The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the postseason for the first time in more than two decades, and a trio of former Zephyrs are in the middle of the excitement in the Steel City.
Former New Orleans standouts John Buck, Marlon Byrd and Gaby Sanchez have been part of the Pirates' push to October, with Byrd making the biggest impact following his late-August arrival from the New York Mets. Byrd hit .318 with 17 RBI in 30 games with Pittsburgh, and helped the Bucs clinch home field advantage in Tuesday's National League Wild Card game against the Reds by delivering three hits on Friday night in Cincinnati, then homering in Saturday's clincher.
Buck came to Pittsburgh in the same trade from the Mets, and played in nine games serving as the backup to Russell Martin, going 8-for-24.
Sanchez was a key cog in the pennant race, batting .310 after the All-Star break. The former National League All-Star finished fourth on the team by playing in 136 games, and was the primary right-handed bat off the bench, making 42 appearances as a pinch-hitter.
If the Pirates advance to the National League Championship Series, a potential showdown with a pair of former Zephyrs pitchers on the Atlanta Braves' staff could await. Luis Ayala pitched in 37 games out of the Braves' bullpen, which finished with a 2.46 ERA, the lowest in the majors since 2003. Ayala recorded a 2.90 ERA and stranded 18 of 21 baserunners he inherited.
Freddy Garcia, briefly a member of the Zephyrs' Triple-A championship club in 1998, struggled in 11 games with the Baltimore Orioles this season, but came to Atlanta as a replacement for the injured Tim Hudson and pitched to a 1.65 ERA in six games, including three starts. His late-season surge has put him in line to make a possible Game 4 start in the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Two more recent Zephyrs relievers will be looking to help the Detroit Tigers repeat as American League champions. Jose Veras spent most of the season serving as the closer for the Houston Astros, but was shipped to Detroit in a deal at the trade deadline. Between the Astros and Tigers, Veras finished with 21 saves and held opponents to a .199 batting average.
Darin Downs used a sterling spring training to make the Tigers' Opening Day roster, and pitched well over the first two months before succumbing to a rotator cuff injury. He returned in September and made three scoreless appearances, retiring eight of the nine batters he faced.
Joe Smith was part of the Zephyrs' last division title squad in 2007, which also marked the last time the Cleveland Indians were in the playoffs. Now Smith could serve as the Tribe's closer as Cleveland hosts the AL Wild Card game on Wednesday. Smith went 6-3 with a 2.29 ERA while pitching in at least 70 games for the third consecutive season, and held a 0.79 ERA over the final two months as the Indians surged into the playoffs on a 10-game win streak to end the campaign.
Two other former Zephyrs contributed to playoff teams this season. Andrew Miller continued his successful conversion into a reliable left-handed reliever with the Boston Red Sox by posting a 2.64 ERA in 37 games before suffering a foot injury that required season-ending surgery. Luke Montz played in 13 games for the Oakland Athletics in May, batting .179 before returning to Triple-A Sacramento, where he also ultimately went down with a season-ending injury.