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Florida State League playoff preview09/01/2013 6:00 AM ET
By Guy Curtright / Special to MiLB.com
There's been one constant in the Florida State League the past six seasons, although South Division teams would just as soon forget about it. The North Division has claimed every title in the 12-team Class A Advanced circuit since St. Lucie won the South's last championship in 2006.
Fort Myers, which dominated the FSL en route to this season's first-half South title, or second-half winner Charlotte will try to end the run. Either Daytona, the league's winningest team in the second half, or Dunedin will try to keep the streak alive for the North.
Since the streak began, Daytona and Tampa have won two titles apiece and Clearwater and Lakeland have won once. Jupiter almost broke through last year for the South but dropped the final two games of the best-of-5 championship series to the Flying Tigers.
Fort Myers (78-56, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Fort Myers won the season series, 11-6
Game 1 at Charlotte, Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Byron Buxton, MLB.com's No. 1 overall prospect, has already more than conquered both levels of Class A. But before he moves on, the 19-year-old Fort Myers center fielder has one more thing to accomplish.
"We talk about it all the time in the clubhouse," said the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 Draft by Minnesota. "We want that ring."
The Miracle, though, will need a turnaround to get it. Fort Myers is in the playoffs because of the team's record-setting start in the first half. Even with the addition of Buxton, the second half was a struggle at times after fellow top Twins prospects Miguel Sano -- ranked No. 3 in the MLB.com Top 100 -- and Eddie Rosario moved up to Double-A.
If Fort Myers does win the Florida State League title, it would be Buxton's third championship in just a little more than a year. He hit -- and pitched -- his Georgia high school to a 2012 state title, then helped Elizabethton to the Appalachian League championship after signing with the Twins.
Buxton didn't put up eye-popping stats at the Rookie level last season, but that certainly hasn't been the case this year. The speedy right-handed batter hit .341 with 33 extra-base hits, 53 RBIs, 32 stolen bases and a .990 OPS in 68 games for Cedar Rapids of the Class A Midwest League and didn't slow down after being promoted to the FSL.
Buxton was batting .330 with 23 stolen bases and an .899 OPS in 56 games, as of Sunday, from the leadoff spot for Fort Myers, closing red hot with a .402 average in August and leading the Minors with 18 triples across his two stops.
Still, there were some adjustments to be made.
"They pitch you backward," Buxton said of the FSL. "They don't start you with fastballs, and the curveballs are sharper and the changeups better."
But Buxton handled the better pitching and will be challenged again in the Arizona Fall League as the Twins fast track him toward Minnesota.
Although Fort Myers couldn't come close to matching its 45-22 first-half record in the second half, they still go into the playoffs with more than just Buxton to count on.
Left-hander Taylor Rogers, 11-6 with a 2.55 ERA, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, who has 18 homers and 91 RBIs, and catcher Matt Koch made the All-Star Team. Vargas was at his best against Charlotte, hitting .339 with three homers and 15 RBIs.
Charlotte's All-Star selection was third baseman Richie Shaffer, who has with 33 doubles, 11 homers and 73 RBIs.
Dunedin (62-68, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Daytona won the season series, 10-4
Game 1 at Daytona, Sept. 3 at 7:05 p.m. ET
To say that Daytona had Dunedin's number while rolling to the second-half title in the North would be an understatement. The Cubs won the last five regular-season meetings and seven of eight -- with two no-hitters included -- while going 8-2 against the Blue Jays.
Now Dunedin has to regroup. It won't be easy.
Daytona, which finished two games behind Dunedin in the first half, was the FSL's dominant team in the second despite losing top Cubs prospects Javier Baez -- No. 9 on the MLB.com Top 100 list -- and Jorge Soler.
The Daytona pitching stepped up and the Cubs got a late boost from some key additions, including No. 2 overall 2013 Draft pick Kris Bryant. The third baseman homered in his Daytona debut and has hit .315 with five homers and 12 RBIs in 15 games.
"This is a great team, and its really been fun to be a part of it," said Bryant, Chicago's No. 4 prospect and ranked 37th in the Top 100. "The playoffs should be exciting -- everyone wants a championship."
Daytona swept consecutive makeup doubleheaders against Dunedin on Aug. 27-28 -- the first featuring the second no-hitter as well as the second-half clincher.
"These guys really, really pulled together," said Dave Keller, in his 10th year with the Chicago Cubs organization and first as a manager. "There have been so many player moves."
Daytona won the FSL championship in 2011 with Buddy Bailey as manager and will be going for its seventh in team history.
Baez at shortstop was Daytona's only All-Star pick, but a mainstay for the Cubs all season has been Dustin Geiger, who hit .306 with two homers and 11 RBIs against Dunedin. The designated hitter leads the team with 85 RBIs and batted .279 with 17 homers.
A key for Dunedin in the playoffs is Aaron Sanchez, Toronto's top prospect and No. 22 on the Top 100 list. The right-hander was just 4-5 this season but pitched seven scoreless innings in his final start.
The Blue Jays also have the FSL's stolen base leader in All-Star second baseman Jon Berti. The leadoff hitter has 54 steals this season but was caught twice in five attempts against Daytona and batted .196.
Black sharp: Right-hander Corey Black was 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA in five starts for Daytona after being acquired by the Chicago Cubs from the New York Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano. Black, who had been 3-5 with a 4.25 ERA in 19 games for Tampa, fanned 28 in 25 innings for Daytona. Overall, the 22-year-old had a league-best 116 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings. Black was a fourth-round pick in the 2012 Draft.
Pitching in: Fort Myers got a boost with the return from Double-A of right-hander Matt Summers. He won his two starts to improve to 6-5 and lower his ERA to 2.47 -- best in the FSL among qualified pitchers. Summers, 24, also led with a WHIP of 1.11. He made 21 starts for the Miracle and allowed 100 hits in 120 1/3 innings, holding opponents to a .222 average.
Paying up: Neither manager was suspended when an on-field tussle between Fort Myers' Doug Mienkiewicz and Bradenton's Frank Kremblas began a bench-clearing melee Aug. 17 in Fort Myers. Both Mienkiewicz, the Florida State League Manager of the Year, and Kremblas were fined by FSL president Chuck Murphy. Bradenton's Dan Gamache, who had run over Fort Myers catcher Jairo Rodriguez at the plate the previous night, was hit by a pitch just before the fourth-inning altercation. Bradenton won, 3-2, in 12 innings.