Even in the inaugural run of a split-season format, the Eastern League's playoff picture did not clear up until the final weekend of play.
It was the Bowie Baysox clinching the Western Division's second-half title on the penultimate day of the regular season, edging the Erie SeaWolves, who missed out on the postseason despite having the best overall record in their division this year at 76-61. The Baysox return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, in search of their second EL crown.
The Harrisburg Senators will look to thwart that effort as they make their first postseason appearance since 2013. The Western Division's first-half winners are looking to end a 20-year title drought.
After missing out on the first-half title due to tiebreakers, Reading took care of business in the second half to halt a three-year playoff absence. The Fightin' Phils finished the regular season with the best league mark at 80-59. They will face off against Trenton, which they've been neck and neck with for much of the season. The Thunder are making their fourth straight playoff appearance in search of their first title since 2013.
Trenton Thunder (76-62, Eastern Division first-half champion) vs.
Reading Fightin' Phils (80-59, Eastern Division second-half champion)
Trenton won the season series, 8-6
Game 1 at Reading, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Reading, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Trenton, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept 8 at 1 p.m. ET
It's one thing to look at a matchup on paper and determine the evenness of two teams. It's another to prove it on the field of play.
Such is the case with Reading vs. Trenton, a matchup that all season long seemed to be gearing toward this playoff clash, and the two clubs were forced to see that through until the very end, finishing the regular season against each other before starting their best-of-5 tilt.
"It's a blessing and it can also give you a little trouble, because you get to see all their players, they get to see you," said Thunder reliever Trevor Lane, who went 5-2 with a 1.99 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP in 41 appearances for Trenton. "You get to watch their lineup for what could be nine games in a row and all the hitters get to see what you've got, also what you're going to throw them, what your strengths and weaknesses are. So, all aspects of the game. It should be interesting for sure."
Much like the regular-season matchup, Lane has had a mixed bag of results vs. the Fightins', working two scoreless appearances against them before the division rivals clipped him for three runs in their third meeting.
Complete playoff coverage »
The Illinois-Chicago product knows he and the rest of the rotation need to be at their best to stifle a Reading lineup that includesPhillies No. 1 prospect Alec Bohm and eighth-ranked Mickey Moniak.
On the offensive end, the key to the Thunder offense could be league MVP Chris Gittens, who hit safely in nine of the 10 games he played against Reading this season, collecting three home runs and 11 RBIs in those contests.
"It's fun to watch him every at-bat," Lane said of Gittens, who hit .281 and led the league with 22 home runs and 77 RBIs. "Every time he comes to the plate, it's entertaining to see what he might do. I've played with Chris for a couple years now. He's definitely a special player. He has abnormal pop."
Harrisburg Senators (76-63, Western Division first-half champion) vs.
Bowie Baysox (76-64, Western Division second-half champion)
Bowie won the season series, 10-8
Game 1 at Bowie, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Bowie, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Harrisburg, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 3 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept 8 at 1:30 p.m. ET
It was a true difference in halves when it came to the head-to-head matchup between the Orioles and Nationals affiliates this season, with Harrisburg going 6-1 vs. Bowie in the first half, while the Baysox went 8-2 in the second-half battles.
"Bowie's got a great team," said Senators corner infielder Ian Sagdal, whose .271 average stood in the top 10 on the circuit this season. "They've been playing some really good baseball the second half. It's been really no fun for us playing them this second half. I think it could be a really fun and exciting series. I know we're going to go out and give it our all, and they're going to do the same. At the end of the day it's just going to come down to who wants it more."
Bowie sports a league-best 3.18 team ERA, led by Orioles No. 10 prospect Zac Lowther, whose 13 wins topped the league while his 2.55 ERA stood second, and ninth-ranked Michael Baumann, who went 6-2 with a 2.31 ERA after his June callup.
Video: Bowie's Lowther notches 10th K
The Sens' side includes Washington No. 2 prospect Luis Garcia holding down the infield, having made just 16 errors on 522 chances between second base and short this season.
Harrisburg hopes having a couple of key veterans in its corner will aid the quest to end a decades-long championship drought for one of the most decorated clubs in league history.
"This group of guys has grit," Sagdal explained. "We have a lot of guys who've been there before and they know what it takes. Guys like Aaron Barrett, he's really been one of our key leaders this year. He will help us be prepared for Game 1. Having guys like Greg Holland on our team right now, that's experience you can't buy. Our mental toughness is going to be a huge key as well. I think we're going to battle our butts off."
History made: Portland's Daniel McGrath made the most of his second stint with the Sea Dogs, posting one of the best ERAs in league history. The left-hander's 1.69 mark over 112 1/3 innings was almost a full run less than the next closest pitcher this season. After making one midseason start at Triple-A Pawtucket, the Australian allowed just nine earned runs over 77 innings, going 5-1 in his final six starts for the club. He was the first hurler with a sub-2.00 ERA since Portland's Brian Johnson had a league-best 1.75 in 2014. The lowest ERA in EL history was Mel Parnell's 1.30 with Scranton in 1946, followed by York's Silvano Quezada with a 1.34 mark in 1968.
Three-baggers galore: Moniak finished the year as the league's triples leader with 13, six more than the closest competition. He was the first player since 2016 to reach double-digits in that category. In the past decade, the Reading outfielder's tally only was eclipsed by the 15 triples Trenton's Dustin Fowler collected in 2016. The last time anyone in the league had more than that was Bowie's Brad Tyler with 17 in 1993.
From a whisper to a scream: A .176 batting average in May put Altoona centerfielder Jared Oliva at .199 over the first two months of the season. After that point, the Pirates No. 11 prospect was relentless at this plate, batting .309 with 28 extra-base hits, 53 runs scored, 34 RBIs and 28 stolen bases since the start of June. Oliva had 30 multi-hit games in that stretch, including two runs of four straight multi-hit efforts. His .277 average was sixth-best in the league, and his 36 stolen bases stood second.