In the Eastern Division, first-place Binghamton meets runner-up Trenton for a best-of-5 opening-round series in a battle of New York affiliates starting Wednesday. The Mets have been finishing out games with All-Star closer Jeff Walters, who set a team record with 38 saves. Five of the 17 games between the two teams were decided by one run, and the Mets went 4-1 in those games.
In the wild Western Division, where four teams had playoff hopes going into the final week, Harrisburg faces Erie in a best-of-5 set. Both teams were able to outlast Bowie and Richmond, whose playoff hopes ended in the final days of the season. The Senators, a club with no postseason All-Stars, has relied on three starting pitchers promoted from Class A Advanced Potomac and another who saw action with Washington this year.
Binghamton Mets (86-55, Eastern Division champion) vs.
Trenton Thunder (74-67, Eastern Division second place)
Binghamton won the season series, 10-7
Game 1 at Trenton, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Trenton, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Binghamton, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Binghamton (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Binghamton (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Heading into this season, Jeff Walters and two of his teammates were told they'd be pitching at the back end of Binghamton's bullpen. In the first game of the year at Akron, manager Pedro Lopez called on Walters to close it out and he got the save in a 2-1 victory. Since then, the seventh-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2010 hasn't looked back.
"I've been lucky to have them calling my number," said Walters, who set the B-Mets' single-season and career save record while leading the Eastern League in that category. He was also named to the Postseason All-Star team along with teammate and first baseman Allan Dykstra.
A 6-foot-3 right-hander, Walters converted 20 consecutive save opportunities from June 7 to Aug. 8. He picked up his 37th save on Aug. 27 as the Mets won at Bowie, 3-2, dealing a big blow to the Baysox postseason hopes, and then got his 38th save three days later in a 3-0 win over New Hampshire.
"He has a good arm," Bowie manager Gary Kendall said of Walters. "He goes after hitters, and he has a good slider. He has a good demeanor coming into the ballgame late. I like his arm. He has an above-average fastball."
Walters is just one reason the Mets breezed to a division title this year. On the offensive side, the Mets had five different players among the league leaders in at least one category: Dykstra (homers, RBIs and OBP), Darrell Ceciliani (steals), Josh Rodriguez (doubles), Cesar Puello (slugging) and Daniel Muno (runs scored).
"They're a real good ballclub," said Kendall. "They have a good rotation. That's the big thing. It's a good nucleus. They won with St. Lucie in the Florida State League. I was impressed with how they caught the ball."
"You have a lot of good athletes on that team," said New Britain manager Jeff Smith. "Their starting pitching has been tough from day one."
"We have a lot of trust in each other," Walters said.
The last time Binghamton made the playoffs was 2000, when it lost, 3-1, to New Haven in the first round. The last title for the Mets came in 1994, when they beat Harrisburg, 3-1.
Harrisburg Senators (77-65, Western Division champion) vs.
Erie SeaWolves (76-66, Western Division runner-up)
Erie won the season series, 8-7
Game 1 at Erie, Sept. 4 at 6:35 p.m.
Game 2 at Erie, Sept. 5 at 6:35 p.m.
Game 3 at Harrisburg, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m.
Game 4 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m.
Game 5 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 2:05 p.m.
Winning and player development are what Minor League Baseball is all about, though not always in that order. This year the Harrisburg Senators were able to do both.
The Senators had three pitchers who went straight from the Eastern League to the Majors to help the parent Nationals: starters Nathan Karns and Taylor Jordan and reliever Ian Krol.
Karns, who made three starts with the Nationals, was sent back to Harrisburg, while Jordan had his season come to an end due to an innings limit after nine starts for Washington. But the Senators got reinforcements as starting pitchers A.J. Cole, Taylor Hill and Robbie Ray were promoted from Class A Advanced Potomac and made their first Harrisburg starts midway through the season.
Ray was 5-2 with a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts after allowing just one run and one hit with nine strikeouts in five innings in a 6-2 win over Richmond last Friday.
Hill was 2-7 but had an ERA of 2.71 in his 11 Eastern League starts, while Cole was 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA in seven starts for the Senators. Cole pitched seven scoreless innings and got the win Aug. 29 in a 2-0 victory at home over Altoona.
"He's been pretty consistent with his fastball command the whole time he's been here," Harrisburg pitching coach Paul Menhart said of Cole. "To say the least, it's been quite impressive. He did come here with a good idea how to throw a changeup."
Ray and Cole have known each other since amateur showcase days.
"We feed off each other," said Cole. "This year I've been watching and he's been doing really well. I'm happy for him as a friend and a player."
"He's made some big strides for us," Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said of Ray. "He deserves a lot of credit; he really invested in the strength and conditioning program over the winter. He has carried that over. His fastball velocity has grown, and the quality of his secondary stuff has improved."
While the Senators struggled at the plate, pitching has been a key.
"The program Spin Williams, our pitching coordinator, has in place definitely works," Menhart said. "The guys seem to buy in."
One constant for the Harrisburg staff had been closer Aaron Barrett, who was second in the EL in saves behind Walters with 26 saves. He left a game Aug. 27 with back soreness, went on the seven-day DL and will not be eligible for the first round of the playoffs, according to Harris.
Senators rely on pitching: The Senators could become the first EL team to win the league title while finishing with the worst team batting average since Schenectady in 1956, according to The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.
Owens shows promise: Portland pitcher Henry Owens showed why he's one of the top Red Sox prospects after he was promoted late in the season from Class A Advanced Salem. He improved to 3-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.09 after pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings Aug. 27 in a win at New Hampshire.
Walk-off wins: After making the playoffs the past two years, Reading will have to sit it out this season. But the team had two walk-off homers in the last week as Jim Murphy did the honors in a 9-8 win over Richmond on Aug. 27. His teammates ran to the clubhouse after his homer so he would be alone at the plate when he scored. "When I was rounding second, I had a feeling," Murphy told The Reading Eagle. "I saw everybody running off. I had a feeling they were going to get me."