09/14/2006 9:03 AM ET
California League Finals Preview
Visalia Oaks vs. Inland Empire 66ers
By Alex Gyr / MLB.com
Inland Empire 66ers vs. Visalia Oaks
Visalia won the series, 5-4. The teams have not met since a series at Recreation Park back on June 16-18. The teams played six games at Arrowhead Credit Union Park in San Bernardino, with each winning three.
A number of the players that were most successful against Visalia early in the season are no longer on the 66ers roster. Yung Chi Chen and Matt Tuiasosopo excelled against the Oaks, but both were promoted to Double-A San Antonio...3B Ronnie Prettyman batted .370, playing in all nine games against the Oaks...RHP Cibney Bello went 1-0 in two starts. He allowed three runs in 10 1/3 innings...The 66ers staff allowed an impressive 3.08 team ERA against Visalia.
C Josh Arhart had the 66ers' number, hitting .500 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 20 at-bats...1B Chris Nowak batted .313 with six RBIs in eight games...RHP Richard De Los Santos pitched in four of Visalia's five wins. He earned three saves and also picked up a win...Brandon Mann went 1-1 in three starts. He had the most experience on the mound against Inland Empire, throwing 17 innings against the 66ers.
ON THE MOUND
The 66ers were dominant on the mound in their series win over Lake Elsinore. Inland Empire scored three runs in their first two postseason games, and amazingly won both, behind a pair of great pitching performances. LHP Justin Thomas threw six innings of scoreless baseball in Game 1, but took a no-decision as Inland Emprire won, 2-1. In Game 2, Andrew Baldwin pitched the best single game in the Cal League postseason so far, throwing a complete game, three-hit, shutout. The 66ers won, 1-0. Pitching will have to carry Inland Empire through the Championship Series.
The Oaks will open the Championship Series with RHP Christopher Mason on the hill. During the regular season Mason was 12-10 with a 5.02 ERA. He has made one postseason start this year, taking the loss in Game 1 against San Jose. The Oaks have gotten a number of tremendous performances out of their bullpen. Closer RHP Nick Debarr has earned a pair of saves this postseason and hasn't yielded a hit in 2 2/3 innings. RHP Richard De Los Santos has also been solid in relief, throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
AT THE PLATE
The 66ers' offense came alive in the final two innings of Game 4 against Lake Elsinore, but other than that brief flash, hitting has been scarce. They batted .237 during their series with the Storm and scored six runs over their first three games. OF Casey Craig was the offensive leader during the regular season, hitting .294 with nine homers, and he has taken that role again in the postseason. He got on base in half of his plate appearances and hit .385 against Lake Elsinore. Meanwhile, Richard Prettyman went just 1-for-15 in the series.
The Oaks had the No. 2 offense in the Cal League during the regular season, and they have showed stretches of that prowess at the plate this postseason. Nowak struggled in the final two games of the San Jose series but is still hitting .385 with a .543 OBP in eight playoff games. 2B Josh Asanovich will enter the Championship Series with a 18-game hitting streak. The Oaks will be without starting left fielder Sergio Pedroza, who was placed on the disabled list after pulling his right quadriceps muscle running out a groundball to first.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The Oaks are 3-0 when facing elimination this postseason. They fell behind Stockton, 1-0, in the first round, but won the final two games to advance to play San Jose. Visalia last played in the Championship Series in 2000 but lost to San Bernardino (now Inland Empire). The Oaks haven't won a championship since 1978. Inland Empire has had much more recent success. The organization has won three titles since 1999, most recently in 2003.
THE SERIES WILL TURN ON...
Visalia's pitching and Inland Empire's offense. The Oaks are all about offense. The 66ers are all about pitching. Whoever wins the battle when Inland Empire is at the plate, will win the series.
Inland Empire showed that really good pitching can carry a team in a short series. But the Storm's offense pales in comparison to what the Oaks do at the plate. The 66ers won't be able to average four runs per game like they did against Lake Elsinore and win. Visalia will celebrate its first title in 28 years. Oaks in four.
Alex Gyr 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.