The Northwest Arkansas Naturals clinched the North Division second-half crown Saturday with a 9-2 victory over the Tulsa Drillers, earning their fourth consecutive postseason appearance.
The Drillers had been one of the hottest teams in the league, winning nine of their previous 11 games.
"Well, it feels good," Naturals manager Brian Poldberg said. "This was a lot harder than it was last year. We had a different type of team, but guys battled all year. Missing the first-half title by one game was hard and knowing we had to go into the second half and win was harder. Tulsa's also the hottest team in the division, so knowing you have to beat them only one out of three was big."
Mario Santiago (5-1) allowed a run on five hits over six innings for the win, while the Naturals exploded for nine runs over the final three frames. Royals top prospect Wil Myers hit one of four homers during that stretch, joining Mario Lisson, Ben Theriot and Tim Smith.
"We got some confidence going and got some two-out RBIs," Poldberg said. "Theriot hit a homer off [Tulsa reliever Joe] Torres, then had a two-out double to put us up by seven in the ninth. Once we got a bit of a cushion, guys relaxed a bit and got the big hits for us."
Myers has been one of a few big-name prospects to make an impact for the Naturals this season. The team also has Christian Colon, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 Draft and Kansas City's No. 4 prospect.
"I think this is a big jump for them," Poldberg said. "There were some tough times early. They're getting a better feel for what they need to do know and how they're going to get pitched. They're not just going to get fastballs in fastball counts. It was a good learning experience for them. As they progressed through the year, they got a better feel for it."
"Dwyer struggled a little bit early and came on as one of our best starters the last two months," Poldberg said. "Odorizzi came up just after the All-Star break and has gotten more confidence with each outing. He had a big outing for us last night."
Poldberg said he views San Antonio as the playoff favorite since the Missions have racked up 92 wins, 14 more than any other team in the league. He doesn't think his team is under any additional pressure because of its success last year.
"You're defending your title, but it's two different teams," Poldberg said. "We have a few guys who were here last year; it's a different thing. We've just got to go out and do the best we can and, hopefully, we'll be in a position to get it done."
Northwest Arkansas will face Arkansas in the best-of-5 division finals, beginning Wednesday.