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 leagues' crowns.
The first round of the New York-Penn League playoffs features four teams: three division winners and a Wild Card with the best win-loss record of any non-division winner.
The team with the best overall record in the regular season, the Hudson Valley Renegades, is in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, when the franchise entered the postseason as the Wild Card and exited with the only NYPL championship in its history. The Renegades start this postseason against the Brooklyn Cyclones, their McNamara Division rivals who held off a late charge from Batavia to win the Wild Card for a second consecutive season.
On the other side of the bracket, the Pinckney Division champion Auburn Doubledays attempt to improve upon last year's Championship Series loss and open against the Tri-City ValleyCats, who clinched the Stedler Division on Aug. 22. The ValleyCats had the league's best record for most of the season before being overtaken by Hudson Valley on the final day.
The first-round winners advance to a best-of-3 Championship Series that starts Sept. 10.
Hudson Valley Renegades (52-24, McNamara Division champion) vs.
Brooklyn Cyclones (45-31, Wild Card)
Brooklyn won the season series, 7-3
Game 1 at Brooklyn, Sept. 7 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Hudson Valley, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Hudson Valley (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 1:05 p.m. ET
On Aug. 29, Hudson Valley lost its third game in a row to fall four games behind Tri-City (with seven to play) in the race for the league's best overall record. At stake was the top seed in the playoffs and home field advantage in both rounds of the postseason.
Some teams might have felt the pressure to compete and try to regain those extra few games in the standings. The Renegades, however, carried on with business as usual.
"We were just excited to get into the playoffs. Once you're in, you're in, and anything can happen," said manager Jared Sandberg on Tuesday. "We weren't even thinking about the No. 1 seed. ... We've pretty much taken every game and every day of this season the same way, and that's just one game at a time. As cliché as that may sound, that's pretty much where we're at."
The Renegades' luck turned Aug. 30, when shortstop Leonardo Reginatto ripped a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning to break a 1-1 tie and provide the winning margin in a 3-1 win over the Brooklyn Cyclones.
It was a hit that "really ignited us," according to Sandberg. Reginatto's round-tripper started Hudson Valley on a five-game winning streak, and it came against the team it would eventually face in the first round of the playoffs.
"Won-lost record, [Brooklyn has] played very, very well against us," said Sandberg. "They've handled us pretty well. I think when you get into a shortened series -- three-game series -- with anybody's pitching staff, anything can happen."
Brooklyn features a pitching staff that led the league in ERA (2.62), WHIP (1.05), saves (27), fewest hits allowed (565) and shutouts (10) this season. A different Cyclone took the top spot in each of the three pitching Triple Crown categories: Rainy Lara (wins, 8), Hansel Robles (ERA, 1.11) and Luis Mateo (strikeouts, 85). Closer Tyler Vanderheiden was third in the league with 12 saves.
Hudson Valley will send Jesse Hahn (2-2, 2.77, 55 strikeouts), Jeff Ames (6-1, 1.96, 70 strikeouts) and Taylor Guerrieri (1-2, 1.04, 45 strikeouts) to the hill in the first round. Hahn twice was named New York-Penn League Pitcher of the Week in August, while Ames and Guerrieri were both first-round picks in the 2011 Draft. The trio has allowed just one home run in a combined 168 1/3 innings.
Offensively, the only player on either team with a .300 batting average is Hudson Valley third baseman Richie Shaffer, the 25th overall pick in this year's Draft. Shaffer hit .308 in 117 at-bats. Thomas Coyle supplied the excitement on the base paths, stealing 20 bases in 24 attempts. (As a team, Brooklyn was 23 of 39 in steal attempts on the year.)
Catcher Kevin Plawecki, the 35th overall pick in June, led the Cyclones with seven home runs. Brandon Nimmo, the Mets' 2011 first-rounder, had a team-leading 40 RBIs but slumped down the stretch, hitting just .193 after the All-Star break.
Tri-City ValleyCats (51-25, Stedler Division champion) vs.
Auburn Doubledays (46-30, Pinckney Division champion)
Tri-City won the season series, 2-1
Game 1 at Auburn, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Tri-City, Sept. 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Tri-City (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 5:00 p.m. ET
After clinching the Stedler Division on Aug. 22 and holding the best record in the league for much of the season, the Tri-City ValleyCats lost five straight in the final week and were overtaken by Hudson Valley for the top seed in the playoffs on the last day.
Though he placed significant value on that positioning, ValleyCats manager Stubby Clapp wants his players to understand the importance of what they have accomplished just by reaching the postseason.
"It's very special, and for these guys to do it in their first year is something that will resonate with them for the rest of their career," said Clapp, who won a Pacific Coast League championship with the Memphis Redbirds in 2000. "They'll know what it feels like to get to a playoff, know what it takes, the dedication, and paying attention to details."
According to Clapp, he and his coaching staff (pitching coach Rick Aponte and hitting coach Mark Bailey) have a combined seven decades in professional baseball, but just seven total playoff appearances among them, a fact the trio has tried to impress upon their young players.
"You try to relay it, and they have to trust us," said Clapp. "They won't get it until three or four years down the road, depending on how many playoffs they've had since then. That's when it'll hit home."
For now, however, the ValleyCats will have to contend with the Auburn Doubledays. Last year's runner-up in the Championship Series, the Doubledays had to fight their way into the postseason by holding off a late charge from Batavia to win the Pinckney Division on the season's penultimate day.
The series will feature two of the league's best offenses. Tri-City led the circuit in home runs, stolen bases, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, while Auburn holds the top spot in runs scored, hits and batting average.
The ValleyCats lost Andrew Aplin and his .348 batting average to a promotion after 44 games, but his absence was softened by the presence of five different .300 hitters in the lineup. One of the biggest bats down the stretch was outfielder Preston Tucker, who hit .321 with eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 42 games. Catcher Tyler Heineman won the batting title with a .358 mark.
"It gave opportunities to other guys," said Clapp of the player promotions. "We've seen some other guys shine now. It's been a blessing in disguise because, I'm not saying they wouldn't have shined, but I was able to get some other guys different opportunities and hit in different spots."
Auburn's lineup is anchored by Estarlin Martinez. The 20-year-old Dominican hit .319 with five home runs, 44 RBIs and 13 stolen bases. He's hot coming into the playoffs, with a .341 batting average in his last 10 games. Second baseman Tony Renda (.370 in his last 10 games) and outfielder Wander Ramos (.324, 2 homers, 11 RBIs) are also among the players peaking at the right time.
In the end, however, the difference could be the pitching. Tri-City boasted the second-best team ERA (2.75) during the regular season, while Auburn was second-to-last at 4.25. The Doubledays also allowed the most hits (703) and second-most home runs (41) in the league, and tied Aberdeen and Staten Island for the highest WHIP (1.44).
Past champions: Of the four playoff teams, Tri-City won a championship most recently (2010). Auburn last won in 2007, and Hudson Valley took home the trophy in 1999. Brooklyn shared the 2001 title with Williamsport -- the Championship Series was canceled and the teams declared co-champions following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Always the bridesmaid: Brooklyn (2003, 2007, 2010), Tri-City (2004, 2006) and Auburn (2005, 2011) have lost the Championship Series seven of the last nine years.
Multiples of 50: For just the fifth time in league history, two teams won at least 50 games. The previous occurrences were in 1978 and 1990 (Geneva and Oneonta), 1991 (Jamestown and Pittsfield) and 2004 (Auburn and Tri-City). The most recent instance was the only one in which one of the teams failed to win the title. Mahoning Valley beat both Auburn and Tri-City en route to the championship.
End of an era: This season was the first time since 1999 that neither Staten Island nor Brooklyn won its division.