As the 2011 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.
The team with the best overall record in the regular season, the Staten Island Yankees, begin their road to a sixth league championship in 12 years against a familiar opponent: McNamara Division rivals the Brooklyn Cyclones, who took the Wild Card after finishing just a half-game behind the Yanks.
The Cyclones ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak, including a three-game sweep of the Yankees that gave them a 9-5 advantage in head-to-head contests.
In the other opening-round series, manager Gary Cathcart will attempt to lead a Nationals affiliate to a league title for the second consecutive season when his Auburn Doubledays take on the Vermont Lake Monsters. Cathcart's Potomac Nationals took home the Carolina League crown in 2010.
Staten Island Yankees (45-28, McNamara Division winner) vs.
Brooklyn Cyclones (45-29, Wild Card winner)
Brooklyn won the season series, 9-5
Game 1 at Brooklyn, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Staten Island, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Staten Island (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Brooklyn ran away with the McNamara Division in 2010, beating second-place Hudson Valley by 12 games before falling in the Finals to Tri-City. It looked for a time like Staten Island would enjoy a similarly dominant campaign; after starting the season 1-2, the Yankees won 13 straight games en route to a 21-4 start.
"It was just one of those things," said first-year manager Tom Slater. "Kids were playing well and they were playing with a lot of confidence, but we were just really pitching well, and our bullpen was outstanding during that time. The kids came out and worked hard every day, and it was a nice little streak. But like I said, the key to that was the pitching."
The hot streak eventually dissipated, but the Yankees continued playing good baseball thanks to an organizational philosophy that teaches players from the Rookie level up how to approach the game.
"I think when [the players] come in, particularly the young ones that spend time down in Tampa, either in the Gulf Coast League or extended Spring Training, there's a work ethic that's installed and it's what's expected of them on a daily basis," said Slater, who came to Staten Island after managing New York's GCL affiliate in 2010. "So I think the young guys in particular get that right from the get-go. And then the new drafts -- [scouting director] Damon [Oppenheimer] and his staff do such a good job with the Draft and targeting high-character kids."
The Cyclones were undaunted by Staten Island's early excellence, staying around long enough to make a run at the division. Brooklyn finished just a half-game back following a three-game sweep over the Yanks to end the regular season.
"We have a lot of respect for Brooklyn," said Slater. "They've got a very good team. They have very good pitching as well, and we've had a lot of good games with them."
Brooklyn's staff had the second-best ERA (3.03) and WHIP (1.25) in the league. They allowed the fewest runs, walks and hit batsmen while recording the most saves. Individually, Staten Island's Branden Pinder led the circuit with 14 saves.
On the offensive side, the series will feature the league's two leading hitters. Cyclones second baseman Daniel Muno, the Mets' eighth-round pick in 2011, won the batting title with a .355 average, while Yankees outfielder Mason Williams tallied 94 hits and a .349 average. Each player performed at a high level against his intra-city rival: Muno hit .394 in nine games against Staten Island and Williams hit .418 in 13 games against Brooklyn.
Auburn Doubledays (44-29, Pinckney Division winner) vs.
Vermont Lake Monsters (37-35, Stedler Division winner)
Auburn won the season series, 2-1
Game 1 at Vermont, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Auburn, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Auburn (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Auburn won six consecutive Pinckney Division titles from 2002-07, but only the last of those seasons ended in a league championship. Since that title, the Doubledays had missed the playoffs for three straight years before outlasting Williamsport for the division crown in 2011.
This season saw major change hit the Western New York club, as an offseason switch in its Major League affiliation from Toronto to Washington meant the end of longtime manager Dennis Holmberg in Auburn. Holmberg, who had led the team since 2002, was replaced by Gary Cathcart. Cathcart knows a thing or two about winning as well, having taken Lansing to the Midwest League playoffs in 2007 and bringing home the Carolina League title last season as manager of the Potomac Nationals.
"In the Minor Leagues, getting to the playoffs is a nice thing for the guys," said Cathcart. "It's not the No. 1 goal, but I'm a firm believer in a winning environment and learning how to be a winning player, picking out those times in the course of a game as a pitcher or a position player where you've got a chance to help your team either win a game or lose a game.
"It could be a big at-bat in the third inning of a game; it could be the end of the game -- just being able to become a winning player."
Even though the on-field level of play is different between the New York-Penn and Carolina Leagues, Cathcart sees off-field similarities between last year's championship club and this year's playoff entry.
"The similarity I would say is that the clubhouse is very similar to last year," he said. "Guys really get along. They've got each other's back, and for this level that's unusual because there's no history with a lot of them -- a lot of the first-year guys -- and until they get here they don't really know each other.
"As far as the baseball goes, obviously it's a different level, but we've got a good group of kids here that really works hard."
That hard work paid off during the regular season, when Auburn led the league in runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging and batting average. Eight players had at least 100 at-bats and hit .275 or better, led by designated hitter Carlos Alvarez (.317) and the double-play combination of shortstop Bryce Ortega (.316, 23 steals) and second baseman Justin Miller (.304, 7 HR, 47 RBI). Miller finished second in the league in RBIs, one behind teammate Matt Skole.
The Doubledays' first-round opponent, Vermont, fought its way into the playoffs by catching Connecticut on the final day of the season and winning the tiebreaker based on a superior head-to-head record. It was payback of sorts for the Lake Monsters, who swept Tri-City on the last weekend to win the division a season after the ValleyCats had chased down the Lake Monsters to win the division in 2010.
Vermont falls in the middle of the road in most offensive and pitching categories, but one thing it does better (or at least more often) than any other team is run. The Lake Monsters led the league with 110 stolen bases.
The team's best pitcher has been Seth Frankoff, a 27th-round pick out of UNC-Wilmington in 2010. The right-hander was 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA and made his final regular-season start Saturday, leaving his first-round availability in question.
Always a bridesmaid: Williamsport narrowly missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, finishing second to Auburn in the Pinckney Division standings and Brooklyn in the Wild Card race. In 2010, the Crosscutters finished a half-game behind division rival Jamestown for the Wild Card.
Parity amidst a dynasty: Since 1999, the year before Staten Island's first championship, eight different teams (including the Yankees) have won the title. The only other team with more than one championship in that time is Williamsport. The Crosscutters shared the 2001 title with Brooklyn after the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in the cancellation of the Championship Series, then won the trophy outright in 2003. If Brooklyn or Vermont wins it all, it will be the fifth consecutive season with a different champion.
Taking care of business: Eleven of the 13 consecutive wins in Staten Island's early-season streak came against division rivals Hudson Valley and Aberdeen. The Yankees finished the season 9-1 against the Renegades and 9-0 against the Ironbirds, the best records of any team against a league opponent this season.