With the 2012 season winding down, follow along with MiLB.com as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.
The Northern Division has laid claim to the last three South Atlantic League crowns, with Greensboro taking the title in 2011 after Lakewood won back-to-back titles in 2009-10. After finishing in first place in the first half this year, the Grasshoppers are looking to follow in the Blue Claws' footsteps by taking home consecutive championships.
To do so, they must get past Hagerstown, winner of the Northern's second half. The victor of that series will face the winner of the Southern Division playoffs, which feature first-half title bearers Asheville against Rome, champions of the second half. The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-3 series; the finals are best-of-5.
Among the four teams, Greensboro owns the most SAL championships with four (1980-82, 2011). Asheville's lone SAL title came in 1984, while Rome was crowned in 2003 during its first year in the Coosa Valley after moving from Macon, Ga. Hagerstown has yet to bring a league title to Maryland, but the franchise won it in 1987 and 1992 in its previous home of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Asheville Tourists (88-52, Southern Division first-half champion) vs.
Rome Braves (62-76, Southern Division second-half champion)
Asheville won the season series, 13-7
Game 1 at Rome, Sept. 5 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Asheville, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Asheville (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Joe Mikulik is a walking encyclopedia regarding the playoff fate of the Asheville Tourists since 2000. At 13 consecutive seasons, "Mik" is the longest-tenured manager in the history of the affiliated Minor Leagues. Along the way he has guided the Tourists to the postseason on four occasions -- 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2012. He can recall every play, particularly the near-misses, in each of the first three series. He's hoping this year will end on a more positive note.
"I've been trying to win it every year I've been here," Mikulik said. "It's tough. First of all, it's tough to get in the playoffs because you have to beat six teams in your division. Then you have to win two series. Plus, with players getting promoted or hurt, things really have to line up pretty straight in order to do it."
Professional baseball debuted in Asheville in 1897. The city has won six league titles in 91 seasons, but only the SAL crown in 1984 was earned with an end-of-the-year championship series. The Tourists were the bridesmaids in 1986, 1987 and 2001 (in the latter, the final series concluded prematurely due to the events of 9/11 with Lexington leading two games to none).
In fact, the Tourists have not won a playoff game in six tries since that Lexington series. That scenario could change, however, if the regular season proves to be a harbinger. With 88 victories, Asheville won more games than any Minor League team this season, led by its top two starting pitchers -- Tyler Anderson (12-3, 2.47) and Ben Alsup (14-5, 3.63). Closer Jefri Hernandez led the loop with 21 saves, while shortstop Trevor Story paced the SAL with 43 doubles and 67 extra-base hits and ranked third with 96 runs and 241 total bases.
"Out of any team I've had, from top to bottom, this team has the best opportunity to win it all," said Mikulik, who was named SAL Manager of the Year this season for the fourth time in his career. "That's looking at our offense, defense and pitching, both starting and relieving. We've had some good clubs, especially that '01 team. It would be awesome to win one, regardless of how long it's been."
Though the Tourists have been strong from start to finish, the Rome Braves put together the biggest turnaround in the Minors in recent memory. After struggling to win 18 of 70 games in the first half, the R-Braves opened the second half with 29 victories in 43 outings, including a club-record 13-game winning streak.
"I think the guys were embarrassed about the way things turned out in the first half," said Rome manager Randy Ingle. "The light came on, so to speak, for some of these guys, and then we got a few new guys in here and things really started to turn around. I'm proud of these guys for taking control of the situation instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves."
Greensboro Grasshoppers (80-59, Northern Division first-half champion) vs.
Hagerstown Suns (82-55, Northern Division second-half champion)
Greensboro won the season series, 8-5
Game 1 at Hagerstown, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Greensboro, Sept. 7 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Greensboro (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Hagerstown and Greensboro have been the class of the Northern Division throughout the regular season, with the Suns and Grasshoppers owning the best overall records. The winning has not been easy for either team due to changes in personnel, but the consistency has been maintained because the newcomers as well as the holdovers have stepped up when the opportunity arose.
The Grasshoppers have been well-balanced, evidenced by their ranking third in the league with a staff ERA of 3.72 and second with a .273 batting average. Greensboro's pitching was dominant early with Jose Fernandez (7-0, 1.59 ERA, 14 starts) and Adam Conley (7-3, 2.78 ERA, 14 starts) prior to the duo's midseason promotions to the Florida State League. Picking up the slack has been Jose Urena, who is seventh in the SAL with a 3.38 ERA while going 9-6, and Josh Hodges, who ranks 10th with a 3.65 ERA and has pitched much better than his 8-10 record suggests.
Greensboro's offense has been consistent due to the season-long contributions of four key players. Outfielder Brent Keys became the first Greensboro player since Manny Jose in 1985 to win the league batting title, finishing with a .335 average. Second baseman Austin Barnes is fourth with a .318 batting average, second with 152 hits and tied for fourth with 230 total bases. DH Matt Smith finished second with 20 home runs, while Josh Adams tied for fourth with 84 RBIs.
The fact that the Suns have continued to shine brightly is a testament to the efforts of manager Brian Daubach. The Hagerstown skipper has had 57 players over the course of the campaign, including 32 pitchers and 25 position players. Among those who have departed are Matt Skole, who was tabbed the SAL's top Major League prospect after hitting 27 home runs and driving in 92 runs prior to his recent promotion. Outfielder Billy Burns has been one of the few constants, ranking third in the league with a .322 batting average.
The two teams faced one another last week at Greensboro's NewBridge Bank Ballpark. Hagerstown dominated the first game, 8-0, before the Grasshoppers rallied to win the final two, 4-0 and 12-2. In the finale, six Greensboro players had two or more hits, leading manager Dave Berg to say in anticipation of another three-game series with the Suns, "If we pitch and hit like that, it doesn't matter who we play."
Feeling the effects? The R-Braves clinched the Southern Division crown with a doubleheader sweep over Lexington on Aug. 31. A day later, Rome was held hitless against the Legends' Chris Devenski, who struck out a 2012 Minors high 16 batters and allowed only a walk.
Rome without Wood: Rome will enter the series with Asheville at a disadvantage after lefty Alex Wood was placed on the disabled list over the weekend. Atlanta's second-round pick in June out of the University of Georgia, Wood was one of the keys to the team's turnaround after joining the R-Braves immediately following the All-Star break. In 13 starts, Wood posted a 4-3 record with a 2.22 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. Conversely, Rome will have shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will begin a Major League rehab assignment with the R-Braves beginning on Wednesday night.