Florida State League playoff preview

St. Lucie, Jupiter looking to end North Division's dominance

By Guy Curtright / Special to MLB.com | September 3, 2012 8:09 AM ET

With the 2012 season winding down, follow along with MiLB.com as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.

A team from the South Division hasn't won the Florida State League title since 2006, when St. Lucie won the crown. Can the Mets or Jupiter end the dominance this year?

St. Lucie advanced to the Championship Series last season but was swept by Daytona. This year, the first-half champion Mets will play second-half winner Jupiter in the best-of-3 South Division semifinal beginning Tuesday.

In the North Division best-of-3 series starting the same night, first-half champion Dunedin will face Lakeland, which won the second half.

The semifinal winners will meet in a best-of-5 series for the championship of the Class A Advanced circuit.

Daytona and Tampa have each won two titles and Clearwater one during the North Division's five-year winning streak.

St. Lucie (83-52, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Jupiter (74-62, South Division second-half champion)

Jupiter won the season series, 10-8

Game 1 at Jupiter, Sept. 4 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at St. Lucie, Sept. 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at St. Lucie (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Jupiter slugger Marcell Ozuna was at his best when it mattered most last season for Class A Greensboro. Now Miami's No. 6 prospect is doing more of the same with the Hammerheads as the core of last year's South Atlantic League championship team goes for another title.

"He's been special to watch the last month, and I know how good he was last year," said Andy Haines, in his second year managing Ozuna. "He's really come into his own. His pitch recognition and plate discipline have been very good."

Ozuna helped fast-closing Greensboro break into the playoffs on the last day a year ago by clubbing 15 homers in the second half, then batted .353 with three homers in the postseason.

The right fielder is locked in again, batting .365 with eight homers and 32 RBIs in August as he made a late charge to finish first in the league in home runs (24) and RBIs (95), both team records.

Hammerheads center field Christian Yelich -- Miami's No. 2 prospect and No. 27 on the MLB.com Top 100 -- also finished the regular season red hot, placing second in the batting race with a .330 average and topping the circuit in slugging (.519) and OPS (.922).

But Jupiter, which hadn't made the playoffs since 2003, was 38-28 in the second half and went 16-4 to close the season thanks to its pitching as well as its hitting.

Jose Fernandez -- the Marlins' No. 3 prospect and No. 90 on MLB.com's Top 100 list -- was 7-1 with a 1.96 ERA in 11 starts after joining the Hammerheads from Greensboro at midseason and is scheduled to start the playoff opener against St. Lucie.

"He's been dominant," Haines said. "He's got three quality pitches and he's a tremendous competitor."

St. Lucie, which had the best overall record in the league, easily won the first-half title with a 49-19 record and was 4-2 against Jupiter. But the Hammerheads were 8-4 versus the Mets in the second half and swept a three-game series in Jupiter last week.

Dunedin (North Division first-half champion, 78-55) vs.
Lakeland (North Division second-half champion, 73-58)

Lakeland won the season series, 9-7

Game 1 at Lakeland, Sept. 4 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Dunedin, Sept. 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Dunedin (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Dunedin went through more than 60 players as manager Mike Redmond had to deal with never-ending roster changes. But there was one very important constant for the Blue Jays.

Danny Barnes was available to close games, and that's exactly what he's done.

"He's been a rock in the bullpen," Redmond said. "That's the one place where we haven't had to worry all season, and that's a nice luxury."

Barnes, a Princeton University graduate, set a Dunedin record with 34 saves in 36 opportunities and posted a 1.40 ERA in 50 games. The right-hander had 63 strikeouts to 16 walks in 51 1/3 innings.

"Every successful team I played on had a good closer, from Joe Nathan in Minnesota on down," Redmond said. "Danny has been tremendous."

Barnes and Redmond were also together last season at Class A Lansing, when the former Major League catcher piloted the Lugnuts to the Midwest League Championship Series in his first year as a manager.

"His strength is his 93 mph fastball and the way he can locate it in and out, hitting the corner," Redmond said. "He can get through on his fastball here, but he's been working on his secondary pitches, a changeup and a slider. He'll need those as he moves up, and they help him now as he faces a team that has already seen him a few times."

It looked like Dunedin might take both halves. But Lakeland won its last three games of the second half against Tampa to finish 37-29, edging Dunedin and Clearwater by one game.

In brief

No strangers: The familiarity with each other for Jupiter and St. Lucie goes past the 18 times they met this regular season. The Mets feature the core of the Savannah team that Greensboro beat in a deciding Game 5 for the South Atlantic League title last year and St. Lucie's Ryan Ellis -- Manager of the Year for the second straight season -- moved up to the Florida State League as well.

Injury report: Neither of the league's top shortstops in midseason All-Star voting will be available for the playoffs. Dunedin's Kevin Nolan (hamstring) played just one game after July 1, and Danny Black (wrist) last played July 17. Nolan, the All-Star shortstop, hit .316, and Black, the All-Star utility player, batted .314. Both played in 78 games.

Pitcher suspended: Jupiter left-hander Chad James, Miami's No. 5 prospect, was suspended due to "violation of team policies." He was 6-10 with a 4.87 ERA in 24 games. James, 21, was taken by the Marlins with the 18th overall pick in the 2009 Draft, but has a 16-35 career record.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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