Pacific Coast League playoff preview

Omaha, Memphis bring rivalry to new level; Las Vegas faces Reno

Aaron Brooks, who went 12-3 for defending-champion Omaha during the regular season, gets the nod in Game 1. (Melinda Haas)

By Chris Jackson / Special to | September 2, 2014 2:42 PM ET

The race for the playoffs came down to the wire again in the Pacific Coast League as three of the four divisions were not clinched until the final weekend of play.

Omaha went from two games back of Oklahoma City to winning the division by 2 1/2 games, courtesy of a series sweep of Colorado Springs while the RedHawks were swept by Iowa in the season's final series.

The Storm Chasers will now face Memphis, which held off in-state rival Nashville for the American Southern Division title.

In the Pacific Conference, Las Vegas cruised to the Southern title, while Reno had to (and did) beat Sacramento head-to-head in four of five games to clinch the Northern crown. That sets up a battle of Nevada for the conference title.

Memphis Redbirds (79-64, American Southern Division champion) vs.
Omaha Storm Chasers (76-67, American Northern Division champion)

The teams split the season series, 8-8

Game 1 at Omaha, Sept. 3 at 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Omaha, Sept. 4 at 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Memphis, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Memphis, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET (if necessary) Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Memphis, Sept. 7 at TBD (if necessary) Watch on MiLB.TV

The Redbirds and Storm Chasers have gone from division rivals to playoff rivals in the span of one season, something the PCL's 2014 realignment made possible.

Now for the first time in the PCL, a Cardinals affiliate will match up with a Royals affiliate in a Triple-A version of the I-70 rivalry.

"I know when Memphis came to town there were a lot of Cardinals fans here," Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. "There's always going to be a rivalry here in the Midwest. We've just gotta go out and get it done -- it's what we've played all year for."

Omaha clinched its fourth straight Northern Division title late Saturday night in a rain-delayed victory over Colorado Springs. Last season the Storm Chasers won their division despite a losing record, a PCL first, and then went on to win not just the league championship but also the Triple-A Championship Game in Durham, North Carolina.

This season's Omaha squad is led on the mound by right-hander Aaron Brooks (12-3, 3.88 ERA), who will start Game 1.

The Storm Chasers' lineup is powered by first baseman Matt Fields (.262, 28 HR, 81 RBI) but mainly relies on a group of less powerful yet still potent hitters. Outfielders Paulo Orlando (.301, 6 HR, 63 RBI, 34 stolen bases) and Whit Merrifield (.340, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 11 stolen bases) ignite the offense.

Memphis moved to the Southern Division this year with positive results. Of course, having the productive Cardinals farm system feeding the Redbirds certainly helped.

Lefty Tim Cooney (14-6, 3.47) leads the Memphis rotation, followed by Zach Petrick (7-6, 4.62) and Boone Whiting (4-7, 4.19). The bullpen has three relievers with 10 or more saves, led by Eric Fornataro (4-5, 2.57, 15 saves).

First baseman Xavier Scruggs (.286, 21 HR, 87 RBI) supplies the power to the lineup. The table is set by outfielders Tommy Pham (.324, 10 HR, 44 RBI, 20 stolen bases) and Stephen Piscotty (.288, 9 HR, 69 RBI), the Cardinals' No. 1 prospect.

Las Vegas 51s (81-63, Pacific Southern Division champion) vs.
Reno Aces (81-63, Pacific Northern Division champion)

The teams split the season series, 8-8

Game 1 at Las Vegas, Sept. 3 at 10:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Las Vegas, Sept. 4 at 10:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Reno, Sept. 5 at 10:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Reno (if necessary), Sept. 6 at 10:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Reno (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 9:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

The cities of Las Vegas and Reno have always had a rivalry of sorts in the state of Nevada. Now their baseball teams will look to capitalize on that when the 51s and Aces go head-to-head for a spot in the PCL Championship series.

The paths the two teams took could not be more different. The 51s clinched their division more than a week ago, while the Aces went down to the final day of the season.

"We've played Reno pretty good -- it's [been] back and forth," Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. "Reno has a pretty good club. They have some guys who can swing the bats."

Backman, whose efforts earned him PCL Manager of the Year, said a big key in the 51s clinching early was their rotation.

"We've been able to line up our starting pitching," he said. "That's really been a big key to our success is our pitching."

Rafael Montero (6-4, 3.60 ERA) will start Game 1, followed by Matthew Bowman (3-2, 3.47) in Game 2 and Mets top prospect Noah Syndergaard (9-7, 4.60) in Game 3.

"I like our matchups," said Backman. "I like the pitching staff we're going to throw out there. And I think we have plenty of offense."

Leading the way offensively for Las Vegas are outfielder Andrew Brown (.283, 21 HR, 69 RBI), first baseman Allan Dykstra (.280, 16 HR, 74 RBI), second baseman Daniel Muno (.259, 14 HR, 62 RBI) and shortstop Matt Reynolds (.333, 5 HR, 40 RBI, 14 stolen bases).

On the flip side, Reno will be led by veteran first baseman Mike Jacobs (.299, 19 HR, 97 RBI), third baseman Andy Marte (.329, 19 HR, 80 RBI) and shortstop Nick Ahmed (.312, 4 HR, 47 RBI, 14 stolen bases).

In brief

Tough call(-ups): Of the four playoff teams, Omaha had it toughest when it came to losing key players to September call-ups. With the Royals leading the American League Central, the Storm Chasers shipped outfielder Carlos Peguero (.266, 30 HR, 76 RBI), infielder Johnny Giavotella (.308, 7 HR, 61 RBI, 20 stolen bases) and catcher Francisco Pena (.240, 27 HR, 61 RBI) to the bigs.

Red-hot Redbirds: Since the start of July, Memphis has gone 40-20 to completely turn its season around. The Redbirds went from 6 1/2 games out of first place to winning a division title for the fourth time in team history.

Battle born: The matchup of two Nevada teams in the Pacific Conference finals marks the first time in the modern PCL that one state will play host to an entire playoff series. The last time the PCL saw two teams from the same state meet in the playoffs was 1954, when all four postseason clubs hailed from California. 

Chris Jackson is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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