International League playoff preview

Indy faces Charlotte; Pawtucket plays Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

By John Wagner / Special to | September 5, 2012 6:24 AM ET

As the 2012 season winds down, follow along with as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their leagues' crowns.

Pitchers have dominated the International League this season, and that trend is likely to continue when the Governors' Cup playoffs begin Wednesday, Sept. 5.

The IL's four playoff teams all rank in the league's top six in team ERA, with none boasting a mark higher than 3.86 for the season.

West Division winner Indianapolis is paired with South Division champ Charlotte in one best-of-5 semifinal series that matches up the two teams atop the leaderboard with identical 3.15 team ERAs.

The other semifinals matchup will see two North Division rivals do battle. Division titlist Scranton/Wilkes-Barre will face Wild Card winner Pawtucket; the PawSox ranked fourth in the IL with a 3.43 ERA while the Yankees finished sixth with a 3.86 mark.

The winners of those two series meet in the best-of-5 Governors' Cup Finals starting Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Indianapolis (West Division champions, 89-55) vs.
Charlotte (South Division champions, 83-61)

Charlotte won the season series, 5-3

Game 1 at Indianapolis, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Indianapolis, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Charlotte, Sept. 7 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Charlotte (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Charlotte (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 2:15 p.m. ET

If either of these teams were to look in a mirror, the reflection they might see could easily be mistaken for their opponent.

Both earned their first playoff berth since 2006 by running away with their division titles, Indianapolis winning the West by 14 games while Charlotte cruised to the South title by nine.

And both took similar routes to the top, starting slowly before getting their footing and then exploding to success when summer started.

Indianapolis managed to overcome a 12-11 April, and manager Dean Treanor said his team used lessons it learned from a poor April start in 2011 to claim this year's crown.

"Last year we had a lot of guys who came up from Double-A, and I think there was an adjustment to this level," Treanor said. "This year we talked about it early, and guys were vocal about not having what happened last year happen this year."

For the Indians, a 19-11 mark in May helped get things rolling, and a 20-9 June put them in command of the West. For Charlotte, an 18-11 June was matched by an 18-11 August.

Expect this series to be filled with low-scoring contests similar to the last meeting of the two teams, which took place in Indianapolis in early August. The Knights won three of those four games, and there were two shutouts in the series.

Charlotte hit just .238 against the Indians this season, but Indianapolis batted only .193 and scored just 18 runs in eight games against the Knights.

But both teams have benefited from fine individual pitching performances. The Knights' Charles Leesman was 12-10 but posted a 2.47 ERA, second-best in the league, while the Indians had three pitchers rank among the IL's top 10 in ERA in Jeff Locke (third, 2.48), Rick VandenHurk (fifth, 2.92) and Rudy Owens (sixth, 3.14).

Charlotte manager Joel Skinner doesn't expect much to change once the playoffs start.

"We come out on a daily basis and try and go out and win a ballgame and prepare yourself prior to that," he told the Charlotte Observer. "Our approach isn't going to change. We're going to use the same group of guys and we'll keep playing."

Treanor agreed, adding, "The last time we played them, they won three out of four at our place -- and all of the games came down to pitching. That's what I expect: A tough match-up pitching-wise. Whoever takes advantage of the opportunities that are there is the team that's going to be successful."

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (North Division champions, 84-60) vs.
Pawtucket (Wild Card champions, 79-65)

Pawtucket won the season series, 9-7

Game 1 at Pawtucket, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Pawtucket, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre*, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre* (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre* (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 6:05 p.m. ET
*To be played at Frontier Field, Rochester

It's hard to imagine any playoff team in professional baseball having traveled a tougher road to the postseason than Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

And "road" is the key word, because the Yankees have found a way to earn their sixth playoff berth in seven seasons without playing a single home game this year. Reconstruction of PNC Field forced the Yankees to spend the season on the road, and that continues in the postseason with the team playing its first-round home playoff games at Rochester's Frontier Field.

Because of the Yankees' success despite having no home, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Dave Miley was named the IL's Manager of the Year.

"It is really difficult to adequately describe the job Dave Miley has done in the 2012 season," New York Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman told the (Westchester County) Journal News. "Dave has met the extraordinary challenge of leading a team playing 144 games on the road with extraordinary success. No one could be more deserving of this award."

There also has been a typical amount of turnover on the Yankees' roster, with 28 different position players and 32 different pitchers seeing action at different times this year.

One constant for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has been veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz, who ranks among the IL leaders in both wins (13-6 record) and ERA (ninth, 3.45). The bullpen has been especially tough thanks to Kevin Whelan and Ryota Igarashi, who have 12 and 10 saves respectively.

The Yankees' opponent, Pawtucket, has been able to play games at home. But it has faced even greater turnover, having 69 different players see action this season.

"It's kind of been like a tale of two different teams; that's what's made it cool," manager Arnie Beyeler told the Providence Journal. "We had a lot of guys early, got out of the chute pretty good and won a whole bunch of games. We've been battling since then through a stretch where we didn't win many games while guys were in transition. These guys who were the extra guys to start have stepped up and played well and grinded it out.

"I'm very proud of what they've done."

One of the league's hottest pitchers is Pawtucket's Billy Buckner, who has won his last four starts, seven of his last eight and is 8-6 with a 3.91 ERA this season.

It's interesting to note that the two teams won't travel far to begin this series -- they just finished a four-game set at Pawtucket's McCoy Field, with each team winning twice. The Red Sox held a narrow 9-7 series advantage this season.

In brief

Claiming the crowns: Gwinnett's Jose Constanza won the IL batting title with a .314 average, four points better than Pawtucket's Mauro Gomez. Charlotte's Dan Johnson won the home run title with 28, with Corey Brown of Syracuse second with 25. And Gwinnett's Ernesto Mejia claimed the RBI crown with 92, seven more than Johnson. The IL's ERA title went to Tyler Cloyd of Lehigh Valley and his 2.35 mark, while Syracuse's Zach Duke had 15 wins, two more than Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's Ortiz and VandenHurk of Indianapolis. And Buffalo's Fernando Cabrera had a league-best 22 saves, one more than Indy's Tim Wood.

By the numbers: If you think winning close games is important to winning a postseason title, give the advantage to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Charlotte. The Yankees are 24-16 in one-run games this season, second-best in the IL, and Charlotte is next with a 28-22 record. Pawtucket is 21-22 in one-run games, while Indianapolis is 20-22.

A bonus awaits the winner: The Governors' Cup champion will play one more game this season, traveling to Durham to meet the Pacific Coast League winner in the Gildan Triple-A Baseball National Championship Game on Sept. 18. After losing the first three games in this series, the IL is on a three-game winning streak after Durham beat Memphis in 2009 and Columbus won back-to-back titles the past two seasons.

John Wagner is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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