There are very simple reasons the Class A Advanced Bakersfield Blaze have been one of the toughest teams to beat in the California League this season.
"They've swung the bats, played defense, ran the bases, done everything you could possibly ask them to do," Blaze first-year manager Pat Kelly said.
Bakersfield held off a late comeback on Saturday night and beat Rancho Cucamonga, 8-7, to wrap up the North Division first-half title and a bye into the second round of the Cal League playoffs in September.
"It really feels nice," said Kelly, whose team technically clinched the title when second-place Visalia was beaten by Lancaster. "They're very happy. We have a lot of guys who are having very good years and they push everything else aside and play the game the right way."
The playoff appearance will be the club's third since 2009. Bakersfield, which also won the first-half crown in 2012, shares the league's best record (41-23) with Lancaster.
Third-ranked Reds prospect Jesse Winker hit a two-run homer in Saturday's victory. Kyle Waldrop went 2-for-5 and is tied with Rancho Cucamonga's Corey Seager for the league lead with a .350 batting average.
Ben Lively (10-1) -- Cincinnati's No. 12 prospect -- earned the win, striking out nine but giving up four runs on seven hits and three walks over five innings. He leads the Cal League in all three Triple Crown categories with 10 victories, a 2.28 ERA and 95 strikeouts.
"It's nice to know that you've got that ace going out every fifth game. He's really dominated," Kelly said. "Even though the last couple outings he's given up runs, he's actually pitching better. Last outing, he gave up five runs at High Desert and I thought that was his best pitching yet."
The Blaze also lead the league with a .295 team batting average, 375 RBIs and 412 runs scored.
"Obviously, hitting .295 as a team helps out. Our run differential is . We score a lot of runs and our pitching does well enough that we come out way ahead," Kelly said.
The skipper is aware that the second half of the season looms, and likely with new challenges.
"We've got to continue to play like we've been playing. Obviously, there will be [player] moves at the half. That's just part of Minor League Baseball," he said. "The guys that come in will have to step up and play as well as the guys that came before them."
Kane County 5, Cedar Rapids, 2
Cubs prospect Juan Paniagua struck out nine and allowed three hits and two walks over six shutout innings as Class A Kane County beat visiting Cedar Rapids, 5-2, to claim the Western Division first-half title.
The Cougars return to the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons.
"This is a special time [and to clinch] with a week left to go just shows how good they are," Cougars manager Mark Johnson told the Beacon News. "They aren't going to stop. They are going to keep doing what they are doing. They have the baseball savvy to understand we have to keep going and keep plugging."
Kane County improved to 27-6 at home and its 42-20 overall record is the best in the circuit. The Cougars have recorded six shutouts and boast a 3.04 ERA that's second in the league behind West Michigan. Box score