Midwest League playoff preview

Hot Rods ride wave of first-rounders into series with TinCaps

Catcher Justin O'Conner was the 31st overall selection in the 2011 Draft. (Emily Jones/MiLB.com)

By Curt Rallo / Special to MiLB.com | September 4, 2013 7:21 AM ET

Bowling Green manager Jared Sandberg knows a team can't always bank on high-priced talent or a bevy of top Draft picks to bring home a championship, but in the case of the Hot Rods this season, his tight-knit group is ready for the challenge.

"There's definitely a lot of talent," Sandberg said. "For me to reap the rewards of a Draft we had a couple of years ago, when we had all those first-round picks … we have a lot of talent, but I played on a team in the South Atlantic League in 1998 when we had a lot of first-round picks, a lot of money guys, and I've learned from that as a manager."

Bowling Green's roster features six first-rounders from the 2011 Draft: right-hander Taylor Guerrieri (24th overall), catcher Justin O'Conner (31st overall), shortstop Brandon Martin (38th overall), third baseman Tyler Goeddel (41st overall), right-hander Jeff Ames (42nd overall) and lefty Blake Snell (52nd overall).

"Our team in 1998, everybody was selfish, looking out for themselves and playing for their own numbers,"  Sandberg added. "Here, guys are obviously worried about their own careers, but they're playing for a team. We have a tight-knit group. They're pulling for each other and playing for the team, and all of their numbers are right where they want them. They have great talent, and they're good team players."

Bowling Green Hot Rods (82-56, Eastern Division second-half champion) vs.
Fort Wayne TinCaps (72-67, Eastern Division first-half Wild Card)

Bowling Green won the season series, 10-5

Game 1 at Bowling Green, Sept. 4 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Fort Wayne, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Fort Wayne (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET

Bowling Green not only features six first-rounders from 2011 on its roster, but it also boasts speedy outfielder Andrew Toles, a third-round selection in 2012 who won the Midwest League batting title (.326) while finishing first in triples (16) and second in stolen bases (62).

Less-heralded Hot Rod Marty Gantt tore up Fort Wayne this season, hitting .439 against the TinCaps with two homers, one triple, five doubles and 14 RBIs.

"Our pitching has carried us the entire year, but our hitting has picked up in the second half," Sandberg said. "We've been at the top of the league in ERA (3.06), but lately we've been starting to score a few more runs and giving our pitchers a chance to relax. Our defense has been really solid all year, and we're stealing bases, so we're putting a lot of pressure on the other team."

Fort Wayne, in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, has plenty of talent in its arsenal, including four first-rounders in their starting rotation: Max Fried (seventh overall, 2012), Joseph Ross (25th overall, 2011), Zach Eflin (33rd overall, 2012) and Walker Weickel (55th overall, 2012).

"Pitching-wise, we're fine," Fort Wayne manager Jose Valentin said. "We have guys with good velocity. We haven't hit for power all year, so we're pretty much a team that plays small baseball. We steal some bases, and we like the hit-and-run. Our pitching did a great job in the first half putting us in the playoffs, and we had some key players get promoted. In the second half, we suffered some injuries. We've had our ups and downs. I think we're OK now. To go all the way, we have to put everything all together."

Valentin said that playoffs are a special time.

"Playoff time is different," Valentin said. "The effort will be better, the focus will be better and the excitement will be a lot better. I'm looking forward to seeing that. We're the youngest team in the league, and our players have matured a lot in their first full season. I'll take my chances against anybody. We hit the wall in the second half, but we start the playoffs 0-0, and anything can happen. Whoever plays the best baseball will win."

South Bend Silver Hawks (81-58, Eastern Division first-half champion) vs.
Great Lakes Loons (67-72, Eastern Division second-half Wild Card)

Great Lakes won the season series, 10-5

Game 1 at Great Lakes, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at South Bend, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at South Bend (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET

The Silver Hawks endured a late-season slump, suffering 13 losses during a recent 16-game stretch, but they snapped out of the funk to win three of their last four.

"I think our players are ready," South Bend manager Mark Haley said. "They know they pressed and got themselves in a funk. But I think the last few games, they realize that and have been playing the way we need to play.

"Our pitching has been very good. We have good arm strength. We have guys who have put up some good numbers. We have a little bit of everything. We've got some speed, we've got some power, we've got guys who hit for average, we have guys who can beat out bunts, we have solid defense in the infield, and the outfielders have been doing a good job covering gaps."

Haley said the key to victory is pitching.

"Our starting pitchers have to step up," Haley said. "You win championships with starting pitching. I think the bullpen will be fine. I have confidence in them. If the pitching keeps us in there and we get some offense from the middle of the lineup, we're tough to beat."

Third baseman Brandon Drury led South Bend with a .302 batting average and set a Midwest League record with 51 doubles. He hit .356 against Great Lakes this season with six doubles, one triple, three homers and 10 RBIs. First baseman Rudy Flores led the league with a .528 slugging percentage.

Great Lakes manager Razor Shines said confidence is critical in the playoffs.

"You have to have confidence," Shines said. "You have to believe that you're going to win. It's difficult when you're 20, 21, 22 years old, and you're not having the success that you're accustomed to having. As a staff, that's the important job we have, to continue to instill that confidence in those kids, because when they believe they can do things, they actually perform a lot better. We have to have confidence that we can get this done and go through adverse times, which we're going to have."

Geoff Brown (12-1, 2.08 ERA) leads the Great Lakes pitching staff.

"We're pitching well right now," Shines said. "That's allowed us to win some really low-scoring baseball games, when we haven't swung the bats as well as we have been."

Kevin Taylor helped Great Lakes take 10 of 15 games from South Bend, hitting .378 against the Silver Hawks with three homers and 12 RBIs. James Baldwin finished second in the Midwest League with 42 stolen bases.

Quad Cities River Bandits (81-57, Western Division second-half Wild Card) vs.
Cedar Rapids Kernels (88-50, Western Division second-half champion)

Quad Cities won the season series, 10-6

Game 1 at Quad Cities, Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Cedar Rapids, Sept. 5 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Cedar Rapids, (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 7:35 p.m. ET

Outfielder Adam Brett Walker II, a third-round 2012 Draft pick, supplied a power surge that helped Cedar Rapids win a Midwest League-best 88 games. Walker led the Midwest League with 27 homers and 109 runs batted in. He led the Kernels in their battles with Quad Cities, hitting .356 (21-of-59) against the River Bandits, with five doubles, two triples, one homer and nine runs batted in.

Cedar Rapids pitcher Mason Melotakis said that the Kernels have the right attitude as they enter the playoffs.

"I feel like we're playing very comfortably," Melotakis said. "We're having a lot of fun with it. Winning is a big part of that. We're all playing loose. We're doing our jobs, and that's resulting in wins. Our whole team has come together. We have guys who have accepted their roles and they've done well. The defense will pick up the pitchers, and the offense will pick up pitchers, but the pitchers have also thrown up some zeroes when the hitters have put up one or two runs. It's all worked out well for us."

Melotakis said that he expects the Kernels to maintain their mental edge in the playoffs.

"We try not to press," Melotakis said. "We try to treat the playoffs like another game."

According to Melotakis, the playoffs are a challenging but key component of development.

"Your body is hurting, everything is aching at this point," Melotakis said. "Things you didn't know could ache are aching, but when the playoffs hit, you get a second burst of energy. This is what the whole season has led up to. You get a whole new energy surge and you're ready to play.

"Being in the playoffs helps you for just the fact that you're playing games that really do matter. Every game in the regular season matters, but playoffs are something that you really have to focus on. Players are playing their best when it matters, and games are on the line. It helps with development all the way around. It's important to show what you can do when it counts."

Quad Cities won't have Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Appel was shut down after pitching 33 innings for the River Bandits (3-1, 3.82).

Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, will be in the lineup for the River Bandits. The Quad Cities shortstop hit .320 (third in the league) for the season and hit a blistering .414 against Cedar Rapids (23-of-54). Correa had five doubles and 14 RBIs against the Kernels in 14 games.

Correa helped the River Bandits win 13 of their last 16 games.

"We're very proud of all the kids for the effort they've made this season," Quad Cities manager Omar Lopez said. "We've had a lot of movement the whole year. One of the challenges for me was to put everybody together with all the movement we had. The way the guys are playing going into the playoffs is very exciting. They're fun to watch. They're committed to make something happen in the playoffs."

Beloit Snappers (77-62, Western Division first-half champion) vs.
Clinton LumberKings (67-72 second-half Wild Card)

Beloit won the season series, 9-8

Game 1 at Clinton, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Beloit, Sept. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Beloit (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Manager Eddie Menchaca has Clinton in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Dario Pizzano's .311 batting average led the LumberKings. Victor Sanchez (6-6, 2.78 ERA) highlighted their season with a no-hitter on July 17.

"We had a tough stretch late," Menchaca said. "We lost seven straight games, really close ballgames. Our team has changed. We've had some injuries, and we've had guys called up.

"We lead the league in hitting, so that says a lot about our offense," Menchaca said. "We're pretty balanced. The main thing is, we play well together as a team. Everybody has to contribute in their way for us to be successful."

Menchaca said that, for the LumberKings to win it all, Clinton's younger players must step up.

"We lost a couple of big bats in our lineup, guys who were impact players," Menchaca said. "We have other guys who have taken their place. They have to get familiar with the league. It's the end of the year -- maybe they're a little tired. We're trying to get them to believe in what we're doing here and finish strong. If we get them playing good baseball and executing in the playoffs, I'll take my chances against anybody."

Beloit manager Ryan Christenson and the Snappers also went through adversity in the second half of the season.

"We lost five players who moved up and moved on, which was good," Christenson said. "Then we went through a very rough patch where we were 8-28. We were not playing our best baseball by any means. We kept waiting for the team to turn it around. This last week and a half, we started picking it up. The guys are swinging the bats better. The pitchers have been pitching a lot better, both the starters and the bullpen.

"There for a while, we couldn't mix and match everything together. The starters would do well, and the bullpen would give it up, or vice versa. Everything seems to be clicking at this time, which is a good sign as we go into the playoffs. We've played good defense all year. When the middle of our order is clicking, we're very tough."

Beloit's Matt Olson was second in the Midwest League with 23 homers and 93 RBIs. John Wooten was fourth in the league in homers (20), and Chris Bostick was third in RBIs (89). Bostick led Beloit with a .282 batting average.

"Bostick is a very dynamic player," Christenson said. "He's got some power. He's batting in the three-hole for us and has the ability to steal bases. When he gets on, he creates havoc. Ryan Mathews has had some really good at-bats. He's drawn walks, he's hit doubles, he's hit a couple of home runs. He's a different kind of player in the leadoff spot who has clicked and helped us get hot as we enter the playoffs."

In brief

Toles wins title: Bowling Green's Andrew Toles won the Midwest League batting title with a .326 average. Toles nudged teammate Leonardo Reginatto, who finished at .325. Toles did not play in Monday's regular-season finale, while Reginnato went 3-of-4. Toles' title is the first Midwest League batting crown for a Bowling Green player.

Urias shut down: Great Lakes' Julio Urias, a left-handed pitcher for who turned 17 on Aug. 12, was shut down by the Dodgers organization due to an innings limit (70). Urias, the No. 4 prospect in the Dodgers organization, according to MLB.com, was 2-0 with a 2.48 ERA in 18 starts for the Loons.

Dragons' streak continues: Dayton finished 2013 with its string of consecutive sellouts still in tact. The Dragons had 69 sellouts in 2013, giving them 983 sellouts in a row, tops in pro sports. Every game in Dayton's 14-season history has been a sellout. Dayton finished the season with a total attendance of 579,946 fans in 69 games, an average of 8,405 fans.

Curt Rallo is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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