Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER — The Kitchener Panthers begin their hunt for the Intercounty Baseball League championships Thursday night, a battle that will run them straight into the Barrie Baycats’ one-two-punch strikeout machine.
The defending champion Baycats, winners of three IBL titles in a row, will likely start the series by throwing Emilis Guerrero and Claudio Custodio at the Panthers’ high-flying offense.
Both Dominican Republic-raised pitchers led the league in strikeouts this season — and finding a way to get to them could hold the key to ending the Panthers’ 16-year championship drought.
The series, which starts in Barrie and moves to Kitchener Saturday night for Game 2, pits a team that went 31-3 this season against a Panthers club that finished in second place but lost all five games against the Baycats this year.
The Baycats are a well-rounded team that can hit, run well and make great defensive plays — but their strength starts with their pitching.
Guerrero, a former Pittsburg Pirates prospect, was a nine-game winner for Barrie who struck out 80 batters in 74 innings this season. He’s known for his devastating slider and didn’t allow a run in his only start in these playoffs.
Custodio, the league’s ERA king who chose to stay in Barrie this season instead of playing for a professional team in Mexico, also struck out 80 this season — in only 55 innings.
“They’ve got those two dynamite starters,” said Kitchener manager Dave teBoekhorst. “They have fantastic pitching, and it’s just going to be a dogfight. We’re going to have to scratch and fight to get by them.”
Kitchener has the upper hand when it comes to power, clubbing 20 home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They’re led offensively by Sean Reilly, who has smacked no less than 28 RBI this post season, including a grand slam in Sunday’s series winner over London.
“I think we’re matched pretty well on the offensive side. We may have a little more pop from a home run standpoint, but not much,” teBoekhorst said. “But they’re not going to give up many ten-run games. So we’re probably going to have to play a smaller than we’re used to… we can’t be looking for a big three-run homer every time.”
The Panthers played the Baycats five times this regular season, and went 0-5. But teBoekhorst doesn’t put too much stock in that record, pointing out the Panthers were 4-1 against Barrie last season, only to be swept in the playoffs.
But the Baycats, who advanced to the finals after sweeping the Brantford Red Sox, have a knack for finding a way to win.
“It seems to be Groundhog Day every time we play them,” teBoekhorst said. “We’d get a lead in their park in the ninth inning, and they’d score two. Or we have to crawl from behind top get back into it.”
He’ll respond with a starting rotation of Matt McGovern, Jasvir Rakkar, Sean Ratcliffe and Noelvis Entenza. Rakkar, who was dominating in his first three playoffs games, hit a wall in his last start, giving up ten runs in the first inning against London.
The manager will be looking to the former Chicago Cubs prospect to bounce back from that rough outing, but suggested Rakkar’s command shouldn’t be entirely to blame. He suspects the righthander was tipping his pitches, and the Majors knew in advance what pitches he was about to throw.
Three years since his squad last made it to the finals, the Panthers skipper is grateful for another shot. It’s especially meaningful for the handful of older players on the roster who know their baseball days are numbered, like 40-year-olds Reilly and Jeff Pietraszko, he said.
They don’t intend to waste the chance.
“We’ve got a few guys who are a couple years away from shutting it down and would like to have a ring. You don’t have forever in this game, and you realize as you get older,” teBoekhorst said.
“It’s do or die time, and we’re ready to go.”
IBL Finals schedule
Game 1 - Thurs. Aug. 24, 7:30pm at Barrie
Game 2 - Sat. Aug. 26, 7pm at Kitchener
Game 3 - Sun. Aug. 27, 7pm at Barrie
Game 4 - Tues. Aug. 29, 7:30pm Kitchener
Game 5 - Thurs. Aug. 31, 7:30pm at Barrie
Game 6 - Sat. Sept. 2, 7pm at Kitchener
Game 7 - Sun. Sept. 3, 7pm at Barrie