Top Three Tribe Farm Teams Set to Start Minor League Playoffs
Bob Toth | On 07, Sep 2016
It’s playoff time in the minor leagues and three Indians affiliates will begin their chases for postseason crowns on Wednesday night.
The Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Double-A Akron RubberDucks, and High-A Lynchburg Hillcats all punched tickets in their respective leagues behind solid 2016 seasons. The Clippers won the International League’s West Division with an eleven-game lead at year’s end. The RubberDucks clinched a playoff berth on Sunday and won the Western Division title outright on Monday. The Hillcats won the Carolina League Northern Division first-half crown and tied the Potomac Nationals for the division’s second-half title with a 39-31 finish.
The Clippers will begin their defense of their Governors Cup victory last season on Wednesday night.
The International League playoffs are a weird combination, as the Clippers were joined in postseason play by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees), Lehigh Valley (Phillies), and Gwinnett (Braves). Scranton pulled off 91 wins in the regular season and will face the Wild Card IronPigs, who won 85 games themselves in the competitive North Division. The Clippers finished the season at 82-62 and will face a Braves club coming off of a 65-78 record, but good enough to claim the South Division title while becoming the first team since 1992 to appear in the International League postseason with a losing record.
Columbus will host Gwinnett in each of the first two games (6:35 PM ET starts) from Huntington Park in the best-of-five series. The series will move to Georgia on Friday for Game 3, with two more to play if necessary at the Braves’ home field.
The two clubs faced off six times during the season and the Clippers swept both series in April and May, putting up 30 runs while holding Gwinnett to nine.
One of the chief offensive pieces for Columbus this season, Erik Gonzalez, is on the Cleveland bench, but the Clippers will still have Jesus Aguilar, Yandy Diaz, and Giovanny Urshela to provide some runs. Aguilar was named the IL’s Batter of the Week last week after hitting four homers in eight contests while driving in ten runs. He hit .247 for the season in 137 games and won both the home run title and had the most RBI in the league. Diaz hit .325 for the season and finished second in the league’s batting race. Urshela had a .274 average for the year in 117 games with 24 doubles, eight homers, and 57 RBI.
Right-hander Adam Plutko (9-8, 3.73 ERA in 28 starts between Akron and Columbus) will start Game 1 for the Clippers against Braves’ 28-year-old right-hander Carlos Portuondo (2-1, 3.63 ERA in 17 games and one start with Carolina and Gwinnett). Lefty Ryan Merritt (11-8, 3.57 ERA in 26 games between Columbus and Cleveland) will go in Game 2 for Columbus, while Gwinnett had yet to formally announce a starter for the game. The Clippers will throw southpaw Shawn Morimando (15-5, 3.49 ERA in 29 games between Akron, Columbus, and Cleveland) in Game 3 on Friday against right-hander Chris Ellis (12-9, 4.49 ERA in 28 starts between Mississippi and Gwinnett).
Akron’s postseason hopes came down to the final days of the season, as a notably hot stretch of play propelled them into the playoffs. By going 22-5 from the second week of August through the end of the season, they snuck past Altoona to win the division by a half-game.
The RubberDucks (77-64) head to Altoona to start the first two games of the Eastern League playoffs on Wednesday against the Curve. The 6:00 PM ET first pitch will pit right-hander Julian Merryweather (13-6, 2.60 ERA in 24 games between Lynchburg and Akron) against fellow right-hander Alex McRae (11-10, 3.88 ERA in 28 games between Bradenton and Altoona). Another pair of righties, Michael Peoples (13-6, 3.65 ERA in 28 games for Akron and Columbus) and Clay Holmes (10-9, 4.22 ERA in 26 games for Altoona), will square off in Game 2 on Thursday.
The series will come to Canal Park on Friday, with the RubberDucks hosting each of the final three games, as necessary. Left-hander Rob Kaminsky and right-handers Nick Pasquale and D.J. Brown are scheduled for the remaining three games back in Akron.
Akron’s offense will be powered by center fielder Greg Allen at the top of the lineup and Nellie Rodriguez in the middle. Allen hit .290 after his promotion from Lynchburg with seven doubles, three triples, three homers, and 13 RBI in 37 games. Rodriguez led the ‘Ducks this season with 26 homers and 85 RBI. He hit .250 with a .352 on-base percentage in 132 games.
The Hillcats of Lynchburg had a consistently good year from top to bottom as some of the up-and-coming prospects within the Indians organization made stops in Virginia over the course of the season.
The “Thrillcats” dealt with plenty of roster turnover, but never let the movement affect the play and results on the field for the High-A club, who won the Carolina League Northern Division crown by nine games with a 45-25 record in the first half to guarantee postseason play. They went 39-31 in the second half, tying Potomac for the Northern Division title.
It will be the same Nationals ball club that they visit in Potomac in the best-of-three series starting Wednesday night at 7:05 PM ET.
The Hillcats’ offense is led by Bobby Bradley, who slugged a Carolina League-best 29 homers and drove in 102 runs while hitting .235. Shortstop and fellow All-Star Yu-Cheng Chang hit .259 with 30 doubles, eight triples, 13 homers, and drove in 70. Mr. Hitting Streak, catcher Francisco Mejia, hit .333 in 42 games with the club after his promotion mid-year from Lake County. Outfielder Anthony Santander had a breakout campaign, hitting .290 with a .368 OBP with 42 doubles, 20 homers, 95 RBI, and 90 runs scored.
Matt Esparza (10-10, 3.36 ERA in 27 games) will start for the Hillcats in the opener after making seven starts in the second half with Lynchburg after his promotion from Class-A Lake County. Twenty-seven-year-old righty Boone Whiting (11-6, 3.90 ERA in 23 games with Potomac and Harrisburg) will counter for the P-Nats.
The series will return to Calvin Falwell Field at City Stadium on Thursday night for a 6:30 PM ET start. Lefty Luis Lugo (8-5, 4.04 ERA in 26 games) will look to clinch the series or keep it alive, while another left-hander, Hector Silvestre (1-0, 1.42 ERA in nine starts with the Gulf Coast League Nationals, Auburn, Hagerstown, and Potomac) will look to do the same for the Nationals.
If needed, Game 3 is scheduled for Friday, September 9, at 6:30 PM ET from Lynchburg. Neither team has named a starter for the contest.