Even after playing their last game of the regular season, the Durham Bulls weren't sure they'd be in the Governors' Cup playoffs.
But the two-time defending champions received a little help and so they'll go for the three-peat when the International League postseason begins Wednesday night.
"Now it's playoff baseball," said utility player Kean Wong, who played in the past two postseasons with Durham.
But the Bulls' first postseason opponent wasn't determined until Tuesday's special one-game playoff between North Division co-champions Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Syracuse. The RailRiders posted 13 late runs to rally to victory.
In the other semifinal, West Division winner Columbus and South Division champion Gwinnett will battle for a spot in the Finals.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (76-65, North Division champion) vs.
Durham Bulls (75-64, South Division runner-up/Wild Card)
Teams split the season series, 3-3
Game 1 at Durham, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Durham, Sept. 6, at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 7 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 5:05 p.m. ET
The Bulls are playoff regulars, appearing for the 16th time in 22 seasons in the league.
They won five of their final seven regular-season games, but a loss in the finale left them in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. Moments later, Norfolk completed a comeback with a 10-inning victory that eliminated Charlotte. Durham had the same record as the Knights, but the Bulls' 12-11 edge in head-to-head meetings was the tiebreaker.
"It's a different feel to do it after a loss," Rays No. 18 prospect Jake Cronenworth said. "It's always fun to play in the playoffs no matter what level you're at."
Durham is under the direction of first-year manager Brady Williams after Jared Sandberg was at the helm for the past two titles.
"You play 140 games, you're not backing into anything," Williams said, realizing a rash of late-season roster changes impacted the team's lineup and rotation on an almost daily basis. "We're trying to develop big league talent and play winning baseball."
Cronenworth, second baseman Wong, catcher Mac James and outfielder Jason Coats are holders from the 2018 title team.
"It's the hottest team at the time," James said of what it takes to take the championship.
Bulls infielder Michael Brosseau, who led the league in RBIs for much of the season until a big league callup, recently returned from Tampa Bay. He's found it easy to become engaged in the playoff race.
"That's the goal, that's the plan," he said of the postseason. "Playing under Brady, everyone is going all out for him."
Durham added slugging outfielder Dylan Cozens to the lineup for the last two regular-season games. He was acquired in August after being released by the Phillies, then had to continuing rehabbing from spring toe surgery.
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Meanwhile, the RailRiders played runner-up to the Bulls in the Finals the past two years. And despite the high rate of turnover in the clubhouse, the team has been able to remain consistent.
"Over the course of the entire season, the guys have played really good baseball," RailRiders manager Jay Bell said of his squad. "And we've had a lot of guys in the clubhouse; we've had 84 different players on our roster this year. And with that number of players, you're trying to sell the same message over and over, and hopeful they all buy in. I've had a great group of guys that have bought in and whenever new players comes in, the players who have been there for a while, they sell the same message. So it's been a really neat year for us. I've enjoyed it immensely."
Gwinnett Stripers (80-59, South Division champion) vs.
Columbus Clippers (81-59, West Division champion)
Teams split the season series, 3-3
Game 1 at Gwinnett, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Gwinnett, Sept. 5, at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Columbus, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Columbus (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Columbus (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 1:05 p.m. ET
The prospect-laden Stripers roster welcomes the opportunity to play more games. Gwinnett will face a Columbus team that has been on cruise control since clinching a playoff spot and finishing 15 games ahead in the West Division. A group of young players have been filling key roles for the Stripers.
"It has been a cool experience now in Triple-A," said Atlanta's No. 2 prospect Drew Waters, who earned the Southern League's Most Valuable Player award for his play prior to his early-August promotion to Gwinnett. "You're with guys who have been in the big leagues."
The postseason will give the rapidly ascending 20-year-old outfielder the chance to show he can sustain his strong play.
"I told our manager [Damon Berryhill] here that it still feels like I'm in Spring Training, so I'm ready to roll," Waters said. "This season I've taken a lot more pride in being in the weight room and managing my body, maintaining my strength throughout the season."
Slugging outfielder/third baseman Austin Riley has been with the Stripers on a Major League rehab assignment. His knee feels fine and he welcomed the notion of helping Gwinnett's playoff quest.
"It's all about getting at-bats," Riley said. "It's there for a couple of at-bats and then it's gone. Right now, there's not a rush for me to be up there (in Atlanta)."
Berryhill believes the newcomers have continuously replenished the roster at a high level.
"We've got a lot of younger position players," he said. "It always hurts to lose the guys we lost, but we have talented guys coming up."
Bradley's blasts: Columbus Clippers first baseman Bobby Bradley went yard in only one of his last 10 games -- actually hitting two in that one -- but finished with enough to top the circuit -- 33 homers. That marked a career best in the long ball category for the seventh-ranked Indians prospect, who also teed off once while with Cleveland.
Back in time: Cronenworth won the IL batting title with a .334 average. The 25-year-old was out for more than a month with a hamstring injury before returning in late August. "I got right back into it," he said. "It was great. Instead of ending on a negative note, finishing on a positive note." He was the first Durham player to finish atop the league's batting list since Toby Hall in 2001. Jake Elmore, a former Bulls infielder, was second in batting at .322 for Indianapolis.
Rough ending: The Knights appeared in good shape for their first playoff appearance since 2012 until losing eight of their final nine games. "Playing in the playoffs is why we play the game," Charlotte infielder Danny Mendick said late in the season. Now the Knights' next game be the 2020 opener at Durham.