The California League playoffs start Wednesday as the San Jose Giants seek to repeat their championship season of 2007, when they beat the Lake Elsinore Storm in five games to take the title. First-year manager Steve Decker knows it will be no easy task, however.
"There's a lot of talent in our league," he said. "Stockton and Modesto have outstanding pitching. They are both very good teams. And Lancaster can lay back and then beat you with a three-run homer.
"Everyone's really going to be fighting it out," he added.
The Giants, who won the California League North division in both the first and second half of the season, aren't too bad in the pitching department, either, especially where the starters are concerned.
The mound staff was led this season by 19-year-old righty Tim Alderson, a lanky 6-foot-6, 217-pounder who was 13-4, winning six of his last seven decisions, and led the California League with a 2.79 ERA.
"Tim's done an outstanding job," Decker said. "He's got great command of his fastball and has developed an above-average change. He's a guy who attacks the strike zone more than anyone on our team."
San Jose's strong starting rotation also included 23-year-old right-hander Kevin Pucetas, who went 10-2 and finished second to his teammate with a 3.02 ERA, but still earned California League Pitcher of the Year honors. Meanwhile, 23-year-old lefty Jesse English posted a 13-7 mark with a 3.19 ERA.
Decker said he saw two slightly different versions of his team this year.
"The first half of the season we had a little more power," he said. "The second half, we were more about speed, but the big thing all year was the way we came to play every day. We tried to approach each game the same way."
The Lancaster JetHawks, who captured the first-half California League South division title, are in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons, missing out in 2006.
Among the keys to the JetHawks' success this season have been left fielder Daniel Nava, who is hitting .341 with 110 hits in 85 games, including 10 homers and 59 RBIs, and second baseman Kris Negron, who has posted a .328 average in 33 games since being promoted from the Class A Greenville Drive of the South Atlantic League on July 29.
"We have really good team chemistry, good pitching and good leadership," Negron said of the 2008 JetHawks.
While Decker and the Giants are ready for the playoffs, the first thing they have to do is wait. By virtue of staying atop their division all season, they draw a first-round bye, something that has the San Jose manager a bit wary. It reminds him of last year's World Series when the hot Colorado Rockies cooled down during a layoff after winning the National League pennant and wound up being swept by the Boston Red Sox
"I'm concerned that we have four days off because of a first-round bye," he said. "That's a big crap shoot. I thought that the Rockies having so many days off was a factor in what happened to them."
Stockton Ports (76-64) vs. Modesto Nuts (70-69)
Best-of-3 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 3
The Ports are back in the playoffs after missing out last year for the first time in five seasons. In their last playoff appearance in 2006, they were eliminated by Visalia in three games in the preliminary round. Stockton's overall record of 76-64 is a substantial improvement over 2007's mark of 64-76. The Nuts are in the playoffs for the sixth time in their last seven seasons. Last year they lost in two straight to Visalia in the preliminary round.
Stockton won the season series, 16-12, with an 8-6 edge both at home and on the road. But the Ports were more dominant earlier in the season, when they had a 10-game winning streak against the Nuts. Modesto took five of the final six.
Archie Gilbert batted .327 against Modesto, going 33-for-101 in 26 games, while Chris Carter smacked seven homers and drove in 21 runs for the Ports. Stockton's Michael Benacka was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts, and reliever Pat Currin collected three saves and had a 1.72 ERA in nine appearances. ... Modesto's Mike Paulk hit .330 with three homers and 17 RBIs, while Nick Haley batted .307, going 23-for-75. On the mound, the Nuts' Jhoulys Chacin won all of his three starts, allowing just one unearned run in 18 innings.
Players to Watch
Stockton: Carter, the California League's Rookie of the Year, belted 39 homers and had 104 RBIs to lead the circuit in both categories. The Ports also got a jolt from Matthew Spencer, who hit .329 in 41 games with eight homers and 27 RBIs. James Heuser, who was primarily a reliever but also made six starts, went 9-3 with a 4.53 ERA.
Modesto: Paulk was among the California League's best batters, posting a .310 mark with 158 hits, while Michael McKenry supplied some punch with 18 homers and 75 RBIs. On the mound, Chacin was 8-2 with a 2.31 ERA in 12 starts and Aneury Rodriguez went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and a league leading 139 strikeouts.
Lake Elsinore Storm (71-69) vs. Inland Empire 66ers (68-73)
Best-of-3 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 3
Lake Elsinore is back in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and the eighth time in nine seasons. The Storm reached the finals in 2007, when they lost to San Jose in five games. They also fell in five to the Giants in 2005. Inland Empire reached the postseason by beating Rancho Cucamonga in a one-game playoff Tuesday. The 66ers took the crown in 2006, topping Visalia in five games.
Lake Elsinore won the season series 17-12 over Inland Empire, including seven of the last nine games the two teams played.
The Storm's Cedric Hunter smacked four homers and had 26 RBIs, while Brian Joynt, who also went deep four times against the 66ers, batted .310 and drove in 17 runs. Nathan Culp went 3-2 with a 3.82 ERA in five starts, while Cesar Carillo was 3-0 with a 5.09 ERA in four starts for Lake Elsinore. ... For the 66ers, Andrew Locke batted .363 (37-for-102) with four homers and 26 RBIs, while Jaime Pedroza hit .303 (27-for-89) with two homers and 11 RBIs. On the mound, Josh Wall was 2-1 with a 4.78 ERA in four starts, and Matthew Sartor was 2-0 with a 4.32 ERA in five appearances.
Players to Watch
Lake Elsinore: The Storm had plenty of offense this season, featuring Hunter, who hit .318 with 11 homers and 84 RBIs; second baseman Eric Sogard, who batted .308 with 10 home runs and 87 RBIs, and right fielder Sam Carter, who belted 14 homers and drove in 82 runs. The starting rotation was anchored by Culp, who went 14-8 with a 3.83 ERA.
Inland Empire: Thomas Giles had 22 homers and 98 RBIs to lead the 66ers in both categories, while Locke had a solid all-around season with a .309 average, 11 home runs and 84 RBIs. Among pitchers, Wall went 9-6 with a 6.28 ERA, fanning 101 in 129 innings, and Victor Garate, who was promoted late in the season from Class A Great Lakes, was 3-0 with a 4.70 ERA.