Four teams with recent postseason history will tussle in the Texas League playoffs beginning Wednesday.
Arkansas won the second-half North division title to meet first-half champion Tulsa in the opening round. In the South, Corpus Christi defeated San Antonio on the final day of the season to become the double champion and relegate San Antonio to the wild card by virtue of having the second-best overall record.
Arkansas and San Antonio met in the 2011 championship series, which San Antonio swept in three games. Corpus Christi reached the playoffs last year but bowed out in the divisional round on a sweep by Frisco and Tulsa made the postseason last year and lost three games to one against eventual champion Springfield.
Of the four, only Tulsa has yet to win a championship in this century. The Drillers' last title came when they beat Wichita in a seven-game series in 1998. Arkansas won the 2008 title against Frisco and Corpus Christi beat Wichita in 2006, while San Antonio, the most experienced playoff team of the four, has the 2011 championship as its most recent.
The divisional and championship series are best-of-5.
Tulsa (68-70) North Division first-half champion vs.
Arkansas (73-66) North Division second-half champion
Arkansas won the season series, 18-14
Game 1 at Tulsa, Sept. 4 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Tulsa, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Arkansas, Sept. 6 at 8:10 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Arkansas, (if necessary) Sept. 7 at 1:10 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Arkansas, (if necessary) Sept. 8 at 3:10 p.m. ET
Tulsa's Texas League North Division first-half championship may have been anticlimactic, but the way the Drillers figure it, they will just have to provide the excitement in the postseason.
Tulsa took advantage of a late slide by the Arkansas Travelers and some bad weather in Springfield to hold off both teams and win the first half by a game. The race ended in three consecutive rainouts at Springfield, denying the defending champion Cards a chance to knock off the Drillers at their home park and leaving Tulsa with its one-game lead.
Like most Minor Leagues that use a half-season format, the Texas League sooner or later runs out of makeup dates and simply has to call a season -- or a half-season -- quits. Tulsa wound up 34-34 while Springfield finished 33-35.
Drillers Manager Kevin Riggs said all involved tried to get the games played or arrange makeup dates, but it was not to be. Words from Springfield manager Mike Shildt, however, eased some of the frustration of not deciding the outcome on the field.
"'We've had 68 games to do this,'" Riggs said, paraphrasing Shildt. "'You were one game better than us so congratulations and well deserved.' That made me feel a little bit better. Putting it into perspective, that's certainly how it was."
It certainly wasn't the weather that allowed Tulsa to take three of five at Arkansas (winning the makeup of a previous rainout) June 12-15 to help put the Drillers in position to win.
"We have very strong pitching and we're a tremendous defensive ballclub," Riggs said. "We're going to be in a lot of games, and if we can scratch out a couple runs we'll have a chance."
Indeed. Tulsa had the league's fewest errors (107), the lowest batting average (.245) and one of the best pitching staffs with a 3.67 ERA (third in the league).
The Drillers will be facing an Arkansas team that has been streaking down the stretch, winning seven straight and 12 of 15 entering play Monday, and the Drillers are no doubt missing players like Kent Matthes (who hit .270 with nine homers before his promotion) and right-hander Chad Bettis (3-4. 3.71 ERA).
But Tulsa has mainstays like first baseman Kiel Roling (with a team-high 24 homers) and righty Christian Bergman (8-7, 3.37 ERA).
"We're probably in the same boat as a lot of people," Riggs said. "We've lost some guys, bullpen-wise, and certainly a couple players offensively that contributed. It's pretty much I would say the same as everywhere, maybe a little different with us because we did clinch the first half, where they're more apt to move guys ahead."
Having stumbled down the stretch in the first half, being overtaken by Tulsa and dropping three straight at last-place Northwest Arkansas after holding a lead for most of the race, Arkansas left nothing to chance in the second half.
After dropping two of three at South first-half champion Corpus Christi, the Travelers won 11 of 13 games entering Monday's finale, a run that included a winning streak they extended to seven with Sunday's 2-0 victory over Northwest Arkansas.
Arkansas manager Tim Bogar said it was part of a season-long maturation process that has made the players mentally tougher.
"The first half it was like 'We're not sure,' " Bogar said. "In the second half, it was like 'We can do this.' ... We've won a lot of close games. It's one of those things where you just saw them kind of grow after those few losses we had after that one road trip to Corpus."
The Travelers were trying to give everyone a breather heading into the divisional round of the playoffs against Tulsa.
First baseman C.J. Cron and third baseman Kaleb Cowart got Monday off, second baseman Taylor Lindsey sat out Sunday's 2-0 victory over Northwest Arkansas along with outfielder Cyle Hankerd. Sunday starter Brandon Hynick came out after five innings (and got his 12th victory), and manager Tim Bogar was looking to use the days off and travel day to get his other regulars as much rest as possible.
"Everybody is getting their one day plus the extra day with the travel day so I think we should be nice and prepared for the playoffs," Bogar said.
Corpus Christi (83-57) South Division first- and second-half champion vs.
San Antonio (78-61) South Division second-place overall
Teams split the season series, 14-14
Game 1 at Corpus Christi, Sept. 4 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Corpus Christi, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at San Antonio, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at San Antonio, (if necessary) Sept. 7 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary) home field and time to be determined
Corpus Christi third baseman Jonathan Meyer has played in more games this year than any of his teammates.
He has made slow and steady progress in much the same grinding manner, spending a full year in Rookie ball, a full year at low Class A and two years at Class A Advanced Lancaster. This year he finally arrived at Corpus Christi, where he has played 128 games entering Monday's finale with San Antonio.
But after the grind, Meyer is about to get his reward. The Texas League playoffs are around the corner, and Meyer and his Hooks teammates are going as the South Division first-half winner with a chance to take both halves if they won Monday's game.
"It's awesome," said Meyer, a product of Simi Valley, Calif. "I went to the playoffs one of my four years. This is my fifth, it will be two of my five years and, God, there's nothing better. I won when I was in Little League, I won when I was in high school and I won last year. There is no better feeling, and you always want to get back to that."
Meyer brought a .251 average into the season but batted .260 with a team-high 68 RBIs in 2013. He isn't ranked among the Houston Astros' top prospects, but he has worked hard at being an RBI man, leading by an example and certainly being that guy who punches the clock each day.
"There really is no way to stay fresh. You do as much as you can," he said. "You try to do as good as you can. You try to stretch, wake up every morning and try to just stretch out and try to get your body back in shape but it's tough when you're playing 140 games a year. Even when you take a day off, you come back to the ballpark and you go 'Man, I should feel better than this.'"
But making the playoffs, on a team that has made its reputation for clutch play with 11 walk-off victories, Meyer thinks he and the Hooks may be feeling no pain in less than two weeks.
"We have a lot of desire to win right now, and we don't give up."
On Saturday the Hooks won their franchise record 82nd game and got their 11th walk-off victory of the season -- against playoff opponent San Antonio for good measure. Corpus Christi rallied with a four-run ninth, with Ronny Torreyes tying it on a three-run triple, and Preston Tucker beat out a swinging bunt to bring in Torreyes for the win.
While both teams were already playoff qualifiers, the season-ending series at Whataburger Field still had some urgency. Entering Monday's Labor Day finale, Corpus Christi was trying to nudge aside San Antonio to win both halves and relegate the Missions to the wild card.
San Antonio has suffered four walk-off losses this month but beat Corpus Christi 13-9 on Sunday to force a deadlock entering the final game, which the Hooks one behind two Domingo Santana homers.
Not forgotten: Former Corpus Christi Hooks George Springer and David Martinez, now with Triple-A Oklahoma City, were named Texas League player and pitcher of the year, respectively. Pitching coach Gary Ruby won the Mike Coolbaugh Coach of the Year award given to the league's top assistant.
Even up: San Antonio has played in 114 playoff games, more than any other Texas League team, and the Missions have a 107-107 postseason record. The Missions' last championship came against Arkansas on a three-game sweep in 2011.