09/04/2007 9:04 AM ET
California League North playoff preview
Modesto faces huge first-round challenge from Visalia
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Modesto vs. Visalia
Modesto Nuts (42-28) vs. Visalia Oaks (43-27)
The California League is one of the few circuits with three rounds of playoffs and we're all the better for it. What's better than extra postseason action? Visalia's certainly happy to be back. The Oaks will be looking to get back to the championship round just like they did a year ago, only this time with a better outcome.
It was a very even series, with Visalia edging Modesto, 12-11. The teams last met in early August when they split the final six games against each other.
Modesto: The Nuts hit .250 in the 23 games against the Oaks, led by Daniel Carte's .302 average and .556 SLG as well as Eric Young Jr.'s .397 average, 11 RBIs and 14 steals. Jeff Kindel and Chris Nelson also drove in 11, though Nelson hit just .157 vs. Visalia. ... Modesto had a 3.61 team ERA against Visalia with Brandon Hynick having the most success, going 3-2 with a 2.03 ERA in six starts. Chaz Roe and Brandon Durden went a combined 0-7 in the series, though Roe had a 3.38 ERA and .218 batting average against.
Visalia: The Oaks sported a .275 team average against the Nuts, with John Hester hitting .308 and a team-leading 13 RBIs and Greg Thompson hitting .353 with a pair of homers to go along with nine RBIs and five steals. ... Visalia's ERA was 3.38 over the 23 games. Hector Ambriz had a 2.89 ERA in four appearances. Brooks Brown and Dallas Buck were a combined 6-0, but both are gone, Brown via promotion and Buck because of injury.
Game 1: Visalia at Modesto
Hector Ambriz (10-8, 4.08) vs. Alan Johnson (14-7, 2.99)
Game 2: Modesto at Visalia
Brandon Hynick (16-5, 2.52 ERA) vs. Matt Torra (12-10, 6.01)
Game 3: Modesto at Visalia (if necessary)
Chaz Roe (7-11, 4.33) vs. Brett Anderson (3-3, 5.11)
ON THE MOUND
The Nuts' staff has been anchored all year by Brandon Hynick, whose 16 wins put him right near the top among Minor League leaders. The California League Pitcher of the Year led the circuit in victories and ERA and was third in strikeouts. ... Alan Johnson wasn't far behind, winning 14 games and finishing fourth in the ERA race at 2.99 to help Modesto finish with the third lowest ERA in the league (4.30). ... Chaz Roe's overall numbers -- 7-11, 4.33 ERA -- don't look all that special, but he had a superb August, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA over six starts and toping it off with a one-run, six inning performance in September.
Hector Ambriz has been the best pitcher on the staff all year, leading the team in wins (11) and ERA (4.08), among those who qualify for the league ERA title. Ambriz is sixth in the league in ERA and fourth in strikeouts, though he struggled in the final month of the season with a 5.02 August ERA, thanks largely to an 11-earned run, 3 2/3-inning debacle. ... Matt Torra's season -- 12-10, 6.01 ERA -- hasn't been pretty, but he's been Visalia's best pitcher down the stretch as he gets further removed from shoulder surgery. In six August and September starts, the 2005 first-round pick went 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA, striking out 38 and walking just nine in 39 2/3 innings. ... LHP Brett Anderson missed a month with a tender arm, but came back recently in time for the playoffs. He hadn't pitched well since his promotion to the California League, but the 2006 draftee did have a 2.21 ERA in 14 Midwest League starts to earn the bump up.
AT THE PLATE
1B Jeff Kindel is fifth in the league with his .320 batting average. He's also got 14 homers and is second on the team with 83 RBIs. ... The team leader is one-time first-round Rockies pick SS Chris Nelson, who has 99 RBIs, good for fourth in the circuit. He's hit a team-leading 19 home runs while also stealing 27 bases. ... 2B Eric Young Jr. leads the squad and the league with 73 swipes. He's now stolen 70 or more bases in two straight seasons and he's just two off the overall Minor League lead, a crown he earned in 2006.
OF prospect Gerardo Parra hit .318 since his promotion from South Bend. ... Of those who have been there the entire season, 1B Bryan Byrne leads the team in average (.313), RBIs (73) and OBP (.398). ... OF Jereme Millons hit .307 and stole 17 bases in 77 games.
The Modesto Nuts have been in existence for just three years as a Rockies affiliate and they made it to the second round of the playoffs in 2005. The Modesto A's, an Oakland affiliate previously, won the California League title in 2004 and made it to the postseason in five of six years between 1999 and 2004. Modesto celebrated a championship in 1982 and 1984. ... Visalia made it to the championship a year ago, losing to Inland Empire in five games. The Oaks had a 2-1 series lead, but dropped the last two to give the title to the 66ers. The Oaks' lone championship win came back in 1978, though the Visalia Mets won a title in 1971. Before last year's run, Visalia had last been in 2003, finishing off a stretch where the team had made it to postseason play in six of seven seasons.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
Which pitchers show up. Visalia has its work cut out for it against Johnson and Hynick in Games 1 and 2, so this series could be determined whether or not the Oaks starters are up to the task. Ambriz, Torra and Anderson all have some question marks heading into their starts for Visalia. Ambriz struggled a bit in the final month of the season, Anderson is coming off some minor injury problems and Torra had a horrific first half and change, but has been down the stretch. If Torra and Anderson, in particular, can pitch the way they've shown they are capable, this could be a nailbiter.
Even if Visalia's starters can keep up with Modesto's top 1-2 punch, it's hard to imagine the trio of Johnson, Hynick and Roe not getting this one done. It could very well be a sweep, but we'll say: Nuts in three.
Jonathan Mayo is a report for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.