It's a rematch.
In 2009, the Midland RockHounds dispatched the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in four games to win the Texas League Finals and secure the second championship in franchise history. The RockHounds are looking for a repeat in 2010, and once again the Naturals stand in the way.
Midland RockHounds (South Division second-half champions, 82-62)
vs. Northwest Arkansas Naturals (North Division both-half champions, 70-70)
The teams split the season series, 6-6
Game 1 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 14, 8:00 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 15, 8:00 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Midland, Sept. 17, 8:00 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 18, 8:00 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 19, 7:00 p.m. ET
Although the matchup may be the same, in many ways the story is quite different. In 2009, the RockHounds compiled the best record in the Texas League, while the Naturals were barely above the .500 mark. The situation reversed itself in 2010, however. The Naturals posted the best record in the league in both the first and second half of the season, while the RockHounds went 35-35 in both halves and made it to the playoffs by virtue of playing in the league's thoroughly lackluster South Division.
But dominant, anemic or in-between, all that matters is that you're still alive. To make it to the Finals, the Naturals once again defeated Springfield in the North Division playoffs. They needed five games to do it, including come-from-behind victories in Games 4 and 5. Their never-say-die attitude was best encapsulated in Game 4, when first baseman Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to lift the Naturals to a 6-5 victory. The RockHounds had an easier time of it, meanwhile, needing just four games to dispose of Frisco.
The rosters of both clubs feature players who also did battle in the 2009 series. For the Naturals, pitchers Rowdy Hardy, Blake Johnson, Ben Swaggerty and Everett Teaford are looking for revenge. Returning RockHounds are far more numerous, a list that includes outfielders Archie Gilbert, Shane Peterson and Matthew Sulentic, shortstop Josh Horton, third baseman Alex Valdez, second baseman Jemile Weeks and pitchers Justin Friend, Graham Godfrey, Carlos Hernandez and Mickey Storey.
The question, then, is if Midland's battle-hardened veterans -- augmented by the promotion of shortstop prospect Grant Green -- will be able to hold off a replenished and prospect-laden Naturals squad that includes highly touted Kansas City farmhands such as Hosmer, Texas League Triple Crown winner Clint Robinson and up-and-coming southpaws Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy.
The answer will be determined over the course of the next week, and it all starts tonight.
Head-to-head: The Naturals and RockHounds were exceedingly evenly matched during the season series, with each team winning six games. Both pitching staffs posted a 4.67 mark against the other, with the RockHounds outscoring the Naturals 61-57 overall.
Lucky 37: Northwest Arkansas and Springfield went 16-16 against one another during the regular season and then split the first four games they played in the divisional playoff series. It took their 37th matchup of the season for the Naturals to eke out both a winning record against the Cardinals as well as, more importantly, a spot in the Finals.
USA! USA!: Soon after the conclusion of the playoffs, a quartet of Naturals will suit up for Team USA as members of the Pan-American Games Qualifying Team. Duffy, Montgomery, Teaford and Hosmer were all named to the squad, which also includes former Natural (and 2010 Minor League home run leader) Mike Moustakas. Six Royals prospects were named to the team, the most from any organization in the history of USA Baseball.
Back-to-back champs: Should the RockHounds repeat as champions, they would become the first Texas League team to do so since the 2002-03 San Antonio Missions. The only TL club to win more than two titles in a row were the mighty Fort Worth Panthers, who won six in a row from 1920-25.