Without delivering one pitch or taking one swing, the Spokane Indians have doubled their chances at making the Northwest League playoffs.
The same is true for the seven other NWL teams as the league begins its 56th season tonight with a postseason twist – four teams advancing instead of two.
In fact, tonight’s 6:30 opener at Avista Stadium between Spokane and the Tri-City Dust Devils would be a playoff rematch if this year’s postseason format had been in effect last year.
The Dust Devils won the East Division last year and advanced to the league title series against West champion Salem-Keizer.
Spokane, which won 26 of its final 40 games last year to finish second to T-C, essentially had no playoff hopes from midseason on.
This year, the 76-game season will be split in two. The teams with the best first-half record in each division will meet the teams with the best second-half record in a best-of-3 divisional series. Winners will advance to the best-of-3 championship series.
Count fourth-year Indians manager Tim Hulett among the supporters of the revamped format.
“I think a lot of times you have a lot of turnover during the season … and by the end of the year you have a whole different team,” Hulett said. … “I think if you get off to a great start, you can win that first half before anyone can blink an eye. … But if you don’t, for whatever reason, it’s not the end of your season.”
Most of the 2010 Indians probably wouldn’t know the difference.
“I haven’t looked that far ahead,” said outfielder Jared Hoying, drafted in the 10th round earlier this month from the University of Toledo. “I’m just trying to get my feet wet here. … But more games is more experience. With more games, you have something to play for and you’re not already out of it (halfway through the season).”
Spokane begins its 28th consecutive season in the league – 25 under the ownership of the Brett family – and its eighth year as an affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Since signing on with the Rangers, the Indians have won three NWL titles (2003, ’05, ’08).
What kind of team Spokane produces this season will depend on the roster that shakes out. The Rangers are working to sign high draft picks, including supplemental first-rounder Mike Olt, a third baseman who broke the University of Connecticut’s career home run record.
Hulett had one quick impression during the team’s three-day minicamp, which ended Thursday night.
“It looks like we’re going to have some pretty good team speed,” he said. “In the past we’ve had some teams that were good running the bases and I think you can win a lot of games (that way).”
Pitching may also be a plus. Ninth-rounder Zach Osborne, a right-hander from Louisiana-Lafayette, is projected to start Monday’s road opener at Vancouver.
“I get out there and throw strikes, and get the hitters back in the dugout quickly,” said Osborne, whose last start was a 1-0 win over Rice at an NCAA regional.
The Rangers are also high on right-hander Nicholas McBride, Saturday’s scheduled starter. McBride passed on a scholarship to East Carolina and signed with Texas last August after being drafted in the fifth round.
“Everybody needs an education, but I just felt like I could pursue my dream right now and take a chance,” McBride said.
Spokane plays eight of its first 13 games at home – today through Sunday against Tri-City and June 26-30 against Everett.
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