09/05/2006 10:00 AM ET
Eastern League playoff preview
Portland vs. Trenton/Altoona vs. Akron
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Portland Sea Dogs (72-67) vs. Trenton Thunder (80-62)
The Thunder went 10-6 against their Northern Division rivals. The two teams didn't face each other until May 8, when they split a rain-shortened two-game series. Trenton swept a three-game set May 15-17 before splitting a four-game series at the end of May. The two teams met again for four games in late June and early July, with the Thunder taking three of four. The Sea Dogs finally won a series in the teams' final meeting, taking two of three Aug. 18-20. The Thunder outscored the Sea Dogs, 101-66, over the 16 games.
An ankle injury has kept 3B Chad Spann out of action since Aug. 2, but he had the most success of any of the Sea Dogs against the Thunder, hitting .396 in 12 games. ... OF prospect Brandon Moss hit just .217 against the Thunder, striking out 21 times in 15 games as Portland hit .254 in the series against Trenton. ... Portland's pitching wasn't much better, with a 5.26 ERA. ... Lefty starter Andrew Dobies has made just six starts at the Double-A level, but one of them was a strong six-inning, two-run outing against Trenton on Aug. 20. ... Fellow lefty Frank Brooks has a 5.25 ERA in three outings against the Thunder, but his most recent was a five-inning, one run start in Portland's eventual 2-1 win over Trenton.
The unsung Justin Christian hit .327 in 15 games against the Sea Dogs this year and went 10-for-13 in stolen-base attempts. ... 1B Randy Ruiz has scorched Portland with a .393 average over 61 at-bats, belting six homers and driving in 13 runs. ... The Thunder hit .276 over the 16-game series. ... Top prospect Phil Hughes has faced Portland the most among Trenton starters, going 0-1 with a 3.51 ERA over five starts. In 25 2/3 IP, he's allowed 20 hits (.213 average against) and 10 walks while striking out 28. ... Closer Justin Pope has three saves and a 1.69 ERA in eight games spanning 10 2/3 IP against the Sea Dogs. ... The Thunder staff amassed a 3.80 ERA against Portland in 2006.
Game 1: Portland at Trenton
Devern Hansack (8-7, 3.26 ERA) vs. Phil Hughes (10-3, 2.25 ERA)
Game 2: Portland at Trenton
Thomas Hottovy (2-4, 5.03 ERA) vs. Tyler Clippard (12-10, 3.50 ERA)
Game 3: Trenton at Portland
Matt Childers (2-3, 4.37) vs. Frank Brooks (2-6, 3.99)
Game 4: Trenton at Portland (if necessary)
Matt DeSalvo (4-4, 6.04) vs. Andrew Dobies (1-2, 3.93)
Game 5: Portland at Trenton (if necessary)
Jose Vaquedano (9-7, 6.22) vs. Francisco Butto (3-2, 3.10)
ON THE MOUND
The Sea Dogs' 3.89 ERA put them eighth in the Eastern League this season. ... Probable Game 1 starter Devern Hansack has been the most consistent, with a 3.79 ERA post-break (3.15 in August). He's been outstanding down the stretch, not allowing an earned run over three outings that spanned 17 innings, including a clutch seven-inning, one-hit, 12-K performance against Binghamton that helped hold off the B-Mets in the playoff race. ... Promoted starters Andrew Dobies and Thomas Hottovy have had their ups and downs since coming up from Wilmington, going a combined 3-6 with a 4.61 ERA in August, contributing to a 13-16 month for the team. ... Down the stretch, it was the bullpen getting the job done with a 3.10 ERA in 90 August innings.
There may not be a better 1-2 tandem in Minor League baseball right now than Phil Hughes and Tyler Clippard, a big reason why the Thunder led the EL in ERA (3.25). Hughes and Clippard have gone a combined 8-0 in August with a 1.47 ERA. Neither has lost a decision since June. Hughes understandably gets the attention, and he's posted a 1.43 ERA in 44 IP since the All-Star break, allowing just 21 hits and nine walks while striking out 62. Clippard has been just as impressive, with a nine-inning no-hitter under his belt as he went 8-0 with a 2.33 ERA and 62 K's in 58 post-break innings.
AT THE PLATE
The Sea Dogs finished fourth in the EL with a .257 team average and fourth in OPS at .718. ... Red Sox 2005 first-round pick Jacoby Ellsbury hit .302 in August with a .395 OBP while stealing eight bases (.319 with 18 steals in 46 total games with Portland). ... OF Brandon Moss leads the team with 83 RBIs and hit .330 in August.
The Thunder offense has been a little inconsistent, with a .256 average, but they did finish second in the league in OPS at .728. ... 1B Randy Ruiz finished in the top five in the EL in homers (24), RBIs (84) and SLG (.527). ... OF Brett Gardner has been solid overall since joining Trenton, hitting .265, but he's added more speed, stealing 27 bases in 51 games. He and Justin Christian (league-leading 67 steals) can cause some problems on the bases. ... Catcher Omir Santos hit .379 in August and .363 after the All-Star break.
These two teams met in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs in 2005. Portland beat Trenton in five games. The Sea Dogs won the first two games, then nearly saw it slip away when the Thunder came back to win the next two before the Dogs won the fifth and decisive game. Portland went on to lose the championship to Akron in four games. ... Trenton won its first division title since 1999 and the Thunder have made the playoffs just three times from 1999 on (99, 05, 06). ... Portland won the division a year ago, but hadn't made the playoffs since 1997. ... Losing in the championship is nothing new to Portland. They made it to the final series in 1996 and 1997, but lost both times, losing to Harrisburg both times (in 1995, Portland had the best record in the Eastern League, but got bounced in the first round.) ... Trenton also made the posteason in 1995 and 1996, but couldn't advance past the first round. That trend continued in 1999 and 2005, meaning Trenton is still looking for its first playoff series win.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
The Sea Dogs' ability to hit the Thunder's top two starters. Hughes (4-0, 0.60 ERA, 30 IP, 10 H, 6 BB, 40 K, .140 average against in August) has been unhittable down the stretch, and Portland hasn't faced Clippard all season. That should work to Trenton's advantage. If somehow one of the pitching additions from Wilmington -- Dobies or Hottovy -- can outduel Hughes or Clippard and Portland can steal a win, they could have a shot. If Jacoby Ellsbury (.319 since joining Portland, but 2-for-12 against Trenton) can get hot, he can wreak havoc on the bases. The Thunder may have to try to score runs without Eric Duncan (back) and Kevin Howard (broken finger), who hit .292 and .464 against the Sea Dogs, respectively.
On paper, this series shouldn't be a close one. It's hard to imagine a Portland club that fell into the playoffs with a losing record in August and having lost some key parts to promotions along the way, competing against Trenton's pitching staff. Thunder in four.
Altoona Curve (75-64) vs. Akron Aeros (87-55)
You'd think 24 games would tell you something. In this case, you'd be wrong. The two teams finished the season 12-12 against each other. Run scored differential is no help either, with Altoona scoring 96 runs to Akron's 97. The Curve went 4-3 in April against the Aeros, then lost the only two May meetings to even the series (Akron won the third game of that series on June 1 to take a 6-4 edge). Altoona bounced back by taking five of seven from Akron in late June and early July, going up 9-8 in the season series. The Aeros won two of three in the middle of July to knot things up and the two rivals split a four-game series at the end of August, so there's not even late-season momentum to talk about.
He hasn't been with the Curve all year, but shortstop Brian Bixler has enjoyed facing Akron, hitting .326 in 11 games. ... Brett Roneberg leads the team with three homers and 13 RBIs against the Aeros. ... Nyjer Morgan hit .423 with seven steals in seven games against Akron, but his status is uncertain because of injury. The Curve hit .240 as a team against the Aeros in 2006. ... The pitching staff posted a 3.69 ERA in the series, led by Landon Jacobson, who went 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA in five starts, including a win on Aug. 28. ... Wardell Starling joined Altoona midseason, but made four starts against the Aeros, going 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA, picking up a playoff-clinching win on Aug. 30.
SS Ivan Ochoa has hit .353 with five steals in 15 games against Altoona. ... OF Brad Snyder leads current Aeros with four homers and 15 RBIs, but he's hit just .228 in 24 games. ... OF Ryan Goleski has fared a little better, hitting .267 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 16 games. ... The Aeros hit .244 over the 24 games. ... The pitching staff had a 3.83 ERA. ... Adam Miller appeared seven times against the Curve, but they never could figure him out. He went 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA, striking out 39 and walking 9 in 42 IP. ... Sean Smith made four starts, going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA.
Game 1: Altoona at Akron
Jason Roach (6-7, 3.65 ERA) vs. Adam Miller (15-6, 2.75 ERA)
Game 2: Altoona at Akron
Josh Shortslef (6-1, 4.30 ERA) vs. Nick Pesco (6-8, 5.81 ERA)
Game 3: Akron at Altoona
Aaron Laffey (8-3, 3.59 ERA) vs. Landon Jacobson (14-8, 2.98 ERA)
Game 4: Akron at Altoona, if necessary
Sean Smith (10-5, 3.86) vs. Wardell Starling (6-4, 2.68)
Game 5: Altoona at Akron, if necessary
TBD vs. Jensen Lewis (1-2, 4.36)
ON THE MOUND
The Curve finished the regular season with the second-best ERA in the Eastern League at 3.55. ... Landon Jacobsen, who finished third in voting for league pitcher of the year, went 14-8 with a 2.98 ERA (third in the league). ... Wardell Starling joined the Curve after 13 starts with Lynchburg and has gone 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 14 Double-A starts. ... Curve closer Brandon Knight led the EL in saves with 27 and gave up just one run in August after losing a game on Aug. 2.
Adam Miller won EL Pitcher of the Year honors after winning 15 games, posting a 2.75 ERA (behind only Phil Hughes) and striking out 157 in 153 2/3 innings. Over his last 10 Double-A starts, he went 8-1 with a 0.97 ERA. ... Sean Smith may not have the marquee name -- or the power stuff -- like Miller, but he's been steady nonetheless, with 10 wins and a 3.86 ERA. ... Lefty Aaron Laffey has gone 8-3 with a 3.59 ERA in 18 starts with Akron. The groundball artist has a 3.11 ERA in six August starts. ... The Aeros finished fifth in the EL with a 3.73 team ERA.
AT THE PLATE
Veteran Brett Roneberg pushed his average over .300 with a .377 August. His 72 RBIs put him in the top 10 in the EL. ... Simon Pond led the team with 77 RBIs, but he's hit just .188 after the break. ... Despite playing in just 56 games, Nyjer Morgan was just outside of the top 10 in steals with 21 while hitting .306. He swiped 59 bases combined this season before getting hurt. ... The Curve were third in the EL in average (.262) and OPS (.719).
The Aeros led the league with a .748 OPS and .272 average. ... OF Brad Snyder led the team in homers (18) and RBIs (72) while swiping 20 bases. He's been outstanding down the stretch, hitting .314 with nine homers, 20 RBIs and seven steals in August. ... Infielder Eider Torres finished second in the league with 40 steals. ... OF Ryan Goleski split the year between Kinston and Akron, but has combined to hit 25 homers and drive in 103 runs. With the Aeros, he's hit .298 with 16 HR and 62 RBIs in 85 games.
For the fifth straight season, either Akron or Altoona won the Southern Division title, with the Aeros having won four of the five (Altoona won in 2004). The Curve and Aeros will be meeting for the third time in four years. That could be a good omen for Akron, which went on to win the EL title in 2003 and 2005 after beating Altoona in both semifinals. Since 1998, Akron has been in the playoffs a total of five times (including this year), playing in two championship series. Altoona's gone four times (consecutively from 2003-2006), but the Curve have yet to win a title. They played for the championship in 2004, but got swept by New Hampshire.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
Since these two teams know each other so well, it could come down to the relative newcomers on each team and who performs better. Altoona could get a lift from Andrew McCutchen, who has just 16 ABs against Akron, or Neil Walker, who missed a chunk of time after being promoted from Lynchburg with a viral infection. Getting Morgan's speed back from injury could be huge as well, and he only faced the Aeros in seven games. For Akron, Trevor Crowe only played in six games of this series. He's struggled down the stretch (while learning to play second), but like with Morgan, his speed can be a game-changer. Brian Barton only has 14 ABs against the Curve as well. ... It also could turn on who misses players the most. Aside from Morgan and his injury, the Curve will be without key contributors like Shane Youman, Vic Buttler and Adam Boeve, who are trying to help Indianapolis in the International League. Akron no longer has Kevin Kouzmanoff, who hit .469 with five homers in 10 games against Altoona this year.
With all those variables and with how familiar these two teams are with each other, anything can happen in this series. In the end, though, it will likely come down to who gets the better starting pitching. With Akron sending out Adam Miller and Sean Smith and a rejuvenated Brad Snyder leading the offense, it's hard to imagine Altoona matching the Aeros. Aeros in five.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.