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International League playoff preview

Chiefs looking to mix things up against Sox; Bulls battle Clippers
September 2, 2014

The 2014 Governors' Cup playoffs feature a familiar cast of characters -- with one exception.

Columbus, Durham and Pawtucket all have been regulars in the International League's playoffs. Durham, for example, clinched its seventh South Division title in eight seasons this year, while Pawtucket punched its ticket to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.

Meanwhile Columbus advanced to the postseason by winning the West for the first time since 2011 and the third time in five seasons. Moreover, the last five Governors' Cup titles have been won by three teams -- you guessed it: Durham, the defending champs, and Columbus have won two each, while Pawtucket claimed the other.

And then there is Syracuse.

The Chiefs ended the longest playoff drought in the International League by earning a berth in the Triple-A Governors' Cup playoffs for the first time since 1998. What's more, Syracuse clinched its first North Division crown since 1989 with a 6-2 victory at Pawtucket on Aug. 30.

"It's a big deal for us," Syracuse manager Billy Gardner said after the victory that clinched the title. "It was rowdy, we got all excited and popped some champagne. We had a really good time. It's been a long year. These guys worked their butts off."

Durham (75-69, South Division champion) vs. 
Columbus (79-65, West Division champion)

Durham won the season series, 6-2

Game 1 at Columbus, Sept. 3 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Columbus, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Durham, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Durham (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Durham (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 5:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

On May 30, Columbus was 8 1/2 games behind two-time defending West Division champ Indianapolis. Worse, at about that time, Cleveland called up some of the Clippers' top starting pitchers, including Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin.

But instead of folding, Columbus got back into the race with a 19-10 mark in June. And when Indy fell apart in July, going 11-19, the Clippers took advantage by going 18-11 in August to pull away.

"I've been saying all year we'd be alright if we played the game the right way," Columbus manager Chris Tremie told the Columbus Dispatch. "Their work on the field has gotten us to this point."

Meanwhile the Bulls roared to an 18-9 start in April and built such a big early lead in the South that an 11-18 record in June did no damage. It helped, of course, that no other South Division club was above .500 in June, and indeed the other three teams besides the Bulls all finished with losing records.

When asked by the The (Durham) Herald-Sun if Durham's winning ways were getting old, manager Charlie Montoyo said, "No, no, because it's not that easy. It's not that easy. I don't take it for granted at all."

Durham won six of its eight meetings with the Clippers, including a four-game sweep at Huntington Park in Columbus. But all eight games were played before May ended, and both teams are very different now. The key to the Bulls' success was strong pitching -- Durham has a 2.19 ERA against the Clippers.

One hitter to watch is Durham outfielder Mikie Mahtook, the Rays' 2011 first-round pick and No. 10 prospect, who hit .429 with a home run and six RBIs in just four games against Columbus.

Syracuse (81-62, North Division champion) vs.
Pawtucket (79-65, wild card winner)

Season series tied, 8-8

Game 1 at Pawtucket, Sept. 3 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Pawtucket, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Syracuse, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Syracuse (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Syracuse (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

The North Division race between Syracuse and Pawtucket was close all season long, as was their head-to-head series, which ended up tied at 8-8. Seven of those games were decided by one run and two took extra innings.

The rivals met in Pawtucket for a pair of games from Aug. 29-30 that have proved to be a postseason preview. The result? Each team won once, of course, with the Red Sox taking a 2-1 decision in the first contest and Syracuse winning 6-2 the next night to clinch the division.

It is worth noting that the Chiefs have outscored the PawSox 66-56 in those 16 games. One reason for that margin is IL MVP Steven Souza, an outfielder who has feasted on the Red Sox, batting .315 with three homers and a whopping 17 RBIs in 16 games. The outfielder, however, was called up to the Nationals when rosters expanded on the first day of the month and won't participate in the IL playoffs.

The Chiefs will instead have to rely on their two other end-of-season All-Stars who have also played well against Pawtucket. Shortstop Emmanuel Burriss has hit .316 with a homer, six RBIs, 10 runs scored and five stolen bases in 14 games, while third baseman Brandon Laird has batted .298 with two homers and nine RBIs in 15 contests.

One of the offensive leaders for Pawtucket in this series is likely to be outfielder Corey Brown, who spent the previous three seasons in Syracuse. This year he has batted .303 with four homers and six RBIs in nine contests against his former team.

A trade last week netted the Red Sox two players from Norfolk who have had success against Syracuse. Ivan De Jesus was a midseason IL All-Star who hit .375 against the Chiefs, while veteran Jemile Weeks has batted .273 against Syracuse this season. Weeks, currently with the Major League Red Sox, may remain with Boston, though.

In brief

From worst to first: Though Charlotte struggled on the field, finishing near the bottom of the South Division, the Knights were a success off the field thanks in part to BB&T Ballpark. After drawing just over 250,000 fans in 2013, Charlotte welcomed 667,593 fans to the new ballpark, tops in the IL and far more than the franchise record of 429,132 set in 1992. The Knights averaged 9,675 fans per game this season, top in the Minor Leagues.

Triple crown try: Charlotte first baseman Andy Wilkins did not win the triple crown this season, but that's not because he failed to come close. Wilkins led the IL with 30 home runs and tied with Laird for the RBI lead with 85, but Wilkins had a .293 batting average -- good for just 10th. Laird's Syracuse teammate, Souza, won the batting title with a .350 mark.

Triple crown try, Part II: Pawtucket righty Anthony Ranaudo won the league ERA title with a 2.61 mark, and his 14 wins topped all IL pitchers, but he had just 111 strikeouts, well short of Rochester's Alex Meyer and Durham's Nate Karns, who shared the league lead with 153.

John Wagner is a contributor to