International League playoff preview

Irvin leads IronPigs vs. RailRiders; Mud Hens battle with Bulls

Kean Wong leads the Bulls against the Mud Hens, while Cole Irvin and the IronPigs take on the RailRiders. (Chris Baird/Ken Inness)

By John Wagner / Special to | September 5, 2018 10:15 AM

After a wild regular-season finish, the International League playoffs have a familiar feel.

The final two spots in the battle for the Governors' Cup were not decided until the next-to-last day of the season, when wins by Toledo and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre helped the Mud Hens claim the West Division title and gave the Wild Card berth to the RailRiders.

As a result, three of the four teams in this year's playoffs are repeat entrants. Toledo, making its first postseason appearance since 2007, is the only "newcomer" and will face defending champion Durham in the opening round. The other semifinal pairing marks the third straight season Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley will tangle in the playoffs.

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While first-round pairings are set before the season, they perfectly reflect this year's standings as the teams with the best record -- Lehigh Valley and Durham -- have home-field advantage in the semifinals.

Playing on the road has not been a problem for the IL's elite teams: Lehigh Valley has the best road record at 41-29, while Durham is 39-30 and Toledo has a 37-32 mark.

Lehigh Valley IronPigs (84-56, North Division champion) vs.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (73-65, Wild Card winner)

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won the season series, 11-9

Game 1 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 5 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 6 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Lehigh Valley, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Lehigh Valley (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Lehigh Valley (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 5:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

While the IrongPigs enter the playoffs with the league's best record, the RailRiders have been a thorn in their side. That follows a pattern from the playoffs the past two seasons, when Scranton/Wilkes-Barre took six of its seven meetings from the IronPigs.

Lehigh Valley hit .214 against the RailRiders, but that's not too alarming because the IronPigs finished next-to-last in the IL with a .245 batting average. More importantly, Lehigh Valley hit 15 homers in 20 games against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will rely on the long ball.

One IronPig who hit well against the RailRiders was IL MVP Joey Meneses, who batted .357 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 19 games. But Meneses hit well against everyone: he led the circuit with 82 RBIs, tied for the league lead with 23 homers and finished second with a .311 average.

"We tell [Meneses] to … not get discouraged [about not being promoted]," IronPigs bench coach Wes Helms told The [Allentown] Morning Call. "If it's not here, somebody will see what Joey Meneses did this year. Nobody knows what Joey is going to do in the big leagues, but I believe he's earned that chance to go show that."

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre overcame a flurry of trades and callups from the parent club to reach the playoffs for the fourth straight season, the longest active run by an IL team. With their backs against the wall, the RailRiders won six of their final seven games.

"I think we went through a two-week period where it felt like it was pure chaos," manager Bobby Mitchell told The Times Leader. "We were either farming somebody out or sending somebody somewhere or trading them. We all understand that. But it's not easy because you try to keep team chemistry. When you lose guys that you're close to and you send them off, we're ecstatic that we made it. It went down to the second-from-the-last game. It was a battle the whole season."

The RailRiders' leading hitter against Lehigh Valley has been Mike Ford, who batted .304 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 13 contests against the IronPigs.

One factor to watch in this series will be the bullpens. Lehigh Valley features Pedro Beato, who was voted an IL end-of-season All-Star, thanks to a league-leading 38 saves, while Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's 'pen has been bolstered by the move of top Yankees prospectJustus Sheffield to a relief role.

Durham Bulls (79-60, South Division champion) vs.
Toledo Mud Hens (73-66, West Division champion)

Durham won the season series, 6-4

Game 1 at Toledo, Sept. 5 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Toledo, Sept. 6 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Durham, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Durham (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 6:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Durham (if necessary, Sept. 9 at 5:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

Entering play on Aug. 19, the Mud Hens faced an uphill battle to end the second-longest playoff drought in the IL as they trailed both Columbus and Indianapolis by 4 1/2 games in the West Division.

"I try to be as positive as I can, but two weeks ago, it didn't look good," Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz told The [Toledo] Blade. "We were in a must-win feeling for three weeks and we kept getting younger and making youthful mistakes and just playing OK -- we weren't great. One mistake would kill us. We had to be perfect for two solid weeks. And we were."

The Mud Hens used an 11-3 stretch run, beating the Clippers six times and the Indians three times, to claim the top spot in the West on the penultimate day of the season.

"It means a lot to Toledo, but it means a lot to the Tigers organization, too," Mientkiewicz said of the Hens making the playoffs for the first time since 2007. "We're trying to change the culture of how people think and we need to change to dynamic so that we expect to win rather than wanting to win. 

"This is important, because Minor League playoff games are as close as you can get to being in a Major League regular-season game. You learn a lot about your prospects, finding out who can 'calm it down' and who can't. It's a good teaching tool and a good developmental tool. It's also a good evaluating tool to see what your guys can do when it really matters."

Durham, meanwhile, cruised to its ninth South Division title in 12 seasons, posting a winning record every month, including a 17-11 mark in June.

Among the Bulls to watch is infielder Kean Wong, the IL MVP of the Triple-A All-Star Game who torched Toledo with a .348 average in six games. Wong finished 10th in the league in batting (.282) with nine homers, 50 RBIs and 65 runs scored.

Mud Hens DH Chad Huffman was the team's hottest bat against the Bulls, hitting .429 with six walks and a .636 on-base percentage in six games.

Home field was key when these teams met during the season, as the Mud Hens swept three April contests before the Bulls won six of seven in Durham capped by a three-game sweep in late July.

In brief

Championship preview: The semifinal victors will meet in the best-of-5 Governors' Cup Finals, starting Tuesday at the home of the winner of the Lehigh Valley vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre series. After two games there, the scene shifts to Durham or Toledo. The IL champion will face the Pacific Coast League champion in the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game on Sept. 18 at Huntington Park in Columbus.

Irvin nearly wins Triple Crown: Lehigh Valley's Cole Irvin, the IL Pitcher of the Year, nearly claimed the pitching triple crown after leading the IL in wins (14) and ERA (2.57). He finished third with 131 strikeouts, trailing Charlotte's Michael Kopech (170) and Louisville's Robert Stephenson (135).

Meneses flirts with Triple Crown: Meneses finished with a league-leading 82 RBIs while tying Toledo's Christin Stewart for the home run crown with 23. Pawtucket's Rusney Castillo won the batting title with a .319 average.

John Wagner is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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