The Corvallis Knights were in a rare position this season, needing to win games down the stretch to make the playoffs.
The Knights had won the West Coast League’s South Division first half in each of the past two seasons under the current playoff format, automatically guaranteeing a spot in the postseason regardless of how the remaining 27 games of the regular season went.
Corvallis played well in this year’s first half, 16-11, but first-year WCL team Portland was a little bit better at 17-9.
Knights players grasped the importance of needing to play well over the final four weeks, and they head into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.
Corvallis opens the best-of-three division playoffs Friday hosting Portland at 6:30 p.m. at Goss Stadium. Games Saturday (7:05 p.m.) and if necessary, Sunday (time TBA), will be played at Portland.
Corvallis won four of six games to close out the regular season after clinching its matchup with Portland last week.
“I think they’ve really responded,” said Knights coach Brooke Knight, whose team is making its 12th straight playoff appearance. “We’re playing loose but we’re still playing with conviction. I think we’ve got a hunger as a group to uphold the tradition our organization has had for a long time.”
The teams split six regular-season games, which each taking two of three at the opponent’s home park. Corvallis won the most-recent three-game set, edging Portland 12-11 in total runs scored.
Portland swept three straight series after playing Corvallis. But the Pickles lost two of three to Victoria to close the regular season, allowing the Knights to claim the South’s second-half title.
After making the playoffs, the focus was continuing to play at a high level in order to have some forward momentum when the time arrives.
Corvallis took two of three games at Cowlitz in Longview, Washington, last weekend and came home to take two of three against Yakima Valley.
“We really tried to focus on staying together and getting those big wins,” Knights outfielder Austin Feist said. “It’s pretty easy when you’re at home. The fans are great. It’s an easier day, and it’s a lot easier to focus that way.”
Added teammate Trace Tammaro of keeping the success rolling: “It’s really important. We focus on trying to do all the little things … running a hard 90 (feet to first base), stuff like that. It’s a big deal.”
The Knights have won 14 of their last 16 league games, including five straight series. They had a 17-game home winning streak end with Wednesday’s loss to Yakima Valley.
Corvallis’ strong finish helped the Knights clinch home-field advantage should they defeat Portland and advance to the championship series and chase a sixth league title.
Feist, an incoming senior at St. Martin’s University from Burns, has played as big a part as anyone in helping the team stay hot in the closing weeks of the season.
He’s batting 23 of 57 (.404) with three home runs, four doubles and 19 RBIs in his last 14 games. His season batting average has jumped from .256 to .305.
Feist’s breakout streak coincides with the Knights’ recent run toward the postseason.
But it didn’t start out that way. He hit .241 with no extra-base hits through his first 11 games of the summer.
Feist, credited with good bat speed, maintained a positive attitude despite his struggles. He has a non-conventional left-handed swing, but if it’s on time he has a chance to do some damage.
Knight recalls talking with his staff during that stretch, and saying “'there are guys in this sport that have the knack and the competitive ability to put the barrel on the baseball,’ and I said Feisty may be that guy.”
“He’s more than exceeded expectations,” Knight added. “He’s not only stayed in the lineup, he’s been a crucial part in the middle of our lineup. Really lit a fire under some guys offensively. I think that propels other guys to perform.”