For the fourth time in franchise history, the Salt Lake Bees will compete for the PCL Championship beginning Tuesday night as they oppose the Omaha Storm Chasers for the league title. The Bees look to capture their elusive first-PCL title, after having last competed for the championship in 2002, when they lost three game to one to Edmonton Trappers.
Both the Bees and the Storm Chasers advanced to the championship series with relative ease, as Omaha swept the Oklahoma City RedHawks for the American Conference crown, while the Bees needed just four games to dispose of the Las Vegas 51s. Each series was hotly contested, however, as each game of the Salt Lake-Las Vegas series was decided by just one run, and Omaha outscored Oklahoma City by just six runs during the three-game sweep.
This will be the third-consecutive appearance in the PCL Championship series for the Storm Chasers, who took home the league crown in 2011 before falling to the Reno Aces in the championship series in 2012. In their 44-year history, the Storm Chasers have won 14 division titles and five league titles, while also winning the Triple-A Championship in 1990 for the only time in franchise history. This will be the first postseason meeting between the two teams, with Salt Lake leading the all-time series at 52-44, while surprisingly having more success visiting the Storm Chasers (27-21) than opposing them at home (25-23).
Despite their recent run of postseason success, it has to be considered an upset that the Storm Chasers even made the playoffs this season, let alone the PCL Championship Series. Since going to a four-team division format in 1998, no PCL team had won their division while posting a sub-.500 record until the Storm Chasers (70-74) did so this season. It was Omaha's pitching that carried them to the postseason, recording the second-best ERA in the PCL (3.91) and leading the circuit in strikeouts (1,183) to offset an offense that finished in the bottom-five in the league in batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage.
Further compounding the issue for Omaha once they reached the postseason was the number of contributors that were summoned to the big league club in Kansas City at the beginning of September. Franciseley Bueno (3-3, 2.66 ERA), Brett Hayes (team-high 17 home runs and .480 slugging percentage), Johnny Giavotella (.286, 46 RBI, 48 runs scored), Donnie Joseph (4-3, 3.95 ERA over a team-high 47 games), and Pedro Ciriaco (.281, .942 fielding percentage at shortstop) were all called up to the Royals before the start of the playoffs. Despite all of the defections, the Storm Chasers swept Oklahoma City, owners of the best regular season record in the PCL in 2013, out of the playoffs to earn their spot in the title series.
For the fourth consecutive year, Omaha and Salt Lake split the regular season series at two games apiece in 2013. The Bees entered the early-August series against Omaha fresh off of sweeping the Iowa Cubs in Salt Lake City, while Omaha had just completed their own sweep, taking all four games on the road against the Tacoma Rainiers and outscoring the Rainiers 25-6. The Storm Chasers struck first in the series, holding the Bees to a season-low two hits while defeating Salt Lake 6-2 in the series opener, snapping the Bees' 10-game home winning streak. Omaha didn't let up in the second game, doubling up the Bees 6-3 to take the first two games of the series.
Salt Lake flipped the script in game three, breaking a 2-2 tie with three runs in the seventh inning before holding on for a 5-4 victory. The Bees then put forth one of their best efforts of the season in the finale, blanking the Storm Chasers 3-0 in the finale to earn the series split. Barry Enright, Jason Urquidez, and Kevin Johnson combined for the seven-hit shutout, as Enright earned his fourth straight win.
Although it was compiled over just a four-game series, Salt Lake's .236 team average against Omaha this season was one of the worst marks they had against a PCL opponent this season. Just four Bees posting batting averages higher than .200 against Omaha this year, and three of those men (Grant Green, Andrew Romine, Robbie Widlansky) are no longer with the team, leaving just Roberto Lopez (.313) to carry the torch. Omaha managed to silence some of Salt Lake's most potent bats in their last series, shutting down Efren Navarro (3 for 16), Matt Long (2 for 14), and Drew Heid (1 for 12) in their limited exposure.
With the bats struggling, it was Salt Lake's pitching that earned the Bees the spilt against Omaha in August. Billy Buckner and Barry Enright held the Storm Chasers without an earned run during their starts, while the bullpen allowed just two earned runs during the entire series. The Bees put up a 3.00 ERA during the series as a team.
The Bees struggled against the Omaha starting rotation in their previous series, only finding success against lefty Chris Dwyer. The other three starters that Salt Lake opposed (Everett Teaford, Justin Marks, Yordano Ventura) held the Bees to just six runs over 18 innings. The Omaha bullpen was even stronger, allowing just two runs over 10 innings. Unlike the Bees, the Storm Chasers did manage to find some success at the plate in the last series, hitting .261 and pushing across 16 runs over the series. Irving Falu (.357) and Gorkys Hernandez (.357) found the most success against Salt Lake pitching.
The left side of the Bees' infield will look drastically different in the championship series, as Salt Lake will be without their regular third baseman and shortstop for the series. Andy Marte, who started 18 games at the hot corner for the Bees after joining the team in early August, injured his shoulder while scoring the game-winning run during Thursday's walk-off victory over Las Vegas and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Meanwhile, shortstop Tommy Field, who hit the go-ahead home run during the deciding fourth game of the Las Vegas series, was called up to Los Angeles to fill the void left by the injury to Luis Jimenez.
The Storm Chasers will host the first two games of the series at Werner Park in Omaha on Tuesday and Wednesday. Both games are scheduled to begin at 6:05 p.m. MT. After an off day on Thursday, the series will close out at Spring Mobile Ballpark, with Friday's contest set to begin at 6:35 p.m. MT, with a fireworks celebration at the conclusion of the ballgame. Should they be needed, Saturday's game will also begin at 6:35 p.m., while the game on Sunday would begin at 1:05 p.m. The winner of the series will travel to Allentown, Pa., to take on the International League Champion for the Triple-A Championship. Opposing the PCL champion will either be the Durham Bulls or the reigning-IL Champions, the Pawtucket Red Sox. All Bees games can be heard on 1280 the Zone and at slbees.com.