09/09/2006 7:40 PM ET
Texas League Championship Series preview
Corpus Christi Hooks vs. Wichita Wranglers
By Dan Pieringer / MLB.com
Corpus Christi Hooks vs. Wichita Wranglers
The Hooks won eight of the 14 regular-season matchups. While the record was fairly even, the statistics definitely favored the Hooks. Corpus Christi batted .314 against Wichita, compared to the Wranglers' .247 average. The teams' pitching numbers were equally lopsided as the Hooks recorded a 3.95 ERA vs. Wichita, 2.36 points lower than the Wranglers' 6.31 mark. The Wranglers have reason to be optimistic, however. They won four of their last five meetings with the Hooks, outscoring them, 26-13.
Jorge Cortes tore apart Wichita pitching this season, batting .370 with four home runs, a triple, six doubles, 13 RBIs and 10 runs scored in 13 games. He hit eight homers and drove in 51 runs in 126 games, so his success against Wichita is impressive. If he matches that production during the short series, it will be a difference-maker for the Hooks. ... Juan Gutierrez tossed 16 scoreless innings against Wichita, which led the Texas League in hits and runs scored. The 23-year-old righty went 2-0 against the Wranglers, allowing nine hits while striking out 15.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City's top prospect, dominated Hooks pitching. He hit .361 with five homers, 10 runs scored and 15 RBIs in 13 games. Gordon also drew nine walks and posted a .521 on-base percentage. ... Zach Greinke made one appearance against the Hooks but tossed seven strong innings, allowing two earned runs on six hits. He could anchor the struggling Wranglers' rotation in this series.
ON THE MOUND
The Hooks will miss Texas League Pitcher of the Year Matt Albers, who was promoted to Triple-A Round Rock. However, Corpus Christi's rotation is still deep enough to engage the prolific Wichita offense. Albers finished the season with the league's best ERA and teammate Chance Douglass was third. The 22-year-old righty gave up 10 earned runs in 17 innings against the Wranglers, but in his last two starts he posted a respectable 3.97 ERA. Douglass is joined by 11-game winner Josh Miller and Troy Patton, who posted a 1.98 ERA in two starts against Wichita.
Many Wranglers starters have winning records due to the run support they received. Wichita won the second-most games in the league, but they did so with the second-worst staff ERA. Still, there are several pitchers who could step up in the Championship Series. Chief among them is recently promoted Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Hochevar made his Double-A debut and shut down Tulsa in the series-clinching win. He could be the arm Wichita needs to win the title. In addition, Cody Smith (9-0, 2.71 ERA) is a threat out of the bullpen.
AT THE PLATE
Hunter Pence is the Hooks' most valuable hitter, and with good reason. The 23-year-old right fielder hit .283 with 28 homers, 95 RBIs, 97 runs scored and 17 stolen bases during the season. Josh Anderson batted .308 and led the Texas League in hits and stolen bases. Mark Saccomanno (20 home runs, 63 RBIs) and Josh Bonifay (19, 75) were quietly putting together very productive years. The recent addition of Tike Redman, who has Major League experience, could be key. The Hooks will need steady production from several spots in the lineup if they expect to compete with the Wranglers.
Billy Butler led the Texas League with a .331 batting average and was in the top five in RBIs (96) and hits (158). Fellow outfielder Mitch Maier batted .306 with 95 runs scored. Combined with Gordon (.325, 29 home runs, 101 RBIs, 111 runs scored, 22 stolen bases), it's no wonder Wichita won a league-best 43 games in the second half. If any lineup can beat good pitching in the postseason, it's this one.
Corpus Christi missed the playoffs in 2005, its inaugural season. The Wranglers have two Texas League titles under their belts, having won the championship in 1992 and 1999. They last made the playoffs in 2003 but were eliminated in the first round.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
Wichita's pitching. The overall regular-season numbers aren't spectacular, but Wranglers pitchers are capable of keeping a team like Corpus Christi under control. Wichita's offense will show up every day. If the Wranglers can get quality starts from the likes of Zach Greinke, Luke Hochevar and Junior Herndon, they can reclaim the Texas League title.
It's never a good idea to pick against a team that boasts three of the league's most productive hitters. Add the fact that the Wranglers' Nos. 2-5 hitters are all batting over .300 and you start to pity the opposing pitchers. That said, it's even harder to pick against a team with a deep pitching rotation in a best-of-5 series. Corpus Christi has too much firepower on the mound to lose three of five games. The Hooks will pitch their way to a Texas League title. Corpus Christi in five.
Dan Pieringer is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.