09/04/2007 2:00 PM ET
Midwest League playoff preview
Lansing seeking payback for second-round sweep in 2006
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
Nathan Starner led the Lugnuts in wins, starts, innings pitched and strikeouts but lost twice against the Whitecaps. (Emily Smith/MLB.com)
West Michigan Whitecaps vs. Lansing Lugnuts
West Michigan Whitecaps (83-57) vs. Lansing Lugnuts (78-61)
(Best-of-three series begins Wednesday, Sept. 5)
The defending-champion West Michigan Whitecaps are the most successful franchise in the Midwest League. The club compiled the best record in the circuit this year, and has won the championship in four of the past 11 seasons. Lansing's recent history is not quite so illustrious, but the Lugnuts are not to be discounted (especially after closing out the season by winning 11 of their last 12 games).
The Whitecaps and Lugnuts met 12 times through June 28, with each club winning six games. The teams did not play again until a season-ending three-game set over Labor Day weekend. In that series, Lansing swept West Michigan.
The teams posted similar batting averages against one another this season -- West Michigan hit .270, Lansing .284. Pitching is another story, however, as Whitecaps' hurlers posted a 6.33 ERA against the Lugnuts' 3.81. This discrepancy is largely due to three blowout wins, as Lansing walloped West Michigan, 13-6, on May 31, 16-9 on June 26, and 12-3 on the final day of the regular season.
Brian Pettway (OF) has massacred Whitecaps pitching, batting .422 (19-for-45) with five doubles, four home runs and 16 RBIs. ... Matthew Lane has also been good, hitting .447 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in 38 at-bats. ... Travis Snider (OF) only hit .241, but managed to drive in 12 runs in just 54 at-bats. ... Right-hander Kyle Ginley compiled a 2.40 ERA over three starts spanning 15 innings, but went just 0-1. ... Southpaw Nathan Starner lost two of the three starts he made against the Whitecaps, allowing 11 earned runs over 14 innings. ... Righty Po-Hsuan Keng hurled seven scoreless innings in four outings, while fellow right-hander Edward Rodriguez tossed 10 shutout frames over five appearances.
Brennan Boesch (OF) hit just .254 in 63 at-bats but had two homers and nine RBIs. ... Jeramy Laster (OF) was a more solid performer overall, hitting a scorching .381 (16-for-42) with 10 runs scored. ... Gorkys Hernandez (OF) mustered just six hits in 42 at-bats. ... Catcher James Skelton played in 11 games and compiled an impressive 1.029 OPS. ... Left-hander Duane Below has served as the Whitecaps ace this season, but he went 0-2 with a horrendous 17.47 ERA against Lansing. ... Closer Brett Jensen converted four saves in as many opportunities and did not allow a run in 6 2/3 innings spanning six appearances. ... Right-hander Jonah Nickerson made four starts and went 1-1 with a 11.05 ERA, with most of the damage occurring in a disastrous May 31 outing.
Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 5 -- West Michigan at Lansing (LHP Duane Below vs. RHP Julio Pinto)
Game 2: Thursday, Sept. 6 -- Lansing at West Michigan (RHP Adrian Martin vs. RHP Matt O'Brien)
Game 3: (if necessary), Friday, Sept. 7 -- Lansing at West Michigan (TBD vs. TBD)
ON THE MOUND
Starner led the Lugnuts in wins (12), starts (28), innings pitched (140 1/3) and strikeouts (143). ... Groundball specialist Chris Reddout went 9-1 with a 3.13 ERA over 41 appearances. ... Edgar Estanga compiled a 2.20 ERA with the Lugnuts after making his debut with the club on Aug. 1.
His struggles against Lansing notwithstanding, Below went 13-5 with a 2.97 ERA and struck out 160 batters over 145 2/3 innings. ... Jensen has converted 23 of 27 save opportunities and has a stellar 1.79 ERA over 60 1/3 innings spanning 56 appearances. ... Versatile lefty Ramon Garcia has recently returned to the Whitecaps after a stint with Class A Advanced Lakeland. The 22-year-old has a 5.52 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP in five appearances with West Michigan.
AT THE PLATE
Snider, a 2006 first-round draft pick, leads the league with 93 RBIs, while his .313 average ranks second. ... Jonathan Diaz (SS) is hitting just .246, but his on-base percentage of .406 was the league's best. ... His double-play partner, Scott Campbell, has an on-base percentage of .390.
Skelton has established himself as one of the best-hitting backstops in the MWL. His .402 on-base percentage is second in the league, while his .309 average ranks fifth. ... Hernandez is hitting a solid .293, and leads the league with 54 stolen bases. ... Scott Sizemore (2B) has walked more times than he has struck out, in addition to stroking a team-high 33 doubles.
How about a bit of very recent history? Just last season, the Whitecaps swept the Lugnuts in a best-of-three series during the second round of the MWL playoffs. West Michigan, of course, went on to win the championship. The Lugnuts last won it all in 2003.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
The Lugnuts will be in good shape if they can continue to keep Gorkys Hernandez off the basepaths. The 19-year-old Venezuelan leads the league in stolen bases and is second in runs scored, while serving as a catalyst for West Michigan's offense. Hernandez hit just .143 against Lansing in the regular season.
Predicting a series like this basically amounts to flipping a coin. Both teams played their best baseball of the season in the second half and played each other evenly in the season series (until the season's last weekend). Given that Whitecaps have the league's best average and third-best ERA, to go along with the best regular season record, I'll say West Michigan in three.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.