By Grant Lucas

The Bulletin

Elks stats

3B (3): Peevyhouse, Kings, Newton 1. SB-CS (58-18): Close 12-0, Osuna 11-3, Erlandson 8-1, Lopez 6-4, Achenback, Peevyhouse 3-0; Newton, Roque 3-1; Allen, Brooks 2-0; Frost 2-1, King, Larimer 1-0; Hurd 1-1, Carpenter, Cushing, Rosen 0-1; Gill 0-2. E (72): Carpenter 12, Osuna 10, Lopez, Cushing 7; Brooks 6, Roque 5, Larimer 4, Close, Hurd 3; Erlandson, Allen, Ferguson 2; Peevyhouse, Forst, King, Reddick, Hanks, Wildung, Finfer, Gill 1.

GS (53): McGuff 10, Carter, Thompson 9; Hamann, Guzzon 6; Bennett, Kaul 4; Schiender 3, Pratt, Martinez 1. Sv (18): Sheets 9, Cohen 8, Pratt 1. WP (43): Kaul, Wilson 6; Thompson, Bennett, Albrecht 4; McGuff, Blackwell, Wilcox 3; Pratt, Cohen, Frost 2; Martinez, Sheets, Gomez, Snaring 1.

Thirty-one was a critical number for the Bend Elks this summer.

It was a win total the team fell just short of in 2013 before missing out on the West Coast League playoffs. And it was the number of victories the Elks recorded this season, a team record, en route to their first postseason appearance in three years.

Combine that with Bend’s continuation as one of the top attendance draws in the WCL and you get arguably one of the best all-around seasons in recent memory, according to Jim Richards.

Year after year, the Elks owner and general manager says, the Elks are “rock solid” at the gate. This summer was no exception as Bend drew an overall attendance of 38,254 to 27 home games (an average of 1,417 per game) — the second-most in the league after setting the pace each of the previous three seasons.

Only the Victoria HarbourCats topped the Elks with an overall 42,563 fans for an average of 1,576 per game.

Those attendance numbers, Richards notes, are a testament to “a great following in the community” that makes the Elks one of the WCL’s top-tier teams in terms of popularity. That was on display on Aug. 8 when Vince Genna Stadium welcomed 4,213 fans to set the league’s single-game record.

Then there was the Elks’ performance on the field, where Bend reached the magic number of 31 wins to finish second in the South Division and clinch the postseason’s wild-card spot and snap a two-year playoff drought before falling to Corvallis in the first round.

“One of our goals was 30 wins,” Elks head coach Marty Hunter said shortly after his team’s season-ending loss to the Knights last Thursday. “You expect that to put you in the playoffs. That’s been it all along, just get there. It’s always been about playing the game correctly and respecting the game, and the wins will take care of themselves.”

There were players such as Nicky Lopez, Cal State Northridge infielder who finished fifth in the WCL with a .449 on-base percentage while hitting .345 (10th in the league) in 40 games. There was Oregon State University’s Billy King (10th with 34 runs scored) and Seattle University’s Brock Carpenter (12th with 11 doubles) leading an offense that finished third in the league with 277 RBIs.

Pair that with a pitching staff that struck out 421 batters (3rd-most in the WCL), paced by Morehead State’s Patrick McGuff and Corban University’s Austin Guzzon, each of whom placed in the league’s top 10 with 49 and 46 strikeouts, respectively. Behind Abilene Christian’s Kevin Sheets (nine saves and an 0.79 ERA in 19 appearances) and Cal State Northridge’s Louis Cohen (eight saves and a 1.55 ERA in 21 appearances), Bend boasted a strong bullpen that rounded out the success of this season’s Elks, which Richards ranks only behind the 2010 squad that fell in the WCL final.

“The kids did a great job,” Hunter said, mentioning how the Elks’ bullpen played a significant role in propelling Bend to the playoffs. Bend relievers who appeared in more than 10 games this summer struck out 179 against just 54 walks and held opposing hitters to a mere .178 batting average.

“I told the kids,” Hunter went on, “when you’re willing to play sports, that means you’re willing to stick your neck on the line. Sometimes it gets chopped off, but you tee it up the next time and get back after it. The rewards far outweigh the negatives.”

One of the changes Richards made this season — aside from the hiring of Hunter, a former Bend High coach who now guides the baseball program at NCAA Division III George Fox University in Newberg — was centralizing the Elks’ roster in the Northwest. Richards emphasizes that having experienced coaches such as Hunter and pitching coach Alan Embree around since last fall (or in Embree’s case, since last summer) played a key component in Bend’s success this season. But so did the geographic focus of recruiting players.

“The one continuing saga we have is the erosion of our roster at season’s end,” Richards says. “The one common factor is out-of-town players. Most players that leave us either get homesick or they just get burned out and need to take some time off before their school season starts. ... Concentrating the roster in the Northwest has been one of Marty’s main points. If you look at our roster, even though we had some out-of-town guys, the strong percentage of our roster was Northwest guys. They’re not going to get homesick because Mom and Dad are going to have to get a chance to see them (either in Bend or on the road).”

While the Elks’ start to the 2014 campaign was a tad shaky, losing nine of their first 13 games, Bend ripped off 15 wins in its next 19 contests to briefly grab a share of the division lead. And finally, after winning five of seven games heading into the regular-season finale, the Elks did what no Bend squad could accomplish in three years — advance to the postseason.

“After two years of missing the playoffs and being back in the saddle in the postseason is great,” Richards says. “We think we could still be playing right now. But that’s baseball.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, .