In the first game of the Silver Hawks' season, a year that would begin with nine consecutive losses, the pitching staff walked eight batters. In total, they would allow 35 walks in the nine losses, jumping out of the gate as one of the league's wildest teams.
Quickly, South Bend manager Mark Haley and pitching coach Erik Sabel sought to make sure the pitchers knew such problematic command would not be accepted.
"It's been a gradual process that's been implemented within the Arizona Diamondbacks and by Erik Sabel," said Haley. "If you look from the beginning, we had as many walks as anyone else, and now if you take a look at it, we have some of the fewest walks."
The Silver Hawks finished the season with the fourth-fewest walks in the Midwest League, but come playoff time, things only have improved further. In 44 postseason innings, South Bend has issued just five walks, and only one reliever has walked a batter in 21 innings. It's almost certainly the driving force behind South Bend's Eastern Division championship and their berth in the Midwest League Finals against the Burlington Bees.
"If you want to get promoted in this organization, you have to control the zone," Haley said bluntly. "We preach the word of controlling the zone, that's something we take pride in."
The significant difference between April and this September has been the new faces in the Silver Hawks bullpen. The team has a completely new back-end, going with a pair of 2008 draftees in left-hander Daniel Schlereth and righty Bryan Shaw as setup men and southpaw Clay Zavada to close things out. The three have combined for 14 strikeouts and no walks in 11 innings this postseason.
"Our starting has been good, but of course, it's our bullpen, four or five deep with pretty good arms," said Haley. "It keeps us in ballgames. If we make the plays and get some hits, it gives us a pretty good chance."
The bullpen has helped the team to two one-run victories in five games during the playoffs. Since Aug. 23, South Bend has not lost a game in which they have scored at least three runs. This is how an offense batting .229 in five postseason games reaches the championship.
"We don't come up with a lot of hits, but we get the big ones. And that's indicative of, and I keep going back to it, the pitching," said Haley. "If the score is 2-1 and you get a big hit and drive in two runs, you win. If the score is 6-1 and you get a big hit and drive in two runs, it doesn't mean anything."
Burlington Bees (73-65) vs. South Bend Silver Hawks (76-63)
Best-of-5 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 10
There's no definitive momentum entering this series, as both clubs swept their opponents to win their respective division titles in the second round of the Midwest League playoffs. Burlington dispatched Cedar Rapids in two quick games, winning the West Division on Sunday, while rain pushed South Bend's sweep over Dayton back to Tuesday. The stories of the two club's seasons are mirror images: horrific starts and bad first-half finishes followed by second-half dominance. Both towns in this series have three championships in team history. While the Silver Hawks last won a championship in 2005, it's been twice that long since Burlington last was in the Midwest League playoffs. The Iowa town hasn't had a champion since 1999.
It would be difficult to find two Midwest League teams less familiar with each other than these two, who played just six times during the regular season. The first meeting came in late April, when Burlington rebounded to win the series with a pair of close victories. The clubs last played July 28, when the Bees won the rubber match of the three-game series, 5-0. In total, Burlington outscored South Bend by 10 runs in their six games during the regular season.
Expect South Bend to get their second crack at Matt Mitchell in this series, as the right-hander baffled the Silver Hawks in their last meeting. Mitchell pitched five innings of two-hit, scoreless ball, earning the victory. Of the South Bend starters to face Burlington, only RHP Christian Beltre had any success. The Silver Hawks Game 1 starter, Jarrod Parker, missed Burlington in both of the teams' two series. Offensively, Parker will have to watch out for Burlington's sluggers Mike Moustakas and Jason Taylor. The two combined for six extra-base hits, nearly half Burlington's total, against the Silver Hawks in the regular season. Meanwhile, South Bend OF Colin Cowgill will seek to continue his recent solid play against the team he went 5-for-11 against in late July.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Burlington: This time of the year, Midwest League teams don't make the championship without some great pitching performances, and the Bees are no exception. Their 4-0 postseason is thanks to their four starting pitchers, who combined to allow just seven earned runs in 24 innings (2.63 ERA) through two rounds. The best of the bunch was RHP Luis Cota, who allowed just one run in seven innings to clinch the Western Division on Sunday. In the bullpen, the Bees have viable pitchers in both the middle -- Brent Fisher, who pitched four scoreless innings to earn the Game 1 win against Cedar Rapids -- and at the back end, as closer Brandon Disk has thrown 3 2/3 scoreless innings for three saves. Offensively, Jason Taylor has stepped up to the plate, continuing to provide power and patience. League MVP Clint Robinson was solid through the first two rounds with a .500 on-base percentage.
South Bend: "The score of our team is probably built around [Taylor] Harbin and [Sean] Couglin," says manager Mark Haley. The two players draw much praise for leadership and hard-nosed play, but neither has been great in the playoffs. Instead, the team has relief in a pair of 2008 drafted outfielders, Colin Cowill (.409, two homers) and Ryne White (.300, one homer). However, if the Silver Hawks win the championship, it will be a testament to their pitching staff. No one in the Midwest League has a better bullpen. Haley turns to a pair of southpaws in the latest innings in Daniel Schlereth and Clay Zavada. Schlereth has thrown four perfect innings in the playoffs, while Zavada has converted all three of his save opportunities. It's possible the Bees see Jarrod Parker twice, as Haley saved him in the second game against Dayton with the hope to use him in Game 1 of the Finals. "It's been fun to watch a guy with that many tools and that kind of arm speed," Haley says of his ace, who got a win in his first playoff start after allowing two earned runs in six innings against West Michigan.