It's a blessing and a curse to be a Triple-A team bound for the playoffs.
On the positive side, with rosters full of more experienced players, postseason butterflies are going to be a little easier to overcome. Players in the Pacific Coast League, by and large, have been around the block a time or two and will likely be ready for anything a playoff run will throw at them.
The curse, of course, is that the PCL is truly just a phone call away from the big leagues and the Minor League playoffs begin right after Major League rosters can expand to 40 on Sept. 1. Players obviously will take any big-league experience they can get, but it can leave the Triple-A teams scrambling to fill fairly important holes as the postseason begins.
This year is no different, with the PCL playoffs kicking off on Wednesday, Sept. 3 as Salt Lake visits defending-champion Sacramento and Oklahoma travels to Iowa.
All four teams have seen some key players go up to the parent club prior to and on roster expansion day. Salt Lake lost one of the hottest hitters in the league when Brandon Wood got called up to the Angels on Aug. 28. Kendry Morales joined him on Aug. 31.
Sacramento, which not only won the PCL crown in 2007, but also went on to win the Bricktown Showdown, barely got the chance to know Aaron Cunningham. The center fielder, who came to the A's organization in the Dan Haren trade, had hit .382 over 20 games since being moved up from Double-A. When Frank Thomas was put on the DL on Saturday, Cunningham is the one who got the call. He went 2-for-4 in his Major League debut.
The Oklahoma RedHawks didn't escape either. Catcher Taylor Teagarden had barely returned from the Olympics in China before getting called up to Texas on Monday. The Iowa Cubs? They lost first baseman Micah Hoffpauir and his 1.145 OPS and 100 RBIs to Chicago along with catcher Koyie Hill and infielder Casey McGehee. No team was left untouched.
What do teams do in this situation? They look below them for help. Salt Lake called up a pair of players from Double-A Arkansas. The other three teams all made additions to their rosters as well. The club that fills in the holes the best might be the one that earns a trip to Oklahoma City for the Bricktown Showdown.
Of course, the PCL managers might have a vested interest in getting there, beyond just the thrill of playing in the one-game Triple-A championship. In the last two years, the manager of the PCL team that has gone on to win at Bricktown -- Chip Hale in 2006 and Tony DeFrancesco last year -- landed a big-league coaching gig the following season.
Oklahoma RedHawks (75-67) vs. Iowa Cubs (83-58)
Best-of-5 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 3
Oklahoma is making its first visit to the PCL playoffs since 2005. The RedHawks haven't gotten past the first round since 1999, when they lost the title to Vancouver. Oklahoma's last championship -- one of two total -- came all the way back in 1965. Iowa has never won a PCL crown, though it did advance to the championship series by beating Oklahoma in 2004. The I-Cubs did win a title in the American Association back in 1993. If Oklahoma can control Iowa's offense, which posted the third-best OPS in the league, the RedHawks could advance.
Oklahoma and Iowa were fairly evenly matched in 2008, with the Cubs gaining a slight 9-7 edge after taking three of five from Aug. 20-24 to clinch the American North Division.
The RedHawks lost their best performer vs. Iowa, Nelson Cruz, to the big leagues. They still have Nate Gold who hit five homers and drove in 10 runs, though he only hit .232. Ryan Roberts helped out with the run production as well, hitting .273 with 11 RBIs in 16 games. Chris Shelton played in just seven contests against the Cubs, but went 13-for-27 (.481) with a pair of homers and nine RBIs. Ten-game winner Elizardo Ramirez has pitched against Iowa four times (three starts), going 1-1 with a 4.07 ERA in 24 1/3 innings.
Koyie Hill and Micah Hoffpauir -- both in the bigs -- have had the most success against Oklahoma, with Hill hitting five homers and driving in 15 runs over 13 games and Hoffpauir batting a robust .472 in eight games (17-for-36) to go along with a pair of homers and a dozen RBIs. ... Randy Wells leads the pitching staff with 21 innings and has a 3.43 ERA in that span, walking just six and striking out 23.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Oklahoma: With the top two offensive performers -- Nelson Cruz and Joaquin Arias -- in the big leagues, the top offensive players for the RedHawks are Ryan Roberts (.302, 10 HR, 15 SB) and John Mayberry, who has hit .265, but does have 52 extra-base hits in 112 games. ... Elizardo Ramirez is the de facto ace with 10 wins, a 4.50 ERA and 160 innings. They might be aided by the return of Tommy Hunter from the bigs. Hunter has gone 13-8 with a 3.41 ERA in three Minor League starts this season. He's gone 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA in eight starts for the RedHawks.
Iowa: Bobby Scales is closing in on 1,000 games played in the Minors with nary a big-league at-bat. But he's hit .320 and set career highs in batting average, home runs, on-base and slugging percentage. Jason Dubois began the year in the Nationals' system at Triple-A Columbus, but he's in Iowa now and is bringing his .661 slugging percentage (24 HR in 233 AB) with him. Andres Torres has hit .305 with 11 homers, 10 triples, 27 doubles and 24 steals in 27 attempts. ... Kevin Hart has taken over closing duties and excelled, saving five games and posting a 1.35 ERA in 13 1/3 August innings. Overall, he's got a 1.56 ERA since moving into a relief role in July, with a .140 batting average against.
Salt Lake Bees (82-60) vs. Sacramento River Cats (82-60)
Best-of-5 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 3
This is the third straight postseason appearance for Salt Lake, but the Bees haven't been able to get past the first round. The club did play in the championship in 2002, but lost to Edmonton. Salt Lake has hoisted championship banners following the 1971 and 1979 seasons. Sacramento is looking to repeat and get a chance to defend its Bricktown Showdown crown as well. The RiverCats will be in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, having won titles in 2003 and 2004.
Sacramento easily took the season series, going 11-5 against the Bees. Twelve of the 16 games were played in Salt Lake and the RiverCats have won the last seven meetings between the teams.
Bobby Wilson has led the way for the Bees against the RiverCats, hitting .350 with a .922 OPS in 12 games. Brandon Wood, who's up with the Halos, hit .328 with four homers and 15 RBIs, playing in all 16 games. Nick Adenhart's struggles have been apparent against Sacramento as the right-hander has gone 0-4 with a 8.44 ERA in four starts. ... The oft-injured Landon Powell led the RiverCats with 16 RBIs against the Bees, while Brooks Conrad wasn't far behind with 14. Most of the pitchers who faced Salt Lake repeatedly are up in the big leagues, but Brad Knox, who pitched seven strong innings in his one start against the Bees, is still on the roster. So is swing man Chris Gissell, who gave up just one run over 10 innings.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Salt Lake: Freddy Sandoval (.333, 15, 88) and the returned Olympian Matt Brown (.321, 21, 67 in 96 games) form a formidable offensive duo. ... Shane Loux is among the league leaders in wins (12, second) and ERA (3.98, 5th). Closer Jason Bulger has 16 saves and a sub-1.00 ERA.
Sacramento: Wes Bankston finished the season well, hitting .321 in August to bring his season totals up to .280 with 20 homers and 73 RBIs in 95 games. ... Which Brad Knox will show up? After a rough June and July, he posted a 2.33 ERA with just one walk in his first 27 August innings. He then proceeded to give up 17 earned runs on 15 hits and nine walks over 7 2/3 IP spanning two starts. Used mostly as a starter in the second half, Chris Gissell has gone 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 44 1/3 IP since the break.