As the 2012 season winds down, follow along as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.
In the Western Division, first-place Akron faces runner-up Bowie in a best-of-5 opening-round series starting Wednesday. The Aeros have been led by a pair of postseason All-Stars in outfielder Thomas Neal and closer Preston Guilmet, though Neal was promoted to Cleveland on Saturday.
Bowie is the only playoff team without a postseason All-Star, though shortstop -- and Orioles' No. 1 prospect -- Manny Machado was promoted to Baltimore in early August around the same time that Baltimore's No. 2 prospect, right-hander Dylan Bundy, was called up to the Baysox from Class A Advanced Frederick.
Eastern Division champion Trenton meets second-place Reading in the other best-of-5 semifinal. The Thunder are led by Manager of the Year Tony Franklin, while the Phillies are paced by All-Star manager Dusty Wathan and MVP slugger Darin Ruf.
Akron Aeros (82-59, Western Division champion) vs.
Bowie Baysox (78-64, Western Division runner-up)
Akron won the season series, 14-6
Game 1 at Bowie, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Bowie, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Akron, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Akron (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Akron (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 7:05 p.m. ET
After an 8-5 loss to Portland on June 6, Baysox manager Gary Kendall convened a meeting with his team, which had fallen to 23-34, 12 games out of first place.
"It was not really a chew-out [type of meeting]," Bowie All-Star infielder Buck Britton said. "He felt people were comfortable where they were. The goal is not to be a good Double-A player. The goal is to make the Major Leagues."
"I thought we had a better club than our record showed," Kendall added. "If we are going to do this, let's do it right."
And they did. The Baysox won the next game in Portland, swept a three-game series at New Hampshire and then won three in a row at home against Portland and another at home against the Fisher Cats before the eight-game winning streak came to an end.
Bowie used that stretch to fuel a second-half run that culminated with a second-place finish in the Western Division. The Baysox will face an Akron team that has been steady for most of the year.
"Our starting pitching and relief pitching has been very consistent," Akron manager Chris Tremie said. "We have also played very good defense."
"I have been lucky with this group. They have been good all year getting ready to play," he added. "We have not run off big streaks of wins or losses. We have just been consistent."
Neal said the Aeros hit a rough patch before the All-Star break as their lead slipped.
"Then with two wins against Bowie near the All-Star break, that helped us," said Neal, who was promoted to Cleveland last weekend. "We were able to refocus."
The teams have not met since July 29 and the Aeros won all six series this year against Bowie.
"We have matched up better with them [in the second half], which gives us a little confidence," Kendall said.
Akron finished near the bottom of the league in homers with 83, but posted a team ERA of 3.03, the best in the league. The Baysox won seven of their final 10 games.
Bowie fans and front-office personnel still have a bitter taste in their mouths from when Akron used Travis Hafner on a Major League rehab assignment in the EL playoffs against the Baysox in a series win in 2008. That was the last time Bowie reached the playoffs.
Ohio.com reported that Carlos Carrasco will make a rehab start for Akron on Wednesday and that Bundy (2-0, 3.24) will start for the Baysox in Game 1.
Trenton Thunder (79-63, Eastern Division champion) vs.
Reading Phillies (76-66, Eastern Division runner-up)
Reading won the season series, 7-6
Game 1 at Reading, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Reading, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Trenton, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 4:05 p.m. ET
The Eastern Division series features league MVP Darin Ruf of Reading and Trenton starting pitcher Brett Marshall, whose 13 wins were best in the Eastern League. Ruf hit 38 homers this season, with 20 of them coming in 31 games in August.
"I've never seen anything like the stretch he had last month -- it seemed like he could do no wrong," said Reading manager Dusty Wathan, who guided the Eastern Division to an All-Star Game victory in Reading in July.
Marshall, who had an ERA of 3.52, said there is no single factor that has powered the Thunder's playoff run.
"I think it is all around, from chemistry to pitching to hitting to defense. It has been a pretty big group effort," he said.
Trenton will face a Reading squad that came on strong down the stretch to beat out New Britain for the second playoff spot.
The Phillies also got a late-season playoff bounce with the addition of catcher Tommy Joseph, who began the year with Richmond, but was traded by the Giants to Philadelphia in late July. He made the postseason EL All-Star team along with Reading first baseman Ruf and second baseman Cesar Hernandez.
"They have come on really strong," Marshall said of the R-Phils. The Texas native has been a regular in the Trenton rotation all year with 27 starts.
"It has been a great feeling to know I have had a good year," he added. "You have to give [the team] a lot of credit. They gave me some good run support."
That was the case Aug. 16 when he allowed five earned runs in less than six innings in a game won by the Thunder, 14-12, despite five hits by Reading's D'Arby Myers.