KITCHENER – The Kitchener Panthers may be making another trip back to the unwelcoming confines of Toronto’s Christie Pits Saturday night, but they’ve already got their eye on what may come after that.
The Intercounty Baseball League club, just a win away from advancing to the semi-finals, were stung 17-11 Thursday by a Toronto Maple Leafs team not yet ready to call it a season. The Panthers, who lead their best of seven series 3-2, now need to win on the road Saturday or at home Sunday to advance.
Skipper Brian Bishop said his club showed some wear and tear from a busy playoff schedule Thursday night – the usually sure-handed Panthers committed four errors and suffered from lackluster pitching, in their fifth game in six days.
But an off day Friday will bring a needed rest, and restore their confidence they can wrap the series up in their favour, he said.
“We just didn’t play our best,” Bishop said. “We came out a little bit flat. Sometimes the grind catches up to you… it can drag on you. Buy we’re not worried.”
If the Panthers can dispatch Toronto this weekend, that would set up a second-round battle with the pennant-winning Brantford Red Sox, provided Brantford is able to beat Guelph in their series. Brantford leads that matchup 3-2.
If they do, the Panthers’ big designated hitter Bryon Bell will be itching to upstage a team he still considers his brothers. Bell, hitting a scorching .565 with 12 RBI and four home runs in the playoffs, won a handful of championships with the Red Sox before returning this season to Kitchener.
“I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to playing them, and I’d love to beat them,” he said. “They have a great squad. But if there’s a team that’s going give them some competition, it’s us.”
Brantford, of course, is the club that produced a dominating 33-9 record in the regular season and are gunning for a record sixth straight championship. In the league’s other series, Barrie and London will duke it out in their semi-final to decide who gets to the finals.
But first, the Panthers need to deal with Toronto, a club they’ve outscored 59 runs to 45 so far in their first-round series. The good news is they’ve played their best in front of hostile crowds in Toronto versus at home in these playoffs, having outscored the Leafs 31-7 at Christie Pits.
Jack Couch Park, meanwhile, has hardly been home sweet home, having dropped two of their three games against the Leafs there and barely winning the third 6-5.
The club will hand the ball to Matt McGovern Saturday night. The Ottawa native will be looking to bounce back from a rough start a week ago, when he was tagged for nine runs in a 16-10 loss.
While the team’s pitching and defense wavered a bit Thursday, the Panthers’ fire power hasn’t – the club still managed 16 hits in their loss.
A big part of their offensive punch has been the trio of Bell, catcher Rick Murray and centerfielder Tanner Nivins, who lead the league in home runs, RBI and batting average in the post-season. Collectively, they’ve been responsible for 35 of the Panthers RBIs against Toronto.
Bell said his recent power surge is owed to a little tweak in his swing. By holding his hands higher in the batter’s box, he says he creates more loft, allowing him to drive the ball farther.
“It’s been working for me. I like it, and I’m not going to change anything right now,” he said.
Bishop has also shuffled his bullpen a bit in the post-season, appointing Californian fireballer Marcos Reyna as his newest closer. Reyna, whose shoulder soreness prompted a move into the bullpen in July, relishes the new role.
Knowing he’ll be pitching in limited innings late in the game means Reyna doesn’t have to hold back on his velocity to try to save his shoulder. That lets him go after hitters with his full arsenal, at full-throttle – attacking with a potent fastball, a big curveball, an effective cutter and a deceptive split-finger pitch.
“Now I can go out there and push it 100 per cent, and not hold anything back,” Reyna said. “It’s nice to know they have the confidence in me to just throw strikes and try to close it down.”
If Game 7 is necessary, it’ll go at 7 p.m. Sunday at Jack Couch Park. Shaun Hancock, who held Toronto to three earned runs in Tuesday’s 6-5 win, would start for the Panthers if that game goes ahead.