The 2019 IBL season has been a story of two rivals.
The Kitchener Panthers and Barrie Baycats have spent the year jostling back and forth on top of the standings.
As it should. Both finalists from last season have proven to be the class of the league for a little while now.
The upstart Welland Jackfish occupy third place, and about five games back, with only a handful of games remaining.
Barrie is, of course, the five-time defending IBL Champion. And they're hungry to tie Brantford with six straight titles, something the Red Sox accomplished from 2008-2013.
And the Baycats have had to go through the Panthers in the Final three of the last four years.
Heck, last year was a relative cake walk, with both the Baycats and Panthers sweeping their first two rounds to get to their six-game showdown.
"It has been us and Barrie back-and-forth all season, but up until the signing deadline, teams are picking up guys last minute and all of a sudden, it gets interesting, and that's good," says Panthers Manager Luke Baker.
"That's fantastic for the league, I like the fact that we got to come and bring our A-game every game. It allows everyone to kind of stay up. Good for the league, good for the fans, and to me, that's the fun part about baseball. I would hate it if it was just two teams at the top. That's no fun, right?"
Looking down the standings, teams are proving to be a handful.
Minus the three-win Brantford Red Sox, everyone has double-digit victories and the third through seven seeds are still up for grabs.
The Hamilton Cardinals showcased their offense, using an emotional fourth inning to their advantage Sunday, claiming a 10-8 win over the Panthers at Jack Couch Park.
"It was a good game," Baker said, "(Hamilton) got their hits. They capitalized on their hits. They did well."
Christian Hauck was flying out of the gate on the mound for the Panthers.
He retired eight of his first 11 batters with strikeouts, but ran into a snag in the fourth inning.
After walking Justin Gideon, Grant Arnold and catcher Mike Gordner seemed to exchange words as Arnold stepped to the plate.
He was hit by the second pitch he saw, prompting an outroar from the Cardinals dugout to the point the home plate umpire could be heard telling them "not another word."
Next up was Connor Patterson, who was promptly tagged with a pitch as well. The ump then gave a warning to Hauck.
A pair of singles, a walk and a fielder's choice later, things unraveled on the scoreboard.
Hauck only saw two more batters after that, before exiting the game.
"Some emotions got involved, and baseball's one of those sports where you have to try to stay even keel, and it's challenging," Baker said, "There's emotions that are involved, and (Ryley Davenport) got that ball in the mouth (sliding into second base in the second inning). And just from there, you could tell a few of the guys got a little bit rattled, and that inning seemed to get away from us, and that's pretty much what happened."
"The emotions got to us, and it was tough to get (Hauck) to bare back down. He was in a real good zone, he looked fresh coming off of a blood blister that was on his finger a couple weeks back, so it was his first outing back."
It was part of a six-run inning for the Cardinals, who ballooned their lead to 7-2 at that point.
But the Panthers didn't go away.
They scored four runs in the fifth to close the gap, including a three-run double for Zach Johnson --- who was caught in a run-down at third base on the same play --- and by the end of the eighth, the Panthers were able to tie the game up at eight.
However, Arnold would come back to haunt the Panthers with a two-run home run in the ninth, and that held up as the winner.
Jas Rakkar, Geoff Moroz, Matt Vickers, Mike Schnurr and Miguel Lahera each got an inning of work Sunday for Kitchener, something that was by design, according to Baker.
"We wanted to get a bunch of pitchers in," he said, "We got a busy week ahead, so we're trying to go that route and it went relatively well. I think, for the most part, the guys were pitching pretty good."
And the Panthers will have to delve into their depth over the next while.
Rakkar will soon head out to represent Canada at the 2019 Pan-Am Games in Lima, Peru, which is scheduled for July 29 to August 4.
Yoennis Yera, meantime, will also head down to suit up for his native Cuba.
"I'm super pumped for those guys," Baker said, "It's a huge opportunity, and I think it's fantastic for them. Says a lot about our league. (Pitcher) Chris Leroux's going from Toronto as well, so you got a number of guys in this league playing in some pretty big tournaments."
"It's fantastic, and come the last number of games, might be a little challenging losing those guys, but it's fantastic for other guys to get the chance to throw in to pitch, and we need that."
"I think going into the playoffs, we take this as a positive, and we're excited for the challenge that it's going to bring."
With 10 games to go for Kitchener, it's going to be a battle for top spot between the two rivals. But Baker knows the playoffs is where the winning really counts. It seems like a foregone conclusion the Panthers and Baycats will take up those top two seeds.
"We'll just keep working our butts off, try to get the guys their work in, and hopefully we get some wins out of it," he said.
With the Panthers and Baycats already wrapping up their head-to-head series for 2019, the rest of the field will prove key.
And with the way things are going, it could be a rough end to the year if the two teams take things lightly.
And as for the 2019 post-season?
It won't be a simple stroll through Jack Couch Park to get to the Final.
Toronto comes to town Tuesday night against the Panthers. First pitch goes at 7:30 p.m.