KITCHENER – Can the mighty Brantford Red Sox be beaten? Sure, says outfielder Darnell Duckett. But everything has to go right.
Luckily, a lot of things are going right for his Kitchener Panthers right now, riding an 8-2 record in its last ten games in the Intercounty Baseball League and roaring into the playoffs in their best position in years.
The Panthers may not know who their first-round opponent in the post-season will be next week, but they believe they’re playing well enough to beat anyone in this league.
That includes the heavily-favoured Red Sox – the powerhouse 29-6 club that has won five IBL titles in a row, and who figure to be in the finals once again.
“We have a good team to march to the finals this year. We can take (Brantford) on, but we can’t make errors. We have to play a solid game, 100 per cent baseball,” Duckett said.
“And we need to get up on teams early, instead of laying back and waiting until we’re in trouble.”
On Sunday, the Panthers will get a test run against the Red Sox, in their last home game of the regular season. The club may also have to play a makeup game against Toronto, which could be a preview of a pending first-round, best-of-seven playoff matchup.
With the playoffs just days away, the Panthers are playing with some swagger.
“There’s a good feeling around this team right now,” said catcher Rick Murray, who’s hitting .300 this season while scattering 30 hits. “Everyone’s just trying to focus right now and do our thing.”
But skipper Brian Bishop has been around long enough to know the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot once the post-season starts. Last year, his Panthers finished in seventh place, two games below .500, but managed to upset the second-place London Majors in the first round.
“The playoffs are a different animal. Different teams show up in the playoffs,” he said.
Still, the club know it’s playing good baseball at the right time of year.
The Panthers have one of the lower staff earned run averages in the league, while boasting the IBL’s best fielding percentage. That’s a notable shift from last season, when the free-swinging Panthers were among the top of the league in homers but allowed far too many base runners.
“We’re fielding the ball really well, which is huge thing for us. We’re averaging less than an error a game, and at this level, that’s excellent,” said general manager Scott Ballantyne.
Strong defense combined with a steady string of good starts by Shaun Hancock, Mike McGillivray, Matt McGovern and Adam Echlin has put the team in a position to win often. And that’s without starter Marcos Reyna, the flame-throwing Californian who’s been limited to short relief appearances because of ongoing problems with his shoulder.
“I think everyone is battling hard right now,” said McGovern, the former Ottawa Fat Cat who joined the team early in the season.
“I’m hoping we can have a good run in the playoffs. We’ve had a good year, and I think it comes down to how our team has gelled. If we can keep that up in the playoffs, I think we’ll surprise some people.”
McGovern, who’s fighting a kidney infection, is a key part of the Panther’s playoffs hopes – he’s been setting down hitters at an impressive rate, having struck out 27 batters in his last three starts, putting him fifth in the league in total strikeouts.
He knows that if the Panthers have any chance of advancing all the way to the finals, it has to start with good pitching. But first, his club needs to finish the season and figure out who they’re matched up against in the first round.
The good news is the Red Sox long ago clenched first place, and a cushy first-round matchup with bottom-dwelling Guelph Royals, so there’s less motivation to trot out their top lineup Sunday.
That game goes at 7 p.m. Sunday at Jack Couch Park.
“Brantford’s kind of going through the motions right now,” said Keith Kandel, the speedy outfielder who’s swiped 20 stolen bases this season. “It gives us hope that we can finish strongly.”