As the 2012 season winds down, follow along with MiLB.com as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.
They light up radar guns in the high 90's, Midwest League batters have struck out 338 times against them and they've made Lansing armed and dangerous entering the playoffs. First-rounders Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez and second-round pick Justin Nicolino, all members of the 2010 Draft class, lead the Lugnuts' charge into the postseason.
Lansing stormed to a league-best 82-55 record, including a 47-22 first-half mark to win the first-half Eastern Division crown. Lansing opens their playoff slate against Fort Wayne.
Bowling Green, hit by four suspensions, takes on Lake County in the other Eastern Division first-round series.
Clinton's remarkable turnaround from a 23-45 mark in the first half to a 48-22 record in the second half highlights the Western Division matchups. The LumberKings open playoff action against Beloit, while first-half Western Division champion Wisconsin battles Burlington.
Lansing Lugnuts, 82-55 (Eastern Division first-half champion) vs.
Fort Wayne TinCaps, 69-71 (Eastern Division second-half Wild Card)
Season series tied, 8-8
Game 1 at Fort Wayne, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Lansing, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Lansing (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 ET
Three of the gems of Toronto's 2010 Draft class have made the Lugnuts the class of the Midwest League this season.
Syndergaard finished the season with an 8-5 record and 2.60 ERA. He struck out 221 and walked 31. Nicolino was 10-4 with a 2.46 ERA, striking out 119 and walking 21. Sanchez, who started off 8-0, finished 8-5 with a 2.49 ERA. He struck out 97 and walked 51.
"Our strength is obviously our pitching," Lansing manager John Tamargo said. "They've done a nice job all year. We've pretty much been at the top of the list for pitching throughout the season. They are all very talented. They can be really dominant when they are on their game.
"This group of pitchers is something to build on in the future for the organization. We expect good things out of them."
While the pitching staff has mostly remained intact, the Lugnuts have had a number of position-player changes.
"Offensively, we have a different team, but starting pitching-wise, we should be able to keep it in check," Tamargo said. "Whenever they go out to the mound, we have a chance to win. They keep it close. If we find a way to score runs, we should have a pretty good chance."
Jose Valentin's Fort Wayne TinCaps surged from eight games under .500 in the first half to six games over in the second half.
"I think in the first half, players were probably looking for their numbers instead of playing a team game, and I don't blame them," Valentin said. "It's their first full season. They want to go out and get good numbers to impress the organization. But then, we didn't have any success doing it that way. In the second half, I talked to those guys. It's not fun losing games. I told them we weren't having any success playing that way. We had to stop playing selfish baseball.
"When you play the right way, the numbers will be good, and you'll start winning some games. Then, you'll have some fun. Now, they're looking to win, and the numbers will come. Right now, we're doing everything -- we're winning, we're putting up good numbers, we're having fun and everybody is happy."
Bowling Green Hot Rods, 80-60 (Eastern Division second-half champions) vs.
Lake County Captains, 71-68 (Eastern Division second-half Wild Card)
Bowling Green won season series, 8-6
Game 1 at Lake County, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Bowling Green, Sept. 6 at 8:05 ET
Game 3 at Bowling Green (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 8:05 ET
In the past two weeks, Bowling Green has had four players suspended for violations of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Outfielder Josh Sale, who was a first-round pick by the Rays in 2010, second baseman Ryan Brett and pitchers Charlie Cononie and Justin Woodall have each been suspended 50 games after testing positive for methamphetamine and an amphetamine, according to Minor League Baseball.
Sale was hitting .265 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs. Brett was Bowling Green's leadoff hitter and was hitting .285 with 48 stolen bases. Cononie was 2-4 with a 4.20 ERA, and Woodall, a former Alabama football player, was 3-4 with a 4.76 ERA.
Bowling Green still fields a strong contender for the Midwest League title.
"We have talent on this team, and it's youthful talent, which is good," Hot Rods manager Brady Williams said. "These guys are going out there with the right mind-set of trying to get better every day, and that's what they're doing."
Lake County manager David Wallace saw his club start hitting on all cylinders in the second half.
"For us to be successful, it will be a matter of everybody contributing," Wallace said. "Our pitching is going to have to keep us in games. We have to come up with the big hit in the right spot. We have a lot of speed, so we can put pressure on defenses and maybe force them into some mistakes and take advantage of the mistakes. We've done that well all year."
Beloit Snappers, 77-63 (Western Division first-half Wild Card) vs.
Clinton LumberKings, 71-67 (Western Division second-half champions)
Season series tied, 7-7
Game 1 at Clinton, Sept. 5 at 7:30 pm. ET
Game 2 at Beloit, Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Beloit (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Clinton finished the first half with a 23-45 mark, 22 games under .500. In the second half, the LumberKings were 26 games over .500. The club set a franchise record for victories, topping the previous mark of 44 wins in a half-season set in 1963 and tied in 1993. The LumberKings are aiming for their first Midwest League title in 21 years.
"Our pitching has been consistent and our hitting started coming around," Clinton manager Eddie Menacha said of the turnaround. "Our hitting was worst in the league, .205 at one point. Now, we're tied [for] fifth in the league (.259).
"We have a lot of young kids, who obviously went through adversity in the first half, but they're getting better every day. We are a completely different team as far as mental approach. They understand how to play together and understand their roles. They've been through a lot, and now they've given themselves a chance to win the whole thing."
Twins No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano, who drove in 100 runs this season, powers the Beloit attack.
"Our lineup is probably the best it's been all season," Beloit manager Nelson Prada said. "Miguel's a big part of our offense, but I wouldn't say everything revolves around him. Nate Roberts at the top of the lineup gets on base a lot. He works the count, gets a lot of steals. He's a great player to have at the top of lineup.
"We've had a mixture of everything," Prada said. "We're playing solid ball. The games at the end of the season felt like playoff games. We're building some good momentum. It's been exciting."
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, 78-61 (Western Division first-half champions) vs.
Burlington Bees, 67-72 (Western Division second-half Wild Card)
Wisconsin won season series, 10-9
Game 1 at Burlington, Sept. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Wisconsin, Sept. 6 at 7:35 p.m ET
Game 3 at Wisconsin (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Burlington survived a late-season skid to earn a playoff berth. The Bees lost their last six games and lost three of their last 12 games. The Bees lost a doubleheader to Wisconsin on the final day of the regular season, but a loss by Kane County gave Burlington the playoff spot by half a game.
"Pitching has been the strength in the second half, beginning with our starters," Burlington manager Aaron Nieckula said. "Drew Granier, A.J. Cole, Blake Hassebrock, Tanner Peters and Chris Lamb, all of them have done an outstanding job of keeping us in the game, at least giving us five-plus, six-plus innings. The bullpen has done a great job of keeping the opponents' offense at bay. Once Jonathan Joseph, our closer, got promoted to Stockton, Jose Macias, who was a long [relief] man, has really stepped up and done a great job in a late-inning role to save us some games."
Oakland first-rounder Addison Russell has been a huge spark for the Bees at shortstop, and outfielder Bobby Crocker has been a consistent threat.
Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson has witnessed the promotion of 11 players who were key to the Timber Rattlers' first-half Western Division title, including four of his five original starting pitchers.
"We've had quite a few changes, most of it in the pitching staff," Erickson said. "Younger guys have had to fill in."
Erickson's club went through a rough patch midway through August.
"Going through that rough stretch, that could be a good thing," Erickson said. "You never know. You use that sort of thing to challenge and motivate players, to change things up and give players rest. You just try to make sure everybody is healthy when you enter the postseason."
Yadiel Rivera, a 20-year old shortstop and the No. 14 prospect in the Brewers' organization, has been coming on strong for the Timber Rattlers. Catcher/DH Cameron Garfield has helped pick up the slack caused by mid-season promotions.
Familiar foes: Wisconsin and Burlington faced each other in the final series of the regular season and will meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Timber Rattlers swept the final three games of the regular season from the Bees. In Saturday's game, Burlington ace Drew Granier struck out 12 Wisconsin batters (a total of 16 Wisconsin batters struck out in the game), but the Bees lost, 4-2.
Home-field edge: Wisconsin's doubleheader sweep to close out the regular season gives the Timber Rattlers home-field advantage for the Western Division's second round of the playoffs if they advance. Lansing has the home-field advantage in the Eastern Division. Home-field for the second round is based on overall record. In the championship round (best-of-5), Games 1 and 2 are hosted by the Western Division champion, and Games 3, 4 and 5 are hosted by the Eastern Division champion.
Lugnuts records: Ajay Meyer's 32 saves leads the Midwest League and set a Lansing franchise record, topping the previous best of 29 saves set by Jason Wylie in 2003. Lansing first baseman K.C. Hobson has 43 doubles, setting a Lugnuts' record. The previous high was 38, set by Blair Barbier in 2001 and tied by Brian Dopirak in 2004.