Keith Johnson has a unique perspective on Salt Lake's championship dreams this week. The last time the Bees took the field with the Pacific Coast League crown on the line, he was lined up at third base. On Tuesday, he'll be in the dugout.
"It's kind of similar, but it's different," Johnson said. "Every team and year is its own journey and adventure."
Johnson, in his third season as Salt Lake's manager, has helped navigate the Bees to the finals after spending two seasons playing for the club from 2002-03. This year's Finals feature a pair of teams with unlikely journeys meeting for the league's top prize: Salt Lake, with statistically one of the worst pitching staffs in the circuit, will face Omaha, a team that won its division with a losing record.
"The guys are excited -- we set out with a group of guys leaving Spring Training and the goal is always the same," the 41-year-old Johnson said. "I don't care what team you are, you want to get yourself into position to win a league championship, and we're there -- it's within reach. The guys are excited to go out there and compete, go to battle and play for each other. Hopefully we'll play well enough where we're able to do that."
Salt Lake, the Angels' top affiliate, is making its first appearance in the PCL Championship since Johnson and his Bees squad lost to Edmonton in '02. Omaha, the Royals' Triple-A team, is back in the finals for the third straight season -- the Storm Chasers won in 2011 but fell to Reno last season.
Salt Lake (78-66, Pacific Northern Division champion) vs.
Omaha (70-74, American Northern Division champion)
How they got here: Salt Lake beat Las Vegas in four games and Omaha swept Oklahoma City in the best-of-5 PCL semis.
The teams split their regular season series, 2-2
Game 1 at Omaha, Sept. 10, 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Omaha, Sept. 11, 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Salt Lake, Sept. 13, 8:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Salt Lake, Sept. 14, 8:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Salt Lake, Sept. 15, 3:05 p.m. ET
Salt Lake and Omaha will meet for the first time ever in a PCL playoff series on Tuesday when Matt Shoemaker faces off against Omaha starter Chris Dwyer. Shoemaker has been one of Salt Lake's most consistent starters this year, although his numbers don't exactly scream ace -- the right-hander finished the year 11-13 with a 4.64 ERA in a team-high 184 1/3 innings over 29 starts.
The Bees' other starters this series include Jarrett Grube (7-5, 4.47 ERA), Tommy Hanson (0-2, 5.49) and Billy Buckner (7-4, 4.87). That playoff rotation doesn't include Barry Enright (7-7, 7.12), who owned the PCL's worst ERA but ranked second this season in starts (24) and innings (116 1/3) for Salt Lake. Johnson said that Shoemaker would take the mound if the series goes five games.
"They have a really good pitching staff, so for our offense, we have our work cut out for ourselves," Johnson said. "We've got to do the things we've been doing, eliminate the big mistakes and minimize damage on the defensive side. That will give us an opportunity to be in games late."
Omaha's rotation didn't look much better on paper this season, with Justin Marks (6-13, 4.58) and Nate Adcock (8-6, 6.67, now with the D-backs) joining Dwyer, who had a solid 3.55 ERA but also finished with a losing 10-11 record. The Storm Chasers are the first team to qualify for the PCL playoffs with a losing record (70-74) since the league expanded to 16 teams in 1998. Omaha, in fact, still has a losing record despite sweeping Oklahoma City in the opening round.
Johnson, though, said you can ignore records when it comes to a championship series.
"They're a steady ball club, and that's attributed to [manager] Mike Jirschele, he's done a great job with his team, it's going to be a battle," Johnson said. "We're going to have to play our best baseball. The records mean nothing -- they fought their way into the playoffs and they did a good job against Oklahoma City. We have our work cut out for ourselves."
Salt Lake went 78-66 to win the PCL's Pacific Northern Division before knocking off Las Vegas in four games to advance to the finals. The Bees rode their lineup to the playoffs this season -- the club led the PCL in average (.287) and on-base percentage (.362) but ranked last in ERA (5.37) and second-to-last in WHIP (1.58), runs allowed (832) and hits allowed (1,447). Oddly enough, as a team, the Bees were outscored 832-809 this year.
For Johnson and the Bees, the mission to cool off a hot team is simple: score more and reduce mistakes.
"[We need to] score one more run than them in three games," he laughed. "But really, it comes down to pitching, from the standpoint if you're able eliminate the big innings and minimize the damage, if you can keep them to scoring one or two runs, you'll put your offense in a much better position to get back and defend leads. I think that'll be the key to our success and those guys are chomping at the bit to face our competition."
Omaha's lineup includes leadoff man Irving Falu, Royals No. 17 prospect Christian Colon, veteran first baseman and No. 3 hitter Anthony Seratelli and former big leaguer Ben Broussard, who worked his way out of the Mexican League earlier this year to join Omaha for 52 games. The Chasers' best offensive weapons this season -- Xavier Nady, who led the team with 65 RBIs, and Brett Hayes, who hit a team-high 17 homers -- are no longer with the club; Nady was released by the Royals on June 29 and Hayes is currently in Kansas City. The team also lost Johnny Giavotella (.286, 46 RBIs), Donnie Joseph (4-3, 3.95 ERA, team-high 47 games) and Pedro Ciriaco (.281, .942 fielding percentage at shortstop) to September call-ups.
Salt Lake has dealt with similar situations, having lost bats like 2009 A's first-rounder Grant Green, former No. 1 prospect Kole Calhoun, semifinal Game 4 home run hero Tommy Field and shortstop Andrew Romine to promotions plus others like Trent Oeltjen, who leads the team with 14 homers, and Andy Marte, to injuries. Marte injured his shoulder while scoring the game-winning run during a walk-off victory over Las Vegas on Sept. 5, while Ryan Brasier, who led the Bees with 10 saves this season, is among a group now in Anaheim.
Johnson credited some of the players who'd been with him most of the season, like RBI leader Efren Navarro (.326, 7 HR, 81 RBIs) and outfielder Roberto Lopez (.289, 10 HR, 68 RBIs) for their roles in where Salt Lake has grown.
Hanson, another veteran, is finding his way back to the Majors after going 4-3 with a 5.59 ERA in 13 starts in the Majors this year. He's slated to start Game 2, with Grube and Buckner to follow.
"The Triple-A turmoil," Johnson laughed. "The roster at this level is something to navigate through, but there's been a core group of guys here for the duration that are key cogs in what we're trying to do, and they're not going to let anything deter the guys who come in from our goal. To have Navarro and Luke Carlin and Lopez and Chad Cordero kind of have a calming influence on the other guys coming in, and they'll sit down and talk to guys and explain things. It's been fun team -- it's been a really, really fun year."
As for similarities to his 2002 squad and this year's team, Johnson was hesistant to make comparisons. He's just happy to be back and close to his Spring Training goal.
"This team has a lot of guys that have the ability to play in the Majors but haven't been able to have the opportunity. A lot of guys fighting their way and scraping, scratching and clawing to get to this point. It's a nice mix of all different types of players, guys from independent leagues and prospects and some former big leaguers -- it's a little bit of everything," he said. "They play together, they get along, they're really excited, they try their best. It doesn't always happen, but the intent is there and that's something great to see as a manager, when you see someone not get something done and you see a teammate try to pick them up -- they've done it and this is a bunch of guys who get it. I'm looking forward to it."
A history of success: Both Omaha and Salt Lake have won league titles in the past, although the Storm Chasers' 2011 PCL championship is the only such for the current version of these teams.
Omaha became the Royals' Triple-A team in 1969, although the club played in the defunct American Association until 1997. During that time, Omaha won four league championships in 1969, 1970, 1978 and 1990. The franchise's win as the Storm Chasers in 2011 was its first Pacific Coast League title.
Salt Lake's history is even more complicated. The Utah city has hosted a PCL club off and on since 1915, although numerous moves and name changes left Salt Lake without a team for decades at a time. Over the years, Salt Lake has won three PCL titles, in 1959, 1971 and 1979. The city was without a team from 1925-58, 1966-69 and 1984-93, when the organization returned as the Salt Lake Buzz in 1994. The team name was changed to the Stingers and then to the Bees, although no team since '94 has won a crown.
Threes a charm: Omaha is the seventh team in PCL history to advance to at least three straight championship series: the Sacramento River Cats in 2007-09, the Albuquerque Dukes in 1980-83, the Hawaii Islanders in 1975-77, the Oakland Oaks in 1946-48, the San Francisco Seals in 1943-46 and the Seattle Rainiers in 1940-42. The winner of the PCL Championship will advance to face either Durham or Pawtucker for the Triple-A National Championship Game on Tuesday, Sept. 17, in Allentown, Pa.
Less is more: This PCL Championship Series is the first since 2004 and the second since 1998 in which neither team reached 80 wins in the regular season. Omaha finished with a .486 winning percentage and won the division after Memphis (69-75) slipped in the season's final two games. Only two PCL clubs finished with at least 80 wins this year: Oklahoma City (82-62) and Las Vegas (81-63). In 2012, all four divisions featured clubs with 80-game winners.