The Texas League Finals begin Tuesday when Arkansas visits San Antonio, the second time in three postseasons that the two meet for the title. The Missions swept the 2011 series, best remembered for the 20-inning Game 2. It remains the longest game in Texas League postseason history as well as the longest game in Travelers history.
Unlikely events follow Arkansas around in the Finals, which the club has made four times since it began its affiliation with the Angels in 2001. In that first season, Arkansas won the first two games of the Finals before the remainder of the series was canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Travs were awarded the league title.
In 2005, Midland won the series in four games over Arkansas, but the last game was marred when Travelers batter Jason Aspito struck out in a count that included four balls. The fan reaction following the umpiring miscalculation in the one-run game necessitated a police escort for the men in blue as they exited the field in Little Rock.
In 2008, Arkansas won in five games over Frisco. The fifth game was pushed back because of Hurricane Ike's devastation of Texas, and those Travelers had the worst record of any league champion at 62-78 (.443).
So, with Arkansas participating, expect the weird and wacky in the Texas League Finals.
Arkansas Travelers (73-66, North Division second-half champion) vs.
San Antonio Missions (78-61, South Division second-place overall)
How they got here: Arkansas swept Tulsa in three games and San Antonio defeated Corpus Christi in five in the Texas League semifinals.
San Antonio won the season series, 9-2
Game 1 at San Antonio, Sept. 10, 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at San Antonio, Sept. 11, 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Arkansas, Sept. 13, 8:10 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 14, 8:10 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 15, 3:10 p.m. ET
Based on how the two teams matched up during the regular season, it would seem something strange is required for San Antonio not to come out on top. The Missions won nine of the 11 meetings, outscoring the Travelers, 43-30. The Finals' scheduled starters for San Antonio combined to go 7-2 with a 1.90 ERA in 61 2/3 innings against Arkansas this season. The Travs' scheduled starters? 1-3 with a 5.25 ERA in five starts over 24 innings.
"We've played there six times this year, and they've beat us all six times," said Arkansas manager Tim Bogar of his club's unpleasant visits to San Antonio's Wolff Stadium. "They've all been low-scoring games."
On the other hand, this is baseball, which means any scenario is possible in a best-of-5 series. Indeed, Arkansas enters as the hotter team. The Travelers won 10 of their last 11 to end the season and then swept Tulsa in the North semis, outscoring the Drillers, 17-6, while bashing all six of the home runs hit in either of the two semifinals.
"I told the people in Arkansas to be patient at the start of the season, and we'll be better at the end of the year," said Bogar. His club was just 37-40 (.481) prior to the June 25 Texas League All-Star Game but was 36-26 (.581) after.
"They have the most talented team in the Texas League, without question," said Missions manager Rich Dauer. "If they are starting to get to where they look like they're going to go, they're going to be very difficult to beat."
In an admittedly small sample, Arkansas boasts the top four Texas League postseason performers in OPS, led by Angels No. 2 prospect C.J. Cron, who smacked two homers in Game 1 vs. Tulsa. Second baseman Taylor Lindsey, the Angels' No. 4 prospect, smacked a pair of doubles and reached in seven of his 14 plate appearances, and outfielder Randal Grichuk, LA's No. 5 prospect, added a pair of homers and a stolen base in the Travs' first-round demolition.
Those three will lead a surging Travelers lineup trying to reverse form against a Missions staff that held it to a .218/.270/.309 line during the season. Cron had just a .209 OBP in 11 games and Cyle Hankerd, the Game 2 hero in the semis, was just 1-for-15 in four games.
Most of the pitchers who stymied Arkansas in the regular season are still around, including Game 1 starter -- and Padres No. 5 prospect -- Matt Wisler, who was 3-1 with a 2.05 ERA vs. the Travelers, fanning 19 batters and walking just four in 22 innings.
Eddie Bonine (1-1, 2.87 ERA vs. Arkansas), Donn Roach (3-0, 1.06), Juan Oramas (no appearances) and Josh Geer (0-0, 1.35) are the scheduled starters for Games 2 through 5. Oramas is the only lefty in the bunch; Bonine was effective despite fanning just one Traveler in 15 2/3 innings over two starts; and Roach should help keep the Travelers in the ballpark -- he had far-and-away the best groundball rate in the Texas League this season. Geer was the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the semis.
"It's amazing to watch," said Dauer of Roach's sinker. "When he's in a groove, I don't know if you can hit the ball in the air."
The Missions allowed the fewest runs in the Texas League this season but were next-to-last in runs scored. Part of both is due to Wolff Stadium (only Arkansas' Dickey-Stephens field stifles runs and hits more). A lot of it, though, is the way the Missions are built. In the five-game series victory over Corpus Christi, they allowed just 12 runs but scored only 15. All five games were decided by two runs or fewer, and the winning team scored two or fewer runs three times.
"We play in a big park -- their park is probably the second-best park in our style of play," said Dauer. "It's very hard to hit a ball out of our park. ... It allows us to make a mistake and not get killed."
Dauer also credited his defense's improvement as being a big part of the club's success in run prevention. In particular, the arrival of second baseman Cory Spangenberg in early June has transformed an infield defense that Dauer called the "worst in organized baseball" in the season's first months.
On offense, speedy Rico Noel led the way in the opening series vs. Corpus Christi, batting .381 with a double, a triple and four runs scored, though he was caught stealing in his (and his team's) only attempt after swiping a Texas League-best 59 bases during the regular season. The Missions led the Texas League in thefts with 171, 40 more than second-place Springfield.
"Any time you can get him on base -- and we've got Spangenberg behind him -- we've got action," said Dauer of Noel. Spangenberg had 36 steals across two levels. "The pitcher has to go with a quick step; catcher's got to be weary; shortens up your infield. Any time you have a speed guy on base, it creates chaos."
The Missions got unlikely first-round contributions from outfielder Yeison Asencio (.300 average, three doubles) and second baseman Adam Buschini (.273 average, three doubles), neither of whom had an OPS better than .700 in the regular season for San Antonio. Spangenberg, the Padres' No. 14 prospect, had two big hits in the clincher.
Arkansas' pitching was fourth-best in ERA in the eight-team Texas League, benefiting in large part from the way its home park stifles home runs. Only San Antonio allowed fewer long balls, but the Travelers were just sixth in the league in strikeouts and issued the third most free passes.
Veteran righty Brandon Hynick gets the nod in Game 1 for Arkansas. The fly-ball pitcher's 12 wins were second most in the league, and his 2.80 ERA was third best. He managed to avoid San Antonio in 24 Texas League starts.
Michael Roth, winner of the semifinal opener, starts Game 2, followed by Mark Sappington, the Angels' No. 6 prospect, in Game 3.
Sappington struck out a batter per inning (26 in 25 2/3) in five starts after being called up from Inland Empire of the California League. He made his first two Double-A appearances against San Antonio, splitting the decisions while pitching 5 1/3 innings in each start. He allowed six hits and five walks in the second outing, Aug. 13, but managed to permit just one run in picking up his first Double-A win. He went five innings for the win in Game 3 of the semis.
"It's always nice to get a kid with his stuff and his energy," said Bogar. "He's a really upbeat guy, but when he's on the mound there's some intensity. He brings everything to the table that a starting pitcher needs."
Perhaps if something strange is to happen in this series, it will come from the righty from Peculiar, Mo.
Lay Batista is the scheduled starter for a Game 4 (if necessary), and the Game 5 starter is to be announced.
First time's a charm: Both Bogar with Arkansas and Dauer with San Antonio are finishing their first seasons as Texas League managers. Bogar has one prior title as a manager, when he skippered the Greeneville Astros to a 2005 Appalachian League title. This is Dauer's second season as a manager at any level. He managed the California League's San Bernadino Spirit, a Dodgers affiliate, in 1987.
A manager's appreciation: What did Rich Dauer learn in what he calls his first true season as a field manager? "I now have a totally different view of all aother managers -- the tremendous stress and extra work that you don't see behind the scenes that I never even thought of. These guys who manage in the Majors and Minors are amazing."
Don't call us losers: The Travelers have had a losing record both times that Arkansas has won the Texas League title since teaming with the Los Angeles Angels in 2001. Along with the 62-78 regular-season record in 2008, Arkansas went 66-70 in 2001.