The Ogden Raptors captured the first-half title in the Pioneer League's South Division by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker over Grand Junction. But they weren't satisfied.
The Raptors won the second-half crown outright, again besting the second-place Rockies and giving them plenty of momentum heading into the teams' first-round playoff series.
The Great Falls Voyagers grabbed the first-half title in the North Division, but their playoff opponent wasn't settled until the final day of the regular season. Billings was on the verge of clinching Wednesday night, but Missoula's Alex Glenn belted a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to keep the Osprey alive. Missoula then clinched the second-half title the next night with a convincing 8-5 win over the Mustangs.
The winners of each best-of-3, first-round matchup advances to play in a best-of-3 Championship Series beginning Sept. 11.
Ogden Raptors (44-32, South Division first- and second-half champions) vs.
Grand Junction Rockies (43-33, South Division runner-up)
Ogden won the season series, 11-5
Game 1 at Grand Junction, Sept. 7 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Ogden, Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Ogden (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. ET
There's no secret to Ogden's regular-season success. The Raptors have done it the same way since Opening Day. But can they keep it up in the postseason?
"We've done a really good job of mixing good pitching with timely hitting and getting runs across plate," said outfielder Jeremy Rathjen. "That's the most important thing when it comes to winning games.
"We've been able to do that lately and throughout the year. Hopefully we can continue that in the playoffs and make a run."
If they do, Rathjen will likely play a big role. He came to Ogden as an 11th-round pick by the Dodgers out of Rice University in June and made an immediate impact.
Rathjen hit .324 with nine homers and 53 RBIs in 68 games, and his .443 on-base percentage tied for the league lead. His debut performance earned him a spot on the Pioneer League All-Star Team, though he admits it took him a few weeks to find his niche.
"When I first came in, I was struggling a little bit," Rathjen said. "But I've been fortunate to have runners on base when I'm hitting, and it's been very helpful trying to hit when guys are moving in scoring position for you.
"This is my first professional season, so I didn't know exactly what to expect. But I've played a lot of baseball. I'm excited to get my feet wet in the playoffs, and hopefully we can win a championship."
To do so, Ogden must first get past their opening-round opponent, Grand Junction. The Rockies are making only their second Pioneer League playoff appearance since 2001, the year the franchise joined the circuit as the Casper Ghosts.
Though the Raptors handled the Rockies well during the regular season, Rathjen knows the challenge at hand.
"They do a good job of getting on base -- that's what stands out," Rathjen said of the Rockies. "They've got good pitching and have put up a lot of runs against us. We've seen them hit the ball really well.
"It's just like playoff baseball anywhere. If you get good pitching, good defense and scratch a couple runs across the board, you'll be successful."
Great Falls Voyagers (40-36, North Division first-half champions) vs.
Missoula Osprey (41-35, North Division second-half champions)
Missoula won the season series, 12-4
Game 1 at Missoula, Sept. 7 at 9:15 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Great Falls, Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Great Falls (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
Before his callup to Class A Kannapolis in late July, Great Falls outfielder Kyle Robinson dominated Pioneer League pitching to the tune of a .378 batting average. Now that he's back with the Voyagers, Robinson hopes to rediscover his hot bat and lead his team to a second consecutive league championship.
"It's definitely on our minds," Robinson said. "We've got a few guys who have been here since last year, and they know what it takes to get there. We think we have a good shot at repeating."
Since his return to Great Falls on Aug. 15, Robinson hasn't been hitting the ball with as much gusto. He batted .263 in 14 August games and only .211 so far in September to drop his Pioneer League batting average 54 points to .326. (He hit .143 with a homer and three RBIs in 10 South Atlantic League games.)
Robinson admits he's still trying to find the formula that worked for him so well in the first half of the season. And so are the Voyagers.
"I'm trying to adjust back to a different setting again," said Robinson, whose Great Falls team won 18 of 23 games from June 30 to July 24 but lost nine straight to open the second half.
"There are some different pitchers since the first time I was here. We hit a rough patch in the second half, and we've been pretty up and down, but now we're playing for keeps. We want to feel good about ourselves and get rolling heading into the playoffs."
Robinson was a contender for league MVP before he was promoted -- the honor eventually went to Grand Junction outfielder and Rockies 2012 first-round pick David Dahl -- but that doesn't mean he still isn't one of the more feared players in the league. With Robinson at his peak, Great Falls was the best team in the North Division -- and they're trying to prove they still are.
"Of late we've been struggling with runners in scoring position and not getting the job done to get runs across the plate," Robinson said. "We need to capitalize on that in the playoffs. Our pitching has been good, but I think timely hitting is what we need to focus on."
That timely hitting will need to come against a stout pitching staff in Missoula, which finished the season with the league's third best ERA (4.68), second most strikeouts (683) and best WHIP (1.42). The Osprey won six out of seven games against the Voyagers in August and September, including the first two games of the four-game winning streak that Missoula rode into the playoffs.
Easy Eddie: Grand Junction boasts perhaps the playoffs' best weapon in right-hander Eddie Butler. Entering his Game 1 start against Ogden, Butler is 7-1 with a 2.13 ERA and has allowed just two earned runs in his 24 2/3 innings.
Righting the ship: After clinching a playoff berth with the North Division's first-half title, Great Falls lost 11 of its first 12 games to start the second half. But the defending champions straightened out, going 14-11 down the stretch, including wins in seven of their last 11.
Runnin' Raptors: Ogden created much of its good fortune on the basepaths. Led by Malcolm Holland's league-high 42 swipes, the Raptors had 125 steals on the season, 27 more than their next closest competitor, the Helena Brewers.