A year ago, the Everett Merchants baseball team got a taste of playing on the national stage when they made a Cinderella run to the championship game of the National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series in Wichita, Kansas.
The Merchants ran into the Kansas Stars, a team composed of former major-leaguers ranging from role players to current and future Hall of Famers, and fell to the star-studded roster 7-1 in a true David-versus-Goliath matchup that was televised by ESPN.
“To be on the same field as them, it was giving us goosebumps,” said right-handed reliever Brandon Mahovlich, a returner from last year’s team that’s 2-0 with a 1.80 earned-run average over 15 innings this season.
Although the loss was tough, the experience was a once-in-life-time moment for a team that features a roster littered with ballplayers with Snohomish County ties.
“When you show up on the same field as (the Kansas Stars), you’re kind of shell-shocked and it’s kind of surreal that you’re playing some All-Stars, some Cy Young winners and some guys that are gonna be in the Hall of Fame,” said Merchants third baseman Max Whitt, a graduate of Granite Falls High School and Everett Community College. “As soon as you got on the field your jaw dropped and you’re just kind of like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”
Even better than the experience of sharing the same diamond as legends like Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones and the late Roy Halladay was the willingness of the former MLB players to allow the Merchants to pick their brains.
“They gave you more information about baseball than you’ve heard in your entire life in 20 minutes,” Whitt said. “and it was just an unbelievable experience to talk to a guy (Jones) that got voted in the Hall of Fame two months later.”
This year’s tournament will be different, though. The Stars won’t be there but the Merchants (27-9) will be, and Everett’s performance at the 2017 tournament earned it an automatic berth to the tournament and the No. 1 overall seed — which could give teams a little extra motivation when matching up with the Merchants.
“We’ll definitely have a target on our back,” said right-handed starter Cody Culp, Everett’s leader in innings pitched (44) and strikeouts (46). “but, in my eyes, that’s totally OK. I’m pretty confident in our team. We’ve got a solid, solid team, so I’ve got no worries there.”
Confidence and leadership from guys like Culp, who is one of just a few returners with NBC World Series experience, will be big for an Everett squad that has seen most of its roster turn over since the 2017 season and hasn’t faced the consistent level of play the team will play in Wichita.
“The competition is definitely a big step up when we go down there and there’s lots on the line,” Mahovlich said. “For the younger guys, this is just a great experience.”
Whitt, 26, said the younger players were already asking him questions about the NBC World Series when they were in Kamloops, British Columbia for the Kamloops International Baseball Tournament on July 5-8.
“For me going down there, it’s just taking these younger guys under my wing and letting them live this experience and kind of taking them through it all,” Whitt said.
The Merchants left that tournament in Kamloops with a first-place trophy after a pair of come-from-behind victories on the tournament’s final day.
“We gained a lot of experience, and in those games up there we never changed our game” said Merchants manager and owner Harold Pyatte, who’s been with the club since its inception in 1973. “We ran, we hit and run, we stole bases. That’s kind of the earmark of our team.”
The Merchants have stolen 75 bases in 93 attempts through just 36 games this season, led by recent Arlington grad and Seattle University-bound outfielder Gavin Rork with 20.
“The running game put so much pressure on the other team and we’ve done that all year long,” Pyatte said.
Rork is one of four Merchants players to steal 10 or more bases and hit over .300 at the plate.
“If he hits a ball to the shortstop and you try and take your time and throw him out at first base, he’s gonna be safe every time because he plays the game the right way — 110 percent,” Whitt said of Everett’s leadoff hitter. “He’s one of the fastest kids I’ve ever gotten to play with. … It’s unbelievable how quick he is.”
Along with the luxury of being the tournament’s top-seeded team, the Merchants get to skip the qualifying pool-play and head straight to the tournament’s championship bracket.
The team’s first game is Saturday at 7:30 p.m., PST, against an opponent from the first-week qualifier that has yet to be determined.