The Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping their strong finish to the IBL regular season carries into their opening-round matchup against the Kitchener Panthers.
While the challenge is a steep one against a Kitchener club that fell just short of winning the league pennant, the Leafs come into the best-of-seven series having won six straight and playing their best baseball of the season.
“That’s exactly what you want to be doing, is playing your best baseball going into the playoffs,” Toronto manager/player Damon Topolie said ahead of the Aug. 8 series opener in Kitchener. “Unfortunately we had a rough patch in the middle of the season, but we are playing our best baseball going into the playoffs and I’m just happy we’re going in on a positive note.
“It doesn’t really matter who we are playing, I just want our players to do their best and compete.”
The Leafs (26-11) will be looking to avenge a four-game sweep by the Panthers (25-12) in last year’s semi-finals, but it won’t be easy against a club that has a deep pitching staff led by ace Yoen Socarras, Canadian Pan Am Games hurler Jasvir Rakkar and top closer Miguel Lahera.
Thanks to some key additions on the mound this season, Topolie believes the Leafs can keep up in the arms race. Recent pitcher of the week Alberto Tirado, Canadian Pan Am Games hurler Chris Leroux and reliever Jean Carlos Henriquez, acquired from Guelph, provide the Leafs with a variety of strong arms behind ace Justin Cicatello.
“I think this is one of the deepest pitching staffs we’ve had, definitely in the last few years,” Topolie said. “That’s what we’ve always been lacking, is pitching depth. It’s one thing we needed to acquire. It took a little longer to find it, but we did acquire it.
“I definitely can’t complain about our pitching staff and the way they’ve thrown the baseball.”
Toronto’s offence has also been firing heading into the playoffs. Rookie Ryan Santos led the league in steals with 24 and finished second overall with a .365 batting average, while sluggers Jonathan Solazzo, Marcus Knecht and Justin Marra all finished among the top-10 in home runs.
After a mid-season personal break, Solazzo was among the league’s top hitters. He led the Leafs with 10 home runs, with six of those coming in the last nine games.
“That’s the Solazzo I want to see at the plate,” Topolie said. “He’s been a very good player in this league for a long time. When he’s ready to play and things are going well for him, this is how he hits. He’s one of the more productive offensive players in the league.”
The Aug. 8 opener at Jack Couch Stadium starts at 7:30 p.m., with Game 2 back in Kitchener on Aug. 10, before returning to the Christie Pits Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. Game 4 is Aug. 14 in Toronto.
“Last year, even though we lost four straight, I think every game was pretty much a back-and-forth one-run game with the exception of maybe one of them,” Topolie said. “They are a good team and they have been to the finals two years in a row, so we just got to compete with them.”