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.
The South Atlantic League playoffs begin Wednesday night with defending champion Lakewood traveling to Hickory and Savannah visiting Greenville for Game 1 in their best-of-3 series. The winners will meet in a best-of-5 series, with the South Division playoff champs hosting Games 1 and 2 and the North winner hosting Game 3 as well as Games 4 and 5 (if necessary).
The Crawdads spent most of the campaign chasing the first-place BlueClaws, yet the division rivals met only once during the regular season -- a four-game series in Hickory on Aug. 25-28. The Drive and Sand Gnats played a pair of five-game series, at Greenville on June 29-July 3 and at Savannah on July 14-18.
Lakewood BlueClaws (North Division first- and second-half champions; 84-55)
vs. Hickory Crawdads (North Division Wild Card; 75-64)
Lakewood won the season series, 3-1
Game 1 at Hickory, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Lakewood, Sept. 10 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Lakewood (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
For most of August, a dry-erase board resided in the middle of the home clubhouse at L.P. Frans Stadium featuring a large numeral that represented the Hickory Crawdads' magic number. Even though the Texas Rangers' Class A affiliate had lost out to Lakewood by two games in the first half and would not catch the BlueClaws in the second half, the Crawdads kept a daily track of their goal of posting the second-best overall record in the North Division.
With Asheville located approximately 70 miles from Hickory, the Crawdads commuted up the mountain along I-40 last week, their magic number fresh in their collective minds. The team won the first game of the series on Monday, Aug. 30, before getting swept in a doubleheader a day later. Finally, on Sept. 1, the Crawdads achieved the feat with a 10-3 triumph over the Tourists, which started an on-field celebration that found manager Bill Richardson in the middle.
"This is a great reward for this team because these guys have come to play every night this season," Richardson said. "They're a great group of kids who have been so excited about the chance to play in the playoffs. To persevere and attain that goal is a testament to their hard work and willingness to play as a team."
To many observers, the Hickory-Lakewood matchup is akin to David versus Goliath. Loaded with premier talent, including Sebastian Valle at catcher and first baseman Jonathan Singleton, dubbed the circuit's most outstanding Major League prospect, Lakewood has been one of the Minors' strongest teams from start to finish.
Hickory, meanwhile, did not place a player on the year-end All-Star team. Roster turnover contributed to that fact, with 43 different players wearing the red and black this season, including several key components. Lakewood had 49 different players, yet the core of Valle and Singleton as well as outfielders Jiwan James and Leandro Castro remained intact.
"We've lost players, but no matter who we've had, you can't put enough work in front of our squad," Richardson said. "They also know what it's like to be part of a pennant race. Every game has meant something this year. That's something we've been very fortunate to have in the player development experience."
The BlueClaws will send three hard-throwing 20-year-olds at Hickory, a trio that includes Trevor May, Brody Colvin and Jonathan Pettibone. The Crawdads' top hurler, Robbie Erlin, who paced the SAL with a 2.12 ERA, is likely to receive the starting nod in Game 2.
"We're going to have to play our best to beat a team like Lakewood," Richardson said. "We're not intimidated, but we know what the challenge is. This is why you play the game -- to face challenges and to try to be the best."
Savannah Sand Gnats (South Division first-half champions; 75-64)
vs. Greenville Drive (South Division second-half champions; 77-62)
Greenville won the season series, 6-4
Game 1 at Greenville, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Savannah, Sept. 10 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Savannah (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Billy McMillon can be forgiven if he seemed exhausted Sunday evening. While the Drive celebrated the second-half crown in the South Division thanks to Savannah's 5-1 victory over second-place Asheville, Greenville's skipper looked around the clubhouse and smiled, realizing his team was the last one standing in a hard-fought pennant race that ran through the final weekend of the season.
"It's great to see, because this is something these guys will always remember," said the former Major League center fielder. "When you're these guys' age, you think you'll be part of lots of championships. The fact is, even in the Minor Leagues, these don't come around very often."
After finishing the first half in third place with a 36-34 record, six games behind the first-place Sand Gnats, the Drive jumped out quickly after the All-Star break, winning its first five games and 21 of its first 31 contests. Greenville appeared in control before suffering a six-game losing streak in late July and early August, which coincided with a resurgence just north of the border, in Asheville.
The Drive even fell out of first place after dropping three of five contests at McCormick Field on Aug. 12-16. The team regained control of the division less than two weeks later by taking three of four from the Tourists at Fluor Field on Aug. 27-29. That final push proved crucial in the Drive reaching the SAL postseason for the second straight year after winning the first-half crown in 2009.
Greenville received contributions from numerous sources, including a pitching staff that posted a 2.94 ERA in August. Pete Ruiz made six starts during the month and went 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA, while the bullpen was nearly flawless. Offensively, first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez batted .347 in his last 30 games while swatting nine homers and driving in 35 runs.
Greenville's calling card, however, was speed, with the Drive recording 241 stolen bases, 58 more than second-ranked Lakewood. Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, who became the Drive's first year-end All-Star in the franchise's four-year history, placed second on the circuit with 63 thefts. Outfielder Reymond Fuentes added 42 steals, while shortstop Derrik Gibson had 39 and designated hitter Wilfred Pichardo contributed 29.
"We believe in putting pressure on the other team by using our speed to our advantage," McMillon said. "We have some guys who can run. I don't expect us to change what's worked so well for us."
Balcom-Miller becomes a winner: In a deal that could only happen in the Minor Leagues, Chris Balcom-Miller went from being one of the top starters in the Asheville rotation to a key component on the Greenville staff during the final week of the playoff race. Traded by the Colorado Rockies to the Boston organization in exchange for Major League pitcher Manny Delcarmen, Balcom-Miller went 6-7 with a 3.31 ERA for the Tourists, ranking first in the SAL among starters with 9.69 strikeouts per nine innings, second with an opponents batting average of .214 and 1.57 walks per nine innings, and seventh in ERA. In his lone appearance with Greenville, he started and won a 10-2 decision against Hickory on Sept. 4, allowing five hits and two earned runs over six innings to help seal the fate of his former Asheville teammates.
Lakewood legacy: Lakewood tied the franchise record with 84 wins this season. The BlueClaws established the team mark in 2006, when they won their first SAL championship. The BlueClaws, who beat Asheville three games to one in the 2009 finals, are looking to become the first back-to-back champs since Savannah accomplished the feat in 1993-94.
No love for Augusta: The split-season format prevented Augusta from reaching the playoffs, even though the GreenJackets finished with the league's second-best overall record at 78-59. Augusta concluded the first half in second place in the South Division with a 41-29 mark, one game behind Savannah. In the second half, the GreenJackets placed third at 37-30, 3 1/2 games in back of Greenville.