The 2013 edition of the Gildan Triple-A Baseball National Championship will feature some familiar faces fighting for Minor League bragging rights.
International League champion Durham will host Pacific Coast League winner Omaha in a one-game showdown Tuesday at Coca Cola Park, home of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, in Allentown, Pa. The game will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.
Both clubs -- and their managers -- have been here before. Omaha fell to Columbus in the 2011 game, held in Albuquerque, N.M., and Durham beat Memphis in the initial Triple-A Baseball National Championship game in Oklahoma City in 2009. Prior to 2009, the contest was known as the Bricktown Showdown.
The two league champions had very different seasons.
Durham owned the Minor Leagues' top record throughout much of the season and finished 87-57, fourth-best among all full-season teams. Only a 16-16 stretch to end the regular season prevented the Bulls from setting a franchise mark for best record since joining the IL in 1998.
"We had such a great regular season," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. "When we got to the playoffs I told the guys they earned their way here, now go out and have fun. Obviously we're playing to win, but being here is something to be enjoyed."
The Storm Chasers were just 70-74 in the regular season -- 10th-best in the 16-team PCL -- and only made the postseason by the slimmest of margins. Omaha got into the PCL American North title when Memphis dropped its final two games -- the Redbirds were within one out of a division-clinching victory in their second-to-last game, but ultimately lost in extra innings.
Despite their disparate paths to the playoffs, both the Bulls and Storm Chasers roared through their respective league postseasons, going 6-1. Omaha swept Oklahoma City -- owners of the PCL's top regular-season mark -- in three games in the first round, then outlasted Salt Lake in a four-game final series. Durham swept Indianapolis in the Governors' Cup semifinals and rebounded from an opening-game loss to defending champion Pawtucket to win the IL title in four games.
In any single game, pitching will likely be the most important single factor. Though both clubs' pitching staffs led their leagues in strikeouts, it will be the starters who set the tone on Tuesday: right-hander Jake Odorizzi for Durham and southpaw Chris Dwyer for Omaha.
Odorizzi has the advantage of familiarity -- he went 11-3 for Omaha in 2012 before being dealt to Tampa Bay in the James Shields deal last winter. He's also on a serious roll, having tossed 22 consecutive scoreless innings since Aug. 24, his final start of the regular season. The 23-year-old has allowed eight hits while fanning 27 during the stretch.
"He's been fantastic," Montoyo said of his starter. "His breaking pitches have been good all along, but he's been locating his fastball really well lately. He throws it 91, 92, but it seems harder than that."
Dwyer has the advantage of being particularly well rested. The 25-year-old Clemson product started Game 1 of the PCL Finals, but only pitched two frames before the game was suspended by rain. His last full outing came on Sept. 1, when he gave up one run on three hits in a victory against Round Rock. One key for Dwyer will be his command: his 72 walks were third-most in the PCL and he issued 13 free passes in his final two starts of the regular season.
"I haven't gotten to pitch much lately, but that's baseball -- you can't control the weather," Dwyer said of his layoff.
"It's exciting to be here. We've been grinding and battling all season and we're playing some of our best baseball right now. And getting a chance to pitch against Jake is neat; he's a great pitcher and I'm sure both of us will be locked in."
On offense, the Bulls led the IL in scoring, batting average and on-base percentage despite hitting the fewest home runs on the circuit. Four of the IL's top 12 hitters -- Brandon Guyer, Vince Belnome, Leslie Anderson and Jason Bourgeois -- were Bulls, but the quartet combined for just 31 long balls.
"Triple-A is a little strange -- there's a lot of turnover with guys going up and down from the big leagues," said Montoyo. "We've had a lot of turnover with our pitching staff, but there's a core of position players -- guys like Mike Fontenot, Shelley Duncan, Leslie Anderson and Tim Beckham -- that's been here from the start. It's been great to see those guys win a title."
The Storm Chasers ranked in the bottom third of most offensive categories in the Pacific Coast League, but following a series of promotions to the Majors, Omaha is a rather different team than it was during the regular season. Rey Navarro leads the Chasers with a .409 average in seven playoff games; he spent the entire regular season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Both teams' managers are among the most successful and experienced in the game. Mike Jirschele is in his 11th straight season with Omaha, which he has guided to the PCL Finals in each of the last three years, winning twice. In Montoyo's seven seasons with the Bulls, Durham has missed the playoffs just once, reached the IL Finals five times and won two Governors' Cups. He was named IL Manger of the Year in both 2010 and 2013.
After PCL teams dropped the first three Triple-A Baseball National Championship games from 2009-11, Reno thumped Pawtucket, 10-3, in 2012 to put the PCL on the board. Omaha will try to defy the odds once more this postseason and make it two in a row for the western circuit.