Texas League playoff preview

Struggling Naturals meet hot Drillers; Missions face RockHounds

Batting .296 with a .398 OBP and 77 runs scored, Luis Urias leads San Antonio into the Texas League playoffs. (Lance Carter/MiLB.com)

By Troy Schulte / Special to MiLB.com | September 5, 2017 11:30 AM ET

This year's Texas League playoffs consist of two surprising participants and one team trying to make league history -- again. 

For the first time since 2014, the Midland RockHounds did not win either half in the Texas League, but they finished in second place in the second half, giving them a shot at their fourth consecutive league title. 

Not since the Fort Worth Panthers won six consecutive league titles from 1920-1925 has a team won four in a row. 

The RockHounds missed out on division titles in both halves because of the consistency of the San Antonio Missions, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The Texas League's worst team in 2016 when they were 58-82, the Missions went 78-62 under the circuit's Manager of the Year, Phillip Wellman.

Meanwhile, the Tulsa Drillers will take on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in the other division series after finishing in third place in the first half and hitting their stride despite a July managerial change. The Drillers were 44-26 in the second half, including an eight-game winning streak in August, to win the second-half division title. 

Northwest Arkansas Naturals (67-73, North Division first-half champion) vs. Tulsa Drillers (77-63, North Division second-half champion)

Northwest Arkansas won the season series 18-14

Game 1 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 6, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 2 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 7, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 3 at Tulsa, Sept. 8, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 4 at Tulsa (if necessary), Sept. 9, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 5 at Tulsa (if necessary), Sept. 10, 6:05 p.m. CDT

Scott Hennessey had only been with the Tulsa Drillers for three weeks when his role drastically changed. 

A scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hennessey joined the Drillers as third-base coach following the amateur Draft in June. Then Drillers manager Ryan Garko resigned in July to take over as coach at the University of Pacific, so Hennessy finished the season as a manager for the first time in professional baseball. 

"I love it," he said recently. 

He won't take full credit for how the Drillers finished the season, even if the team won 10 of the first 11 games he managed and had an eight-game winning streak in August. In all, the Drillers went 27-13 after he took over. 

"They get the credit," said Hennessey, referring to his players. "We worked together and I was just myself. You can't fool these guys. If they know you're in it for them, then it's a smooth transition."

It has helped Hennessey that he's had Matt Beaty in his lineup every day. Beaty, who plays both first and third base, isn't on the Dodgers' top prospect lists, but he was named Texas League Player of the Year for his consistency. Beaty hit .326, just ahead of Arkansas' Ian Miller for the league batting lead. He added 15 home runs and 69 RBIs and became the first batting champion in Tulsa's history.

"We knew he had power," Hennessey said. "But did I think he was going to hit .320 or .325? You don't know that. But to his credit, he worked hard and got better and he's a good player."

Despite roster changes and a league-worst 28-42 second-half record, Northwest Arkansas Naturals manager Vance Wilson still likes the team he's taking to the playoffs. 

"I don't think our record is a true indication of what type of team we are," Wilson said.

Left-hander Emilio Ogando has remained consistent, compiling a 10-10 record with a 3.45 ERA, but no other Natural has more than 18 starts, highlighting the pitching staff's turnover this season.

"A good pitching staff feeds off each other," Wilson said. "And I think that takes time. It takes time to get competitive with each other, and to pull for each other. It just takes time to fall in."

Two of their pitchers appear to be entering the playoffs at their best. Josh Staumont has held teams to one or no runs in his last three starts and Matt Tenuta compiled a 2.35 ERA in August, holding teams scoreless in his final four appearances out of the bullpen.

Video: Matt Beaty wins it with a dinger for the Drillers

San Antonio Missions (78-62, South Division first- and second-half champion) vs. Midland RockHounds (67-71)

San Antonio won the season series, 18-14

Game 1 at San Antonio, Sept. 6, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 2 at San Antonio, Sept. 7, 7:05 p.m. CDT

Game 3 at Midland, Sept. 8, TBA

Game 4 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 9, TBA

Game 5 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 10, TBA

Few bright spots existed during Wellman's first season as San Antonio's manager in 2016, as evidenced by its league-worst 58-82 record. 

But the minor-league veteran, who is with his third Texas League team, is entering the 2017 playoffs with the league's overall best record and having been named Manager of the Year. 

It's a spot he said he felt in April his team could reach.

"Not that I'm a soothsayer or anything, but I told them about two weeks into the season that I thought there was something very special here," Wellman said. "When you have a team that's got great chemistry you have a chance. Everyone really cared about each other, and we've showed our resiliency."

And with a lineup that for much of the year has consisted of just two players ranked by MLB.com in the San Diego Padres' top-30 prospects -- infielder Luis Urias is No. 3 and first baseman Josh Naylor is No. 10 -- Wellman is quick to give most of the credit to his pitching staff.

Starters Brett Kennedy and Enyel De Los Santos have been in San Antonio's rotation all year, leading a staff that compiled a league-best 3.30 ERA. And while most of the rest of the staff has turned over in the season's second half, Kennedy and De Los Santos have been constants.

Kennedy leads the league with 13 wins and posted a 3.70 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 141 innings, while De Los Santos is 10-6 with a 3.78 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 150 innings. 

"It would be a coin toss between them if we were going to give a most-improved," Wellman said.

That staff will go up against a Midland lineup featuring Boyd, who claimed the league batting title with a .326 average. Max Schrock is hitting .318, making the RockHounds the only team in the league with two .300 hitters, 

Schrock and Boyd teamed with Viosergy Rosa to form one of the Texas League's best lineups. Rosa hit 18 home runs with a league-best 110 RBIs.

While San Antonio won the season series, Boyd, Schrock and Rosa did plenty of damage in those games. Schrock hit .337 against the Missions, Boyd hit .322 and Rosa drove in 25 runs.

Video: San Antonio's Urias doubles on four-hit night

In Brief

Adding Tatis: Already with one of baseball's top prospects in infielder Luis Urias, the San Antonio Missions will have Fernando Tatis Jr. for their playoff run. Tatis, ranked fourth in the Padres' system and 57th overall, hit. 281 with a .390 on-base percentage and a .520 slugging percentage at Class A Fort Wayne before being promoted last month. He's hitting. 255 in 13 games with the Missions. 

Unheralded at the top: Neither Boyd nor Beaty is among its team's top 30 prospects according to MLB.com. But they were the most consistent hitters in the Texas League this season, entering the Monday's final regular-season games with league-best .326 batting averages. Boyd, a fourth-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 2014, shined in his first Double-A season, leading the RockHounds in hits (172) and doubles (29). He got better as the season went on too, hitting .330 with 13 doubles and 33 RBI in the second half. Beaty, a 12th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015, hit .355 in the second half with eight home runs and 44 RBI. 

Finishing strong: Scott Heineman's Double-A debut wasn't all smooth sailing, but the Texas Rangers' No. 24 prospect probably likes how he's finishing it. Heineman, drafted out of the University of Oregon in the 11th round in 2015, is hitting .407 with nine doubles, a triple and a home run since Aug. 10. The late-season surge has made up for a rough July -- in which he hit .148 -- and raised his average to .282 entering Monday. His average had dipped to .251 on Aug. 10, but his 35 hits since are the most in the Texas League.

Troy Schulte is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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