The International League has a long history as a circuit dominated by pitching, and this season was no exception. The Governors' Cup playoffs confirm that, as the IL's four playoff teams all rank among the top six in ERA.
West Division co-champ Indianapolis, the league's Wild Card team, topped the IL with a 3.09 ERA, while South Division champ Norfolk was second with a 3.17 mark. North Division winner Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was fourth with a 3.21 ERA, while Columbus had a 3.33 ERA to rank sixth on its way to a share of the West title.
The league's tight pitching also led to tight playoff races. The tightest, obviously, was in the West, where Indianapolis and Columbus finished in a dead heat.
In the North, the RailRiders -- a Yankees affiliate -- didn't clinch their seventh division title in 10 seasons [but first since 2012] until only three games were left in the season. And in the South, the Tides were pushed until the next-to-last day of the season before claiming its first division crown since 2005.
As a result, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre faces Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs, while Columbus takes on Norfolk. The winners of those best-of-5 series will battle for the Governors' Cup, with the victor playing the Pacific Coast League champ in the Triple-A National Championship Game on Sept. 22 in El Paso.
Columbus Clippers (83-61, West Division co-champion) vs.
Norfolk Tides (78-66, South Division champion)
Norfolk won the season series, 5-4
Game 1 at Norfolk, Sept. 9 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Norfolk, Sept. 10 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Columbus, Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Columbus (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Columbus (if necessary), Sept. 13 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Columbus needed a strong finish to catch Indianapolis, and the Clippers went 24-12 in August and September to get the job done. That included a three-game sweep of the Tides in Norfolk, a series that included a pair of one-run victories. Columbus manager Chris Tremie said the allure of a pennant race kept his team focused in the final month of the season.
"When you're in a situation in August in the Minor Leagues where you're trying to get to the playoffs or win a championship, it makes it a lot easier stay motivated and stay on course with what you're doing," he said. "Being in a pennant race adds some enthusiasm, some excitement, and adds to the goals that the players have."
Tremie also said going through the playoffs can aid an organization's work in player development.
"It's not imperative, but it's important for guys to play in a winning environment," he said. "It's important to be a good teammate and to value and understand the importance of winning baseball games. I think that's part of development. It's not the biggest thing, but I think it can only add to a player's development and preparedness to play on a winning team in the big leagues."
Norfolk was not as sharp in the final weeks of the season as it went 16-23 after Aug. 1. But the Tides did enough to claim their division title in 10 seasons. Offensively, they're led by first baseman Christian Walker, who put together a strong second half -- he had 13 homers and 44 RBIs in 54 games following the All-Star Break -- to finish among the IL leaders with 18 homers and 74 RBIs. Another hitter to watch is outfielder Henry Urrutia, who finished 10th in the IL batting race with a .291 mark.
The starting rotation for IL Manager of the Year Ron Johnson is led by lefty Chris Jones, who's 8-8 with a 2.94 ERA that ranks seventh in the league. The bullpen, which was anchored by right-hander Oliver Drake -- an end-of-season All-Star who finished second in the IL with 23 saves -- is led by righty Pedro Beato, who has 16 saves and a 2.65 ERA.
Columbus will counter with first baseman Jesus Aguilar, an end-of-season All-Star who batted .267 with 19 homers and a league-leading 93 RBIs.
The Clippers' rotation is helmed by Toru Murata, who led the league with 15 wins and finished sixth with a 2.90 ERA. When closer Shawn Armstrong (16 saves) was promoted to Cleveland, right-hander Carlos Marmol began closing games. The Major League veteran recorded nine of his 13 saves after Aug. 1.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (81-63, North Division champion) vs.
Indianapolis Indians (83-61, Wild Card, West Division co-champion)
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won the season series, 4-3
Game 1 at Indianapolis, Sept. 9 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Indianapolis, Sept. 10 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 11 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 13 at 1:05 p.m. ET
The seven games these teams played during the season followed a familiar script filled with good pitching that kept runs to a minimum and produced five one-run decisions. Both teams also had to fight to the wire to secure their playoff berths, and Indians manager Dean Treanor said that should produce two teams with a sharp playoff edge.
"Every game down the stretch was a big game, so you almost had to treat those games like playoff games," he said. "If you've clinched early, you may not have the same momentum, the same intensity, going in to the playoffs."
Treanor also said the August charges both teams mounted to clinch postseason berths should aid in the development of the young talent on both sides.
"For the players who go through the playoffs, they learn that it's a different feeling," he added. "The playoff atmosphere comes into play. The more experience you can get with that is going to help you at the next level when you're a part of it."
Indianapolis advanced to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, thanks to an offense that features plenty of speed. Second baseman Alen Hanson batted .263 and shared the IL lead with 35 steals, while outfielder Keon Broxton batted .256 with 28 thefts.
Other threats on the basepaths for the Indians are infielder Gustavo Nunez (19 steals), outfielder Gorkys Hernandez (17) and Steve Lombardozzi (14), who played every defensive position except catcher and center while batting .282.
One of Pittsburgh's top prospects, righty Tyler Glasnow, was 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA in eight starts for the Indians and should anchor the rotation along with righties Wilfredo Boscan (10-3, 3.07 ERA) and Chris Volstad (11-7, 3.18 ERA). Closer Blake Wood led the league with 29 saves and topped all relievers by averaging 10.74 strikeouts per nine innings.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre counters with a prospect-laden club that led the IL with a .271 batting average and 4.3 runs scored per game. Among the leaders on offense are outfielder Ben Gamel, an end-of-season All-Star who hit .300 with 10 homers, 64 RBIs and a league-best 14 triples; outfielder Aaron Judge, who batted .224 with eight homers and 28 RBIs in 61 games; and catcher Gary Sanchez, who hit .295 with six homers and 26 RBIs in 35 contests.
Veteran Kyle Davies anchors Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's rotation after going 11-8 with a 3.30 ERA. The RailRiders used a "closer by committee" bullpen, with 16 relievers notching at least one save. The save leader on the active roster is righty Johnny Barbato with three, none since Aug. 2.
Triple Crown watch: Buffalo third baseman Matt Hague easily won the IL batting title with a .338 mark that was 30 points higher than the next best qualifier. But the IL MVP lost the RBI crown when Aguilar had a six-RBI night against Louisville on Sept. 4 to edge Hague, 93-92. Charlotte third baseman Matt Davidson hit two homers against Durham on Sept. 2 and one more against the Bulls on Sept. 4 to edge Durham's J.P. Arencibia for the home run title, 23-22.
Triple Crown watch, part II: IL Pitcher of the Year Erik Johnson earned the league's ERA crown with a 2.37 mark and also topped the IL with 136 strikeouts. Murata paced the circuit with 15 wins, three more than Rochester's Pat Dean.
He said it: "We have a team full of dirtbags. Everyone is dirty. Everyone plays the game hard. It was great to be part of." -- Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfielder Ben Gamel to the Scranton Times-Tribune.
He said it, part II: "I'm really excited about all these guys that have gone to the big leagues because that's first and foremost in what we do here. That gives you a great feeling. But this kind of came out of left field." -- Norfolk manager Ron Johnson to The Virginian-Pilot after receiving word that he was voted IL Manager of the Year.
John Wagner is a contributor to MiLB.com.