was the bottom of the ninth to be played. Fossas stayed in and struck out lefthanded power hitter Kevin Reimer, but B.J. Surhoff (yet another lefthanded batter) bunted for a single. In came closer Jeff Russell, who retired pinch-hitter Greg Vaughn on a fly to right. The Red Sox were one out away.

russellExcept the would-be final out came to the plate in the person of Tom Brunansky, the former Red Sox rightfielder who was one of the key players in Boston’s 1990 AL East championship season. In the final eight games of that 1990 season, Brunansky hit .400 with five home runs and 12 RBIs (with three of those dingers coming in a crucial game against Toronto on September 29). He is also remembered for his sliding catch of Ozzie Guillen’s liner in the rightfield corner at Fenway to clinch the division on the final day of the season.

Now in 1993, he was a Brewer, and was hitting only .178 going into the game against the Red Sox. And there he was, lining an 0-1 pitch from Russell over the leftfield fence for a game-ending two-run homer.

The stunned Red Sox never recovered. They (along with the Yankees) fell out of first place, a half-game back of the idle Blue Jays. Boston never got close again the rest of the season. Well, the Red Sox hung around for a bit but a four-game series sweep at home at the hands of the Indians in late August really helped bury them.

I’ve always wondered how things would have played out had Boston hung on for its 11th straight win that night in Milwaukee. I mean, Russell was only one out away. Had they won the division that year, he wouldn’t have attacked the city of Boston the following year after he’d left town. (I still remember the media talking about Russell’s comments on the radio back then, and those were the days without the Internet and social media. Had he made those comments today, he would be heavily crucified for what he said.)

Well, the 2014 Tri-City Dust Devils are much closer to first place. They do have fewer games remaining, though, to try and finish ahead of Vancouver. The season wraps up on Labor Day Monday, September 1. Yes, I know it’s totally different from the big leagues, but still, it did make me think back to the 1993 Red Sox. And Tom Brunansky. And Jeff Russell (and his comments about Boston).

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Few, few pitches, Part 2

Since right-hander Kyle Drabek was called up over the weekend by the Toronto Blue Jays from Triple-A Buffalo – and to continue an earlier post about the same topic – I wanted to discuss one of the best games his dad, Doug Drabek, threw during his major-league career.

drabekOn September 30, 1990, Doug Drabek (now a pitching coach with the Short-Season Single-A Hillsboro Hops, Diamondbacks’ affiliate) pitched a complete-game three-hitter to beat the Cardinals 2-0 in St. Louis, clinching the NL East title for the Pirates. It was their first division title in 11 years, as Pittsburgh won its seventh straight game and 10 of 11.

The Pirates’ only two runs came in the eighth off hard-luck Joe Magrane on a sacrifice fly and a groundout. The unfortunate Magrane fell to 10-17 despite a 3.59 ERA, but the big story was Drabek, who got the shutout by throwing only 80 pitches. It was also Drabek’s 22nd victory, and the right-hander would go on to win the NL Cy Young Award in 1990.

That’s probably one of the best-pitched games of the decade – a complete-game shutout on only 80 pitches to clinch a division title – but it’s largely been forgotten. People might remember more about Mike Scott’s 1986 NL West-clinching no-hitter, because it was a no-no, but still, Drabek’s gem was spectacular.

BT cardsSpeaking of the Cardinals, in 1990 St. Louis finished last in the East with a 70-92 record, with Joe Torre taking over in the latter part of the season as manager. Though the Cards were a last-place outfit, there was one highlight on August 17 at Busch Stadium, when Bob Tewksbury threw a one-hitter to beat Bill Gullickson and the Houston Astros, 5-0. That night, Tewksbury lost his perfect game bid when Franklin Stubbs doubled to left on the first pitch leading off the eighth, and the Cardinals right-hander went on to throw just 79 pitches to complete the one-hitter. Had he gotten the no-no, it would have been the second in the majors in three days, following Terry Mulholland’s gem against San Francisco.

As it turned out, Stubbs would be the only Houston batter to reach against Tewksbury.

But 79 pitches in a one-hitter, a near perfect game? It’s all been forgotten as well.

Then on July 8, 1994, Tewksbury shut out Greg Maddux and the Braves 2-0 in Atlanta, where he used only 90 pitches in the complete-game four-hitter. It was a game where both he and Maddux went the distance, with neither one issuing a walk.

DETROIT-OAKLAND IN OCTOBER? Ahhhh, remember when Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander said back in July something about the Athletics acquiring Jeff Samardzija for the purpose of defeating Detroit in the postseason? It was something like this:

“I found it very interesting,” Verlander told reporters Saturday, according to MLB.com. “Really, when I saw that trade, I thought that they made that trade for us. No doubt about it in my mind.”

What I find interesting, just over a month later, is that the Tigers and Athletics could meet in October…but in a one-game showdown for the AL Wild Card to advance to the Division Series. How interesting that would be if things turned out that way!

Going into action on August 19, Detroit (66-56) and Oakland (73-51) were the two wild-card teams in the junior circuit, with the Tigers two games behind Kansas City (69-55) in the Central and the Athletics a half-game back of the Angels (73-50) in the West.

The Tigers (.5409) are actually only percentage points ahead of the Mariners (67-57, .5403) for the second wild-card spot, following Seattle’s loss to Jerome Williams and the Phillies 4-1 on Monday night in Philadelphia. Detroit was idle.

Should be an “interesting” finish to the season!

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“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” a biography of former big-league pitcher Tom Candiotti by KP Wee, is now available from Amazon.com or through the McFarland & Company website.

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They think they know it all, but they don’t…

Ahhhh, every year these so-called experts in the media make these “intelligent” predictions, thinking they’re right. And more often than not, they turn out to be wrong.

For instance, just last week, certain sports-talk radio hosts on Fox Sports (whom I won’t name because I don’t want to give them any additional publicity) were saying how untouchable the Detroit Tigers were. At that time, the Tigers were in New York for a four-game series against the Yankees, with their trio of Cy Young Award winners going in back-to-back-to-back games in the first three contests from August 4 through August 6. That would be Max Scherzer (2013 Cy Young winner), David Price (2012 winner), and Justin Verlander (2011) going for the Tigers in three straight games.

verlanderThe Yankees opened the series by beating Scherzer behind the pitching of Arizona castoff Brandon McCarthy (4-0), before dropping a 12-inning affair in Price’s Tigers debut. That’s when the sports-talk guys started bashing New York, saying stuff like, “Guess what? You just lost a game started by David Price, and now you’ve got to face Justin Verlander!”

Except that this was the Justin Verlander who’s been struggling in 2014. The Yankees got two runs off of Verlander (10-10) and journeyman Chris Capuano outpitched the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP, as New York won 5-1. The Yankees then made it three out of four in the series with rookie Shane Greene – in just his sixth career major-league start – beating Rick Porcello (13-6) by a score of 1-0.

So, what happened to those so-called experts proclaiming how great the Tigers starters were, how they were going to dominate New York? Heck, what happened to the Tigers in losing three of four to a supposed inferior team with no pitching? Letting Shane Greene and Chris Capuano and Brandon McCarthy outpitch your aces? Not counting Greene’s 1-0 victory, the Yankees starters gave up just three earned runs in 27.1 innings compared to the Tigers aces’ eight runs in 29.2 innings!

oswaltOnce again, this is what the so-called experts do, proclaiming how great such-and-such a pitching staff is. Weren’t the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies’ starting rotation supposed to be the greatest of all-time with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton? That’s what multiple media outlets were suggesting back then. The 2011 Phillies, as it turned out, didn’t win the World Series, and Oswalt spent several weeks on the DL because of a back injury. Actually, the Phillies didn’t even make it out of the NLDS, with Oswalt getting pounded for five runs against the Cardinals in Game Four in a loss to Edwin Jackson (!) as St. Louis evened the series at 2-2. The Cards then finished off the Phillies 1-0 two nights later.

Anyway, getting back to the 2014 Tigers, they had a chance to bury the Toronto Blue Jays, with Scherzer and Price going back-to-back in the final two games of their series at Rogers Centre on August 9-10. Scherzer did his job, but the offense got only two runs off rookie Marcus Stroman (who got lit up by the Chicago White Sox in his next start on August 15, by the way) and the bullpen blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth and lost, 3-2, in 10 innings. Closer Joe Nathan, by the way, has been brutal all season, and that game marked his seventh blown save of the year as his ERA climbed to 5.36.

But not to worry, right, as David Price would start Sunday in the series finale. The Tigers lit up the overrated Mark Buehrle (whom the Toronto media thought was going to win the Cy Young this year when he raced to a 10-1 start) and jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but the bullpen again coughed up the lead in the ninth. The game didn’t end till the 19th, when the Blue Jays won it 6-5 to take two of three in the series and the Tigers were forced to use starter Rick Porcello for two innings at the end. So much for the Tigers’ vaunted pitching. (As for the Blue Jays, they are dead anyway, getting swept in Seattle immediately following the Tigers series. At least the Mariners’ Cy Young winner did his job, as Felix Hernandez shut down the Blue Jays in the opener of that series with Toronto facing Scherzer, Price, and Hernandez in three straight games.)

Since Price (who gave up four runs) couldn’t get the job done against Toronto, the bullpen had to be taxed and the Tigers – who had placed right-handers Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria on the DL before the contest – used everyone except for Scherzer and Verlander.

Obviously, that meant the Tigers needed Verlander to give them a lot of innings the following night in Pittsburgh, but the former AL MVP and Cy Young winner was pounded for five runs in the first inning in the Pirates’ 11-6 victory. To make things worse, Verlander was taken out of the game after pitching just that one inning with right shoulder soreness, and the loss along with Kansas City’s 3-2 win over Oakland moved the Royals into first place ahead of Detroit in the AL Central.

hernandezSo much for the Tigers’ vaunted pitching staff. Verlander has had a bad year. In a tight game in the late innings, you can’t really trust the likes of Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain in the Tigers’ bullpen. And now, heading into the highly-anticipated David Price-Felix Hernandez matchup on August 16, the Tigers are trailing the Mariners for the second AL wild-card spot because Seattle spanked them 7-2 in the series opener in Detroit. The Royals, who won their third straight on August 15, now lead the Tigers by 1.5 games for the AL Central.

I’m still not convinced the Royals will hang on, but with the Tigers’ woes….perhaps we can stop thinking about the so-called “SI Jinx” but maybe think about the “Sports-Talk Radio Host Jinx” with these radio guys saying how untouchable the Tigers were and then this happens. Who knows, the 2014 Tigers could be the 2012-2013 Texas Rangers, a heavy favorite to win the division that ended up having to play in a 163rd game in order to advance further. (For the record, the Rangers lost both times, first the Wild Card Game to the Orioles in 2012 and then the wild-card tie-breaker game to the Rays in 2013).

Speaking of Tampa Bay, the Rays got to .500 by beating the Yankees on August 15. The Rays were now 61-61, which is remarkable since they were 18 games under .500 at one point (24-42 on June 10) and were the majors’ worst team. According to the AP, Tampa Bay became the fourth team in major-league history to reach the break-even point after falling 18 games under in the same season, joining the 1899 Louisville Colonels, the 2006 Florida Marlins, and the 2004 Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay is not going to make the postseason, but it should at least finish ahead of the Blue Jays (63-60), who are only 1.5 games better than the Rays right now. Ahhhh, remember way back when – it was in May – when the Toronto media thought the Blue Jays would just bash their way into the postseason and were laughing at the Rays? Well, perhaps those Rays will march into Rogers Centre from August 22 to 24 and spank those Blue Jays. Those media folks were the same people who thought a late-September series between Baltimore and Toronto would have some significant meaning for both clubs. Laughable. Perhaps the significance for Toronto would be to see if the Blue Jays can finish above .500 – or how many games within .500.

In any event, it should be an interesting race for the AL’s second wild-card spot the rest of the season. I don’t think Kansas City can hang on in the AL Central, because the Tigers are a more potent team. But if the Tigers somehow can’t recover and have to battle for the second wild-card spot,….then let’s call it the “Sports-Talk Radio Host Jinx” or something as those radio guys seemed to have an ALCS spot locked up for them weeks earlier.

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“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs” has been released

“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” the biography of former Major League Baseball knuckleball pitcher and current Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Tom Candiotti, is now available from McFarland & Company or through Amazon.com.

tom-candiotti-a-life-of-knuckleballs2.jpgIn this biography, Candiotti shares his thoughts on being the second player ever to come back from Tommy John surgery, the knuckleball, and losing the ERA title race to Roger Clemens, among other things. Candiotti also discusses some of the favorite pranks he pulled off with David Wells.

Get your copy today

Meanwhile, for a list of McFarland’s Spring 2014 new titles, click here. Their sports 2014 catalogue can be found here, and it contains a discount code that can be used for purchases up until September 1, 2014!

(You can get a 35% discount off your order if you purchase two or more books as McFarland is celebrating their 35th anniversary. Hurry – the offer is good till September 1, 2014. Click on the link provided above to take advantage of this incredible offer!)

For a list of McFarland’s current titles, click here. For a list of their baseball biographies, click here.

To get their latest updates and happenings, follow McFarland on Facebook as well as on Twitter!

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McFarland Publishing Co.
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Baseball’s Northwest League Update, August 2014

Since I worked for a couple of summers with the Vancouver Canadians baseball club (2011-2012), I’ve had enough ballpark food to last me for a while!

However, like many people in Vancouver, I just can’t stay away from the beautiful ballpark that the Canadians play in, Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium. The game I attended on Sunday, August 10 against the Tri-City Dust Devils marked the 10th sellout of the season for the Canadians in 24 home games in 2014. The club has already set five consecutive attendance records since 2009 and appear to be on its way to another new mark this summer, having already had several more sellouts for the remaining games of the 2014 home schedule.

Ironically, though, this game was only my third one back since the end of the 2012 season, but it was great to return and catch batting practice as well as speak with the play-by-play broadcasters on both sides. This particular game also marked the Vancouver debut of Matt Smoral, a 6’8”, 220-pound, hard-throwing left-hander who was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays (the Canadians’ parent club) in the first round (50th overall) of the 2012 Major League Baseball amateur draft. Just as important on this night, both the Canadians and Dust Devils were battling for the North Division second-half pennant in the Northwest League – each club was a game out of first place with only three weeks remaining – so it was quite an exciting night indeed. What a treat indeed at the ballpark, and I got to enjoy every minute of it from their air-conditioned press box.

On to the game, which was the opener of a three-game series between Vancouver and Tri-City. Both the Canadians (7-9) and Dust Devils (7-9) trailed the Everett AquaSox (8-8) going into tonight’s action, with only 21 games remaining after this one. Then after this series, the Canadians would welcome the first-place AquaSox in for three games at Scotiabank Field, so it was definitely a huge homestand for Vancouver.

Ryan Borucki, a 20-year-old left-hander making his second appearance with the Canadians (first in Vancouver), got the start. Borucki, selected in the 15th round of the 2012 amateur draft by the parent Blue Jays, allowed the first two Dust Devils to reach base (via a hit batsman and a walk) but bounced back to get the next three hitters – two by strikeouts – to escape the inning unscathed.

The Canadians struck first in the bottom of the opening inning off left-hander Helmis Rodriguez (signed as a non-drafted free agent by the parent club Colorado Rockies in 2010) thanks to a bases-loaded walk and an infield single. It was an unlucky beginning for the hard-luck Dust Devils starter, who came in with a 3-6 record despite a 2.14 ERA in 11 starts, as two of Vancouver’s first three hits didn’t even leave the infield. The fourth hit he gave up, meanwhile, was a grounder that bounced off Tri-City shortstop Chris Rabago’s glove and into centerfield.

For a while, it looked as though the Canadians would hang on to that lead with the way Borucki was pitching. However, Tri-City third baseman Shane Hoelscher led off the top of the fourth with a home run over the leftfield wall, the first round-tripper of his professional career, to put the Dust Devils on the scoreboard. A sacrifice fly the following inning evened the score at 2-2.

Borucki gave up only those two runs on four hits over his five innings of work. He walked two and struck out six in a second straight outstanding start in a Vancouver uniform. (In his Canadians debut in Boise on August 2, he’d pitched five innings of two-hit ball with seven strikeouts and just one walk in Vancouver’s 5-4, 10-inning victory over the Hawks.)

Smoral, a 20-year-old drafted out of Solon High School (Ohio) in 2012 who was just called up from Bluefield (Appalachian League) three days earlier, took over on the mound in the top of the sixth inning for his Canadians debut. But it wasn’t a great debut for the tall left-hander.

Smoral recorded only two outs, gave up two hits, threw two wild pitches, hit two batters, issued a pair of bases on balls, and allowed three runs, including one that came home on a bases-loaded walk. Thanks to the young lefty’s wildness, the Dust Devils plated three runs to go ahead 5-2.

Second baseman Renaldo Jenkins added an RBI double off right-hander Andrew Case to put the Dust Devils up 6-2 in the top of the seventh, before Vancouver stunned Tri-City by erupting for three runs in the bottom of the inning and then two more in the eighth – with the go-ahead run coming home on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch – to take a 7-6 advantage.

With Vancouver needing only three more outs to pull into a first-place tie in the North Division, the Canadians instead gave up five runs in the top of the ninth. The Dust Devils loaded the bases with none out on a single and two walks, before first baseman Josh Fuentes singled to left, where Christopher Carlson overran the ball. All three runners scored, putting the Dust Devils ahead to stay, 9-7. A wild pitch by Canadians reliever Joseph Lovecchio plated Tri-City’s 10th run of the afternoon, before catcher Robbie Perkins singled home yet another run to make it 11-7.

Vancouver (7-10) went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth, allowing Tri-City to pull out the victory in the opening game of this three-game set. Thanks to Everett’s loss to Spokane – the AquaSox (8-9) were held hitless over 11 innings in their 3-0 defeat – the Dust Devils (8-9) were now tied for first place in the North Division with only 21 games to play.

A great game, and thanks to the Vancouver Canadians Media Relations Department for their hospitality, and also thank you too to Dust Devils play-by-play broadcaster Chris King for spending a few minutes after the game to chat with me.

Standings, after games played on Sunday, August 10:

Northwest League North Division

Everett         8-9     –
Tri-City         8-9     –
x-Spokane  7-10    1
Vancouver   7-10    1

x-First-half pennant winner

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The Canadians warming up on the field prior to the game (photo taken from the press box)

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The hard-working grounds crew staff getting the field ready (photo taken from the press box)

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Matt Smoral on the mound in his debut with the Canadians (photo taken from the press box)

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The Dust Devils celebrating following the victory (photo taken from the press box)

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