As the 2010 season winds down, follow along with MiLB.com as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.
A new Eastern League champion will be crowned in 2010 as none of the contenders in the postseason -- Trenton, New Hampshire, Altoona or Harrisburg -- appeared in the playoffs last year. In fact, the Thunder are the only one of the four who made the postseason in 2008, when they won the title in four games over the Akron Aeros.
Trenton faces a tough first obstacle in New Hampshire, which held a 16-7 advantage in the season series despite finishing behind the Thunder in the Eastern Division standings.
Altoona finished five games ahead of Harrisburg in the Western Division and brings a 12-8 season series edge into their opening-round matchup.
Trenton (Eastern Division champions; 83-59)
vs. New Hampshire (Eastern Division Wild Card; 79-62)
New Hampshire won the season series, 16-7
Game 1 at Trenton, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Trenton, Sept. 9 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at New Hampshire, Sept. 10 at 6:35 p.m ET
Game 4 at New Hampshire (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 5:05 p.m. ET
This series was almost the battle of the league's best hitter versus the best pitcher. That would be third baseman Brandon Laird -- who won the league's Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year with Trenton -- versus Pitcher of the Year Kyle Drabek of New Hampshire. But Laird, 22, was promoted to Triple-A on Aug. 2, which may give New Hampshire a decided advantage.
However, Trenton has announced that New York Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte will make a rehab appearance Thursday in Game 2 of the divisional payoffs. The 38-year-old has been on the disabled list since July 18 with a groin injury and is expected to throw four innings or 65 pitches at Waterfront Park. Rumor has it that, if the Thunder advance, Pettitte could remain with the them as he works to increase his pitch count.
"If he gets to 65 [in the rehab start], then the area of concern the next time is 65 to 80," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "So, if he's at 75, then you know he should be fine all the way up to 75, and then you start to get a little bit worried if he gets fatigued [beyond 75 pitches]."
Drabek anchored the Fisher Cats starting rotation all season, compiling a 14-9 record and 2.94 ERA. He led the Eastern League in wins, was tied for first in batting average against (.215) and ranked third in innings (162).
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound right-hander was also among the league leaders in strikeouts (132), ERA (2.94) and WHIP (1.20). The ace of the Fisher Cats staff has won each of his last five starts and has allowed three earned runs or less in 19 of his 25 starts, including eight games in which he has not surrendered a run.
"I feel he can get big leaguers out right now," New Hampshire manager Luis Rivera said recently. "He's got the three pitches [fastball, curve, changeup] that he needs to be a starter in the big leagues -- and they're all good."
Altoona (Western Division champions; 82-60)
vs. Harrisburg (Western Division Wild Card; 77-65)
Altoona won the season series, 12-8.
Game 1 at Altoona, Sept. 8 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Altoona, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Harrisburg, Sept. 10 at 7:00 p.m ET
Game 4 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Altoona (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Altoona clinched the Western Division title for the first time since 2004 and is playing in the postseason for the first time since '06. But the Curve had to wait until the last day of the regular season before their postseason opponent was revealed as Harrisburg edged Bowie for the Wild Card spot.
The Senators are seeking their seventh EL title and first since Milton Bradley's walk-off grand slam gave them their fourth consecutive title in 1999.
For Altoona second basemen Jim Negrych, the division title means a little something extra. Late last season, Negrych suffered a season-ending abdominal injury that briefly left him contemplating life without baseball.
"This is unbelievable -- to be sick and everything last year -- and from last year to go from the worst record in franchise history [62-80] to one of the best," Negrych told the Altoona Mirror when the team clinched. "It's a really special moment to win a division, but our goal is to win this whole thing and bring home a championship."
This could be a low-scoring series as Harrisburg and Altoona hold the lowest team ERAs in the league.
Manager of the Year: Altoona skipper Matt Walbeck was named the 2010 Eastern League Manager of the Year on Sunday. In his second season with the Curve, Walbeck led the team to a Western Division-best record of 81-59 (.579). Walbeck began his managerial career with West Michigan in 2004. He led the Whitecaps to two Midwest League Championships in three years and was named the 2006 Midwest League Manager of the Year. He also led the Erie SeaWolves to a first-place finish in 2007 in the EL Southern Division with a 81-59 record and was named Manager of the Year. He spent 2008 as the third base coach for the Texas Rangers, his first stint as a Major League coach. In 2009, Walbeck became the fifth manager in Altoona franchise history.
In the books: New Hampshire's Eric Thames matched a Fisher Cats single-season record when he smacked his 27th home run in an 8-7 win over visiting Harrisburg on Monday. Thames homered in the bottom of the third inning to put New Hampshire up, 3-0.
100 gang: Second baseman Nate Spears became the third player in Portland franchise history to score 100 runs in a season when he touched home plate in the third inning during Sunday's 9-2 win over New Hamspshire. Spears joined Ralph Milliard (104, 1995) and Mark Kotsay (103, 1997) to reach the 100-run milestone. In the sixth inning, Spears blasted his 19th home run of the season, a two-run shot. Salem catcher Ryan Lavarnway added a milestone of his in the same game, picking up his 100th and 101st RBIs of the season between Salem and Portland.