For the first time in several years, the Spokane Indians opened their Northwest League season on the road – but it was a mostly successful debut to the 2019 schedule.
The Indians took two out of three from the Vancouver Canadians, who are expected to battle Spokane at the top of the NWL’s North Division.
Manager Kenny Hook was enthused about his squad’s success opening on the road in front of big crowds – and a national TV audience in Canada on Saturday night.
“They weren’t in awe of the setting. I think they were able to harness some of the energy and emotion of opening night and opening the season,” Hook said.
“Everyone was locked in as far as great energy and the dugout culture was awesome,” he added. “When you go into a long season – even though (the NWL) is a little bit shorter – you’re playing every day and it’s about being able to maintain that regardless of winning or losing.”
Starting pitching carried the Indians in the two games they won.
“Pitching really, I think, was the biggest surprise for me,” Hook said, “as far as the way they handled themselves on the mound, showed a lot of composure, made some quality pitches under some high-stress situations.”
In the season opener on Friday, Ricky Vanasco – a 15th-round pick in 2017 of the Texas Rangers – struck out seven over four shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks, while throwing 50 of his 80 pitches for strikes.
On Sunday, 20-year-old Joshua Javier allowed just one hit with no walks over four innings with six strikeouts.
Vanasco is known for his big fastball, which he maintained in the 94-98 range throughout his outing. He also showed good command with a breaking ball and changeup, the latter he used several times for third strikes.
“He can land the breaking ball. He’s got a good feel for it,” Hook said. “The changeup is obviously a weapon he can play off the velo(city). So he was able to use it in some situations where maybe guys are sitting, kind of cheating on his fastball.”
“He’s such a high velo guy, if he can show the ability to have command of some secondary pitches I think you’re going to see how good the kid can really be.”
Javier was “super impressive,” according to the skipper.
The lone hit against Javier came in the first inning to Yorman Rodriguez, Vancouver’s No. 3 hitter. Javier then tried to pick him off and threw it away, allowing Rodriguez to move up to second.
He came back to strikeout Ronny Brito to get out of the jam.
“It was a decent pitch, down and away, and (Rodriguez) just did a great job of hitting,” Hook recalled. “I think (the errant pickoff attempt) kind of woke (Javier) up a little bit and he started to pitch. He was able to land and show the breaking ball.”
“What I was most impressed with him is he did use both sides of the plate. So he’s able to get in on some right-handers and then just let that fastball run to the outer third. So he cruised.”
Sam Hellinger, who pitched at Gonzaga, made one appearance out of the bullpen, but it was memorable. He entered in the ninth inning Sunday with one out and two on – and struck out both batters he faced for the save.
“I think he obviously handled himself like he’s done it before,” Hook said. “I think his college experience really showed up right there.”
On the offensive side, 22-year-old outfielder Luis Asuncion had a nice series, going 3 for 8 with a two-run homer Friday and four RBIs for the weekend. Asuncion has played the past three seasons for Tri-City.
“He’s an older guy,” Hook said. “He’s been around a little bit but he does have some power. I think what’s unique about him is it’s not just pull-side power – he has the ability to to drive the ball and some of his better swings are more into center field and right-center. So I think when you’re able to do that, you can really start to look for pitches in certain areas and use the whole field.”
Hook had praise for rookie infielder Jayce Easley, who reached base with four walks over the three games, and “veteran” infielder Cristian Inoa, who is on his third trip around the NWL despite still only being 19.
“(Inoa)’s a calming presence defensively. With him at the top of the lineup, I have a lot of confidence that he’s a guy that’s going to give you a good at-bat, he’s got some power, and uses the whole field,” Hook said.
“He’s a guy that, I think, is going to be a real presence with this team. To be still that young, but have that that much game experience, especially in this league is going to be crucial for a whole team.”
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