Juan Portes isn't sure if there is a correlation between his recent hot streak and the fact that Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith moved him into the leadoff spot in mid-August.
One thing is certain, though. Since Smith put Portes atop the batting order, the utility man has been a catalyst for the Miracle. And now he has helped lead them into the Florida State League finals against the Daytona Cubs.
Portes, a 15th-round pick in 2004, moved into the leadoff spot on a full-time basis on Aug. 16. He finished up the regular season by hitting in 11 of 12 games, batting .354 (17-for-48) in the process. Portes closed out with a six-game hitting streak and also picked up hits in both games against Dunedin in the opening round of the playoffs.
"I guess it's just perfect timing," said Portes, who raised his average from .260 to .270 with his late push. "I was just trying to do the best I could and get prepared for the playoffs. I was really just thinking about the team, and us getting on a good streak so we could win.
"I felt good all year, but I have been working on some mechanical problems. I'm trying to keep my hands still and put my foot down, so I wouldn't have so much movement. I was preparing to try and hit the fastball. I think I'm seeing more fastballs now."
Portes said he doesn't feel as if he is being pitched any differently than when he was batting further down in the order. Whatever he's doing, or however he's being pitched, the results are clearly a bit different than they had been for much of the summer.
"I sat down one day and thought about what I was doing when things were going well," Portes said. "I was trying to get back on that same page and square up better. It's also helped me with the off-speed pitches."
Portes does have some playoff experience on his resume, so that hasn't hurt, either. He hit .235 (4-for-17) for Beloit in the 2006 Midwest League playoffs and drew on that during the opening round against the Blue Jays. He went 2-for-8 with a double, an RBI and a run scored.
"This is it right here, you can feel the excitement," Portes said. "Everyone is playing together. The thing that the first series did to help us out was to give us a little momentum. We're excited to play. Hopefully, everything will turn out good."
Fort Myers (77-59) vs. Daytona (73-59)
Best-of-5 Championship Series begins Saturday, Sept. 6
The Miracle have won five Florida State League titles, taking four consecutive crowns in the late '60s and early '70s when they were located in Miami and affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. This is Fort Myers' first trip to the Finals in 13 years. Daytona last reached the playoffs in 2004, the year the Finals were canceled due to Hurricane Ivan. In 2000, the Cubs swept St. Lucie and Dunedin to win the championship.
The teams split six games this season. They divided a four-game set on the Gulf Coast in early May, then halved a rain-shortened two-game series in mid-July in Daytona.
Edward Ovalle paced the Miracle with a .333 (7-for-21) average, connecting for a homer and driving in six. Steve Singleton appeared in only two games but had five hits, including two triples and a homer, in nine at-bats while driving in five. Alex Burnett made a pair of starts, going 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings. Cole Devries allowed only two runs in seven innings in his start but was tagged with a loss. Overall, Fort Myers starters posted a 4.25 ERA, while the bullpen put up a 4.76 ERA in the six games. ... James Adduci was the only Daytona player to appear in all six games and he made the most of his chances, hitting .435 (10-for-23) with a homer and five RBIs. Darwin Barney hit .368 (7-for-19) with a homer and five RBIs. Jon Wyatt batted .400 (6-for-15) with a homer, three RBIs and four runs scored. Daytona starters Esmailin Caridad, Jose Ceda and Hung-Wen Chen combined to go 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA over 18 1/3 innings. However, fellow starters Rich Hill, Adam Harben and Alex Maestri were 0-2 with an 8.78 ERA over 13 1/3 innings.
Players to Watch
Fort Myers: The Miracle posted a 0.50 ERA, allowing only two runs, in two games against Dunedin in the opening round. Right-hander Matthew Fox is slated to start the opener after going 7-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 32 games (14 starts) during the regular season. He was particularly effective in August, posting a 2-1 record and a 1.29 ERA in six games (five starts). Deolis Guerra, the teenager whom the Twins acquired in the Johan Santana deal, was 11-9 with a 5.47 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) and is the tentative starter for Game 2. He walked 71 and struck out 71 in 130 innings. Devries and Burnett will follow in the rotation. Whitney Robbins had three hits in seven at-bats against Dunedin, while Rene Tosoni was 2-for-5 with a homer, two RBIs and three walks vs. the Jays. Right-hander Anthony Slama took a line drive off his pitching elbow on the final play of Wednesday's clincher against Dunedin but suffered only a bruise and is available for the Finals opener.
Daytona: Second baseman Tony Thomas was 6-for-12 with an RBI and five runs scored in the three games against Palm Beach. Blake Lalli went 4-for-9, including a three-hit effort in Friday's clincher. Jonathan Mota was 5-for-12. Ty Wright hit .300 with eight homers and 72 RBIs. He finished up strong, batting .500 (13-for-26) with 10 RBIs in his last seven games of the regular season before going 3-for-12 against the Cards. The Cubs hit .325 in the opening round. Hung-Wen Chen pitched six shutout innings in Game 3 against the Cards after going 2-1 with a 3.65 ERA in 12 FSL games (10 starts) during the season.