Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER — The champagne was popped, the fireworks were shot, and the Kitchener Panthers walked off the field, thinking about next year.
After losing the Intercounty Baseball League finals to the defending champion Barrie Baycats in five games, all there was left to do was pack up and get back on the bus headed south.
The Panthers had plenty to think about on that long drive home late Tuesday night, after their season ended in an 8-4 loss at a jam-packed Coates Stadium in Barrie.
“It’s always sad. It’s almost like somebody died. You spend an entire season battling with these guys and you know it’s over,” said Mike Glinka, the Panthers’ shortstop. “But that said, we have a lot of pride in getting here. We have a lot of pride for the way we battled.”
Kitchener lost the series 4-1, but it was much closer championship than the numbers might suggest. Two of Barrie’s wins were one-run victories, and the Panthers staked the lead in each of the first four games.
The final two games both ended with the bases loaded for Kitchener — going down “guns a-blazing” as Glinka called it.
“On paper, you could argue we had no business winning this series, but we didn’t play like it,” he said.
The Baycats said it was no walk in the park winning their second straight IBL title, either.
“It was a great series. People who don’t know baseball might look at it and say ‘it was 4-1, it wasn’t that close.’ But there were two absolute coin-flip games,” said Barrie manager Angus Roy.
“Even in (Game 5), they put a ton of guys on base, they brought the tying runs to the plate in what felt like every inning.”
The Panthers’ pitchers carried a heavy load in the championships series and the semifinal round, after three of Kitchener’s best arms — starter Ryan Holda and relievers Victor Vazquez and Heath Bell — were sent home following a fight at their rental house in Waterloo, and other disruptive off-field behaviour.
“It was tough. But you kind of roll with what you’ve got. If they’re not there, you can’t harp on it. We got through the London series without them, and we put up a good battle against Barrie,” said manager Dave teBoekhorst, who took his team to their first championship series in 14 years.
That left the rest of the bullpen overtaxed, thrown into more high-stakes rolls and with less rest in between appearances. But the Panthers weren’t looking for pity when they filed back into the visitor’s locker room at Coates Stadium.
“I just told them I’m proud of them and to keep their heads high,” teBoekhorst said. “We had a goal to win this thing, but were going to build on what we have, and move forward.”
Beside the disappointing end to the finals, there were plenty of bright lights in 2015 for the Panthers.
Among them would be Sean Reilly’s superb season at the plate, winning the league’s first Triple Crown since 1981 (17 regular-season home runs, 48 RBI and a .444 batting average). Not surprisingly, that kind of production earned him the IBL’s most valuable player award.
“He’s approaching 40 and still playing like he’s 25,” said teBoekhorst.
The Panthers, who finished the regular season with a 26-10 record, had six players batting above .300 in the playoffs, led by Glinka, David Whiteside, Tanner Nivins, Thomas Richards, Mike Andrulis and Reilly.
Rookie Eric Hall, although pegged with the loss in Game 5, emerged as a promising young starter for the club. Newcomer Phil Owen claimed the closer’s role and dominated batters late in games all season long.
“It was an incredible run, especially as short-handed as we were,” Owen said. “We had a lot of adversity in the second round, but had a lot of gutsy performances out of our pitchers.”
Barrie’s experience ultimately triumphed in the championships, said Owen, who’s about to begin his last year pitching for BrockUniversity. The Baycats scored late in games, and held off rallies that could have turned the tide.
“This series was a lot closer than it appeared. We just couldn’t close them out, and it’s a testament to their experience,” he said. “But I think the feeling in our room is when we play our best, we’re the best team in the league.”
The manager, teBoekhorst, took his cap off to the Baycats and called them a “class act.” Now, with a long off-season ahead, his attention turns to 2016.
“I think a lot of the guys see how close we are, and know there’s so many positives to take away from this,” he said. “We’re just going to give everything a look after this sinks in, and see where we need to improve and give it another go next year.”