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Orem sets up Finals rematch with Great Falls
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August 1 was a bad day, perhaps the last bad day, for the Orem Owlz. Two days later, the team would begin a franchise-record 14-game winning streak that would propel them past 50 wins for the second team in franchise history.
Things did not seem so rosy on the first of August. The team lost, 7-1, to the struggling Idaho Falls Chukars, which would take the momentum and win the three-game series the next day. Just four times during the 2008 season, the Owlz were held under two runs scored. The reason is that the club has the best middle of the order the Pioneer League has seen in quite some time with corner infielders Roberto Lopez and Luis Jimenez.
August 1 was the last time that both players were in the lineup and failed to record a hit. In total, it happened twice during the entire season. Not surprisingly, the Owlz lost both games.
While Great Falls will put a bull's-eye, or maybe an intentional walk sign, on both players throughout the championship series, it comes as little guarantee that either will be stopped. Lopez, for instance, was held hitless in just six of 67 contests on the season. He began his Pioneer League career, memorably, with a 23-game hitting streak, which had him batting .436 on July 11.
Jimenez is slightly more vulnerable than Lopez, with 13 0-fers in his 66-game regular season. However, Jimenez was the star in the semifinal series win over Ogden, coming through on the biggest stage. In the deciding third game of the series, Jimenez went a perfect 4-for-4, plating five runners and scoring twice to lead the team to a 9-7 win. The DH would finish just a double short of the cycle, as he began the contest with a triple and home run to push Orem to a 5-3 lead they would never look back on.
The Voyagers have struck out more batters this season than any other Pioneer League team. The Owlz could potentially face the three most prolific strikeout artists in the league during the best-of-3 series. However, the focus will not be on the Voyagers arms, or even the rest of the Orem batting lineup. The focus, as it has always been in 2008, will be on the middle of the Orem order, on Roberto Lopez and Luis Jimenez.
If they hit, if just one hits, it's hard to imagine Orem a loser.
Great Falls Voyagers (38-36) vs. Orem Owlz (51-22)
As good as Great Falls played in its quick two-game sweep of the Billings Mustangs in the opening round, the Voyagers enter their second consecutive Pioneer League Championship series as an underdog. Last season, the club fell in two quick games to the Owlz, who have won three of the last four league titles. However, Great Falls has undergone a roster and nickname face-lift since then, and the team will look to go one-for-one in seasons under the Voyagers mantel. Looking to stop them will be the Owlz, who have been the dominant force of the league this season, with a 14-game winning streak in early August that made this one of the great teams in league history. However, before that title sticks, Orem must first beat the Voyagers in this championship rematch.
Since last year's championship, these two clubs have battled just seven times, so they enter this series rather unfamiliar with one another. The two have not played since July 18, when Orem beat Great Falls, 10-0, to take the second and last regular season series between the two teams. In total, the Owlz were 5-2 in the seven head-to-head contests, outscoring the Voyagers, 54-30.
If Great Falls can prove the season numbers meaningless, it will simply have to have more success against Orem's pitching staff. The Voyagers are certain to see LHP Jayson Miller in this series, the southpaw that allowed just two runs in two starts against Great Falls, spanning 13 innings. They might also see some of LHP William Smith and RHP Baron Short, who combined for 11 2/3 scoreless innings in starts against Great Falls in July. Look for those three to be careful around Great Falls' left side, shortstop Tyler Kuhn and third baseman Kyle Shelton, both of whom were Orem bashers during the regular season.
On the other side, Great Falls is sure to throw Dexter Carter in the series; the right-hander struck out 15 Owlz in two lackluster regular-season starts. He'll need to be careful against the whole dangerous Owlz offense, but especially shortstop Darwin Perez, who slugged 1.000 against Great Falls in the five games he played in.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Great Falls: The Voyagers made such quick work of the Billings Mustangs, it's hard to tell who is hot. The team hit two home runs in the series, one from leading slugger Mike Grace and another from outfielder Johnny Celis, who led the team with four hits in the series. Not surprisingly, Kuhn was also brilliant, scoring twice and batting .375 in the series. Carter, who should pitch in the first game of the series after missing out on Billings, has been brilliant since Aug. 1. The right-hander finished second in the league with 89 strikeouts. The team could turn to his college teammate, Daniel Hudson, to close out the series, as he did against the Mustangs. Hudson led the league in strikeouts and showed why in the semifinal, striking out seven Billings batters in 6 2/3 innings.
Orem: With this team, it's always about the offense, and it always seems to start in the same place. After a .400 regular season, slugger Roberto Lopez grabbed six hits and a home run in the team's narrow series victory over the Ogden Raptors. He was flanked by third baseman Luis Jimenez, who knocked in six of Orem's 20 runs in the series. No team has been able to shut down the middle of the Orem order all season. However, manager Tom Kotchman will look for Angel Castillo to right his ship in the championship series, after Castillo went just 1-for-12 against Ogden. The outfielder's powerful bat was essential to Orem's regular-season success. As far as the pitching staff goes, a true ace has emerged in LHP Jayson Miller, who struck out nine Raptors in seven innings to earn the win in the semifinal. Miller hasn't lost in five weeks, and he hasn't walked a batter since Aug. 22, spanning three starts.
Bryan Smith 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.