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.
Last season, Fort Wayne stormed through the Midwest League on its way to the crown. This season, the Padres affiliate has taken a different path to reach the playoffs.
"Last year, it was like we could do no wrong," said Mike Watt, a pitcher with the TinCaps both last season and this year. "Every day, we showed up and we planned on winning, and we won. We went 101-48. It was like one continuous winning streak. At no point did we ever think we were going to lose.
"This year, it's different, but we're still winning and we're still a very good team," he added. "We have more work ahead of us, but we feel we can win. It's anybody's playoff."
This season, Great Lakes owns the role of favorite, heading into the playoffs leading all of professional baseball with 90 victories.
Great Lakes Loons (Eastern Division second-half champions; 90-49)
vs. Fort Wayne TinCaps (Eastern Division Wild Card; 77-63)
Season series tied, 6-6
Great Lakes suffered key personnel losses, but maintained its winning percentage.
"We lost nine key players, seven to promotions and two to trades," Great Lakes manager Juan Bustabad said. "Brett Wallach went to the Cubs, and Elisaul Pimentel went to the Royals, and they were 15-3 between the two of them. Then, we lost Rubby De la Rosa to Double-A. That's three starting pitchers in one week, but we kept on winning.
"The thing about this team -- when they step on the field, they believe they can win every night," Bustabad said. "When a team gets that feeling, it's hard to stop them."
Great Lakes rearmed at the pitching spot. Allen Webster, who will start Game 1 of the series, boasts 12 victories, Josh Wall has earned nine, and Matt Magill has seven. Greg Wilborn came up from Ogden and has picked up four wins.
Outfielder Brian Cavazos-Galvez is first in the Midwest League in average (.318), doubles (43) and total bases (255) and is tied for first in extra-base hits (63). Since going 0-for-11 in his final three June games, Cavazos-Galvez is hitting .394 (91-for-231) with 12 of his 15 home runs. During this stretch, he has raised his average 70 points to .318.
Fort Wayne will count on a strong pitching staff. Matt Lollis will start the opener for the TinCaps. He is 5-2 with a sterling 1.66 ERA. He's only allowed 10 earned runs in 54 1/3 innings and has struck out 45 while allowing only 13 walks.
Lake County Captains (Eastern Division first-half champions; 77-62)
vs. West Michigan Whitecaps (Eastern Division Wild Card; 62-77)
Lake County won season series, 11-10
Game 1 at West Michigan, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Lake County, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Lake County (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 6:30 ET
Lake County edged out Great Lakes for the first-half season North crown. Manager Ted Kubiak's club will open with Brett Brach, who owns a 5-8 record with a 3.46 ERA. Brach has struck out 90 this season and walked only 28. He is 4-3 in his last 10 starts.
Vidal Nuno will throw for the Captains in the second game. He is 6-8 with a 4.96 ERA. If the series goes to a third game, Jason Knapp will get the call for the Captains. He's 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA.
West Michigan is in the playoffs for the 14th time in its 17-season history. The Whitecaps were at the other end of the spectrum from Lake County in the first half. West Michigan was 26-43 in the first half, and at one point, the Whitecaps were 29 games below .500 overall (35-64). But West Michigan is 27-12 since July 28, sparking the surge to the playoffs.
Cedar Rapids Kernels (Western Division first-half champions; 82-56)
vs. Clinton LumberKings (Western Division Wild Card; 74-65)
Clinton won season series, 7-6
Game 1 at Clinton, Sept. 8 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Cedar Rapids, Sept. 9 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Cedar Rapids (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Clinton's playoff appearance is the first by a Seattle affiliate in the Midwest League since the 2005 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers made it to the Finals. The LumberKings pitching staff features series starter Tom Wilhelmsen, who is 6-2 with a 2.23 ERA.
Clinton will be without the services of league home run king Nick Franklin, who made his Double-A debut Monday for the playoff-bound Diamond Jaxx.
Cedar Rapids was 35-31 in the second half but just 13-18 in August. The Kernels led the league with a .278 batting average and finished fourth in pitching with a 3.83 team ERA. Cedar Rapids will take a six-game winning streak into the playoffs.
The Kernels finished the season with an 82-56 mark, the best showing in the 18 seasons Cedar Rapids has been part of the Angels organization.
Quad Cities River Bandits (Western Division second-half champions; 83-55)
vs. Kane County Cougars (Western Division Wild Card; 71-67)
Kane County won the season series, 11-9
Game 1 at Kane County, Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Quad Cities, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Quad Cities (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
Quad Cities lost the season series to Kane County but went 6-4 against the Cougars in the second half.
"In the first half, they beat us up pretty good," said Quad Cities third baseman Alan Ahmady. "In the second half, we went after them. We took a more aggressive approach.
"Our team has a lot of talent," Ahmady added. "We weren't playing to our full potential the last few games, but we saw where our weaknesses were, and that's helped us get ready for the playoffs."
Ahmady said that the River Bandits will rely on their pitching.
"Pitching is our biggest strength," Ahmady said. "We have some of the best pitching in the organization and throughout the whole Midwest League. Our pitching is unbelievable.
Cardinals' first-round pick Shelby Miller will start Game 1 for the River Bandits. Miller is 7-5 with a 3.62 ERA. He is 5-2 in his last 10 starts.
Murphy Smith will open for Kane County. He went 8-2 with a 3.64 ERA.
Interestingly, Kane County finished with three batters among the top 10 in the Minor Leagues in walks: Conner Crumbliss (1st, 126), Tyreace House (4th, 96) and Anthony Aliotti (7th, 92). Rashun Dixon roars into the playoffs on a hot streak, batting .366 in his last 10 games.
Sidelined: Quad Cities' Matt Adams will miss the playoffs with a fractured elbow suffered in late August. Adams was hitting .310 with 22 homers and 88 RBI's before his season ended.
Sizzling August: West Michigan turned its season around with a 21-9 mark in August. The stretch included a franchise-record 12-game winning streak. West Michigan hit .301 as a team in August, averaging 6.3 runs a game and totaling 95 extra-base hits. Corey Jones led the charge in August with a .395 batting average.
Red-hot Hagerty: Fort Wayne catcher Jason Hagerty has been a lethal weapon at the plate for the TinCaps. He has reached in 72 of his last 78 games and has hits in 46 of his last 60. Hagerty boasts an on-base streak of 31 games. Since the Midwest League All-Star break, Hagerty is first in the full-season Minors with an on-base percentage of .485.
The next stages: Second-round action is scheduled to start on Sunday, Sept. 12, when the Great Lakes-Fort Wayne winner takes on the Lake County-West Michigan winner in the East, and the Clinton-Cedar Rapids winner takes on the Kane County-Quad Cities winner in the West. The championship round is set to start on Wednesday, Sept. 15.