As the 2011 season winds down, follow along with MiLB.com as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.
The Arkansas Travelers face the defending champion Northwest Arkansas Travelers in the best-of-5 North Division Finals that open the Texas League playoffs Wednesday, while wire-to-wire South Division winner San Antonio takes on Wild Card entry Frisco.
Arkansas is looking to rally after an up-and-down season during which it won a first-half division title but lost its best player -- twice -- while going through three managers and a pair of second-half losing streaks.
The explosive offense that powered San Antonio to first- and second-half South Division championships has quieted, thanks to personnel changes. And under Manager of the Year Doug Dascenzo, the Missions will be trying to generate the runs they need to beat the RoughRiders.
The best-of-5 Championship Series begins Sept. 13.
Arkansas (North Division first-half champion, 68-69) vs. Northwest Arkansas (North Division second-half champion, 73-64)
Arkansas won the season series, 15-14
Game 1 at Arkansas, Sept. 7 at 8:10 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Arkansas, Sept. 8 at 8:10 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Northwest Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Northwest Arkansas (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. ET
The Travelers may have to overcome more than four-time postseason qualifier Northwest Arkansas when the North Division series opens Wednesday at Dickey-Stephens Park. They also may have to overcome an identity crisis.
Will Arkansas be the team that won the first-half championship with a mix of quality pitching and timely hitting? Or will it be the team that drifted through the second half with losing streaks of seven and nine games?
Either way, the Travs are definitely not the same team that started the year and, even by Minor League standards in which player shuffles are the norm, have seen more than their share of upheaval.
"We stress that we've got to get some momentum going into the playoffs. It's hard to turn it on and off," manager Bobby Mitchell said.
It may have been no surprise that standout center fielder Mike Trout, the Angels' top prospect, was called up to fill a need created by Peter Bourjos' injury. Trout returned to Arkansas, only to be called up again.
Trout, a midseason and postseason All-Star and the league's leading hitter, batted .326 with 31 extra-base hits and 33 steals in his two stints at Arkansas and was a major factor in the first-half title. Not surprisingly, the second-half losing streaks coincided with Trout's absence.
"Because we lost Mike Trout and some offense, we have to be able to do that hit-and-run more," Mitchell said. "Bunt more and get guys in from third, which we've struggled lately doing. That's all a big part of our system and a big part of this team going into the playoffs."
The Travs have even had turnover in the dugout. After leading Arkansas to its first-half crown, Bill Mosiello left to join the coaching staff at the University of Tennessee. Minor League field coordinator Todd Takayoshi filled in until Aug. 1, when Mitchell, the Angels' Minor League outfield coordinator, took over.
"It's really unusual, especially the managerial changes that we've had," Mitchell said.
Those ups and downs included right-hander Matt Shoemaker (12-5, 2.48) capping his breakout season by being named Texas League Pitcher of the Year and the loss of right-hander Garrett Richards (12-2, 3.06 ERA) who was promoted to the big leagues.
San Antonio (South Division first- and second-half champion, 94-46) vs. Frisco (South Division Wild Card, 79-61)
San Antonio won the season series, 19-13
Game 1 at San Antonio, Sept. 7 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at San Antonio, Sept. 8 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Frisco , Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Frisco (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Frisco (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. ET
The Missions have, out of necessity, played with two different offensive philosophies this year. The results haven't changed.
San Antonio charges into the playoffs after winning both halves and leaving it to Frisco (79-60) to fill in the bracket as the Wild Card winner. The Wild Card is the team with the second-best overall record, and no one was going to touch the Missions after they won the first half by nine games and led the division by five entering the final day.
"It's been great," Dascenzo said. "Good, solid pitching. The defense has been good all year long. And of course, the hitting has been solid as well. There's just a bunch of guys who are enjoying playing baseball and it seemed like when guys left, other guys stepped right in. That just shows the strength of the system."
While the Padres have kept the Missions stocked with talent, the team has been forced to adopt a different offensive look than it had early in the year.
In the first half, the Missions were near the top of the league in hitting, thanks to a breakout year by James Darnell (.333, 17 homers, 62 RBIs), good early production from guys like Cody Decker and Jaff Decker and 18 and 16 homers respectively from and Sawyer Carroll and Vincent Belnome.
Most importantly, the group hit as well at spacious Wolff Municipal Stadium as it did in some of the more hitter-friendly parks on the road.
The right-handed, pull-power guys are less affected by the ballpark, Dascenzo said, and his lefty power guys like Belnome and Carroll have the ability to go the other way.
"I think that's one definite thing that has given us the success and numbers at this ballpark this year that differs from years past," he added.
But Cody Decker, Belnome and shortstop Beamer Weems missed time with injuries, while Darnell and pitcher Anthony Bass were among the key players promoted. The Missions' batting average fell to a middle-of-the-pack .268.
"In July and August, once we made the moves and lost some guys to injury, it was more of a manufacturing-type offense," Dascenzo said. "So we were running the bases aggressively and taking advantage of that, which the first-half team did as well."
But the Missions pitching staff continued to hold up its end, thanks in part to the Padres' trade with Texas that added Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin into the rotation. San Antonio brings a league-best 3.44 ERA into the postseason.
"The pitching was just stable all year long," Dascenzo said. "The addition of Erlin and Wieland gave us a sixth and seventh starter on the staff really."
A little help: Dascenzo was named Texas League Manager of the Year after leading the Missions to the playoffs with South Division first- and second-half championships. He was quick to share credit.
"What it means to me is that everybody is involved in that," Dascenzo said. "The coaching staff here, the player development people throughout the system and the scouting department who picks these guys. When it's all said and done, it's really an award for everybody."
Richards returns: It is rare for the Angels to rehab an injured player at Arkansas, since Class A Advanced Inland Empire is a lot closer to Anaheim. But the Angels returned Garrett Richards to Arkansas for a weekend start. The right-hander is recovering from a groin injury suffered during his August promotion to the big leagues.
Richards pitched two innings against Springfield on Friday and promptly returned to the Angels.
"If we got Garrett back, he'd be one guy that could stop a losing streak," Mitchell said.
Looks familiar: Texas League wins leader Will Smith (13-9, 3.85) will be trying to pick up a playoff victory for Northwest Arkansas against his old team, the Arkansas Travelers, this week.
The left-hander was in the Angels system until last year and went 1-2 with a 7.23 ERA in a stint with the Travelers before he was traded to the Royals as part of the deal that brought infielder Alberto Callaspo to the Angels.