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West Coast League Baseball: 'fan Experience' Buoys Interest In Portland Ball Club

PMG PHOTO: KYLE GARCIA - John Jensen was a productive leadoff batter this season for the Portland Pickles, who wrapped up their summer season Sunday at Walker Stadium.

It was an up-and-down season for the Pickles this summer. They finished 24-29 and missed the playoffs, a far cry from 2018 when Portland posted the best record in the West Coast League.

But the disappointing results didn't matter on Friday when the Pickles earned a 7-6 victory in front of more than 3,000 people. It didn't matter that rain drizzled throughout the night, that lightning made the sky a bright purple or that thunder roared. Fans cheered as if their team was fighting for a spot in the World Series.

"It's wild," Portland head coach Justin Barchus said. "I think sometimes being here for two years, you take it for granted, but then there's moments where you have a second to take a deep breath and look around and it's pretty impressive this crowd. It's not just a big crowd. It's a pretty electric crowd, there's a lot of energy to it."

"It's a crazy atmosphere here," Pickles center fielder John Jensen said. "All the people, they're behind your back 24/7. I love all the people here and I'm going to miss it for sure."

Consistent crowds of over 2,000 fans raising their chairs for the Pickles was one of the few things Portland had going for it as the Pickles struggled to a league-worst 9-17 start in the first half. Barchus admitted at one point during the season that it was one of the worst offensive teams he had seen. Early in the summer, there were routine errors that cost the Pickles games.

"The first half of the season was definitely a big struggle for us," Jensen said. "Early on we were making a lot of errors, a lot of mental mistakes that were costing us ball games,"

The Pickles hovered in the bottom third of the league in many offensive categories and finished ninth in the 12-team league with a batting average of .241. Portland struck out 491 times, third most in the league.

Portland made significant improvement from the first half of the season, when they batted around .200 and struggled to generate any power. Despite the slow start, Portland finished fourth in the WCL with 33 home runs.

Pitching was a bright spot early in the season. It wasn't as dominant as last season, when the Pickles finished first in most major pitching categories, Portland finished sixth in ERA (4.71), eighth in opponent batting average (.257) and strikeouts (443).

Pitching coach Zach Miller was pleased that pitchers kept the the Pickles in games when the offense struggled, especially early in the season.

"That was a really cool part I think for our guys that were here early on to hold teams as minimal as they could, even though we couldn't get the win," Miller said.

It didn't always come easy for the pitchers. But Miller is proud of the work they did to improve.

"Whether it be pitching, life, character, whatever, I want them to learn something, and hopefully we've done that for a lot of guys," Miller said.

Roster turnover was another challenge. The Pickles had 35 players go home early either due to injury or to save themselves for fall ball.

"It's a tough deal for Justin because he's got to try to find a lineup and it was nice to have a lineup where you can plug guys in occasionally," Portland hitting coach Mark Magdaleno said.

The summer season is long and can take a toll on players. Relief isn't quite the right word, but there is a part of the team that feels a certain sense of calm at the end of the summer.

"I think it's an exhale," Barchus said. "There's at least for one second, you feel like you can kind of hit the off switch and be like 'Okay, I don't to have to get this ready or be worried about this or worry about uniforms and all that stuff.'"

Not everyone is happy the season's over.

"I think this is all about just enjoying each other, you know, the relationships we made over the summer," Jensen said.

Even if it wasn't the best summer on the field, Pickles owner Alan Miller felt there was plenty of success off it. The team tried a variety of new promotions that he believes paid off.

"I feel really good about the business side," Miller said. "I think we made some really good strides. I think the fan experience was fun. People really had a good time and we did a lot of interesting, diverse promotion and outreach in the community that were fun, that were really fun things I really wanted to do."

The year saw plenty of firsts for the Pickles. They were the presenting sponsors of the Walk Summer Concert Series that showcased local recording artists every Friday home game.

There were other promotions that may find their way to Pickles games next summer as well. On July 16 the Pickles held Tattoo Tuesday, where they offered free Pickles-themed tattoos to anyone who wanted them. Over 130 people happily inked themselves with variations of Dillon the Pickle and much more. There was also the addition of Woof Wednesdays, which encouraged Pickles fans to bring their dogs to Walker Stadium to enjoy some baseball.

Miller sees many of these promotions continuing.

"I don't see why we wouldn't want to have Tattoo Tuesdays every Tuesday and Woof Wednesdays every Wednesday and concerts every Friday," Miller said.

For Barchus and his staff, winning more games is a nice goal. But the summer-ball focus is about keeping the players healthy and helping them develop. The 2019 Pickles coaches believe every player is going home at least a little bit improved.

"We've never stopped coaching," Barchus said. "We were in it until the last punch. One thing I pride myself in as a coach is we're going to compete every time as long as the balls are in play. We're going to compete no matter what we have, and these guys have done that and there's nothing else you can say about this group."

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