The race between Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas for the Texas League's first-half North Division crown came down to the last day. But once the Travelers got underway in their game at Springfield on Tuesday, the outcome was quickly apparent.
The Travs scored 17 runs on 18 hits -- both season highs -- to rout the Cardinals, 17-6, and claim a playoff berth. The Naturals also won Tuesday night, but finished the first half one game back.
The win put Arkansas into the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when the team won its eighth league championship.
"I'm just so proud of these guys," manager Bill Mosiello said. "We've got the youngest group of position players and the second-youngest pitching staff, and they've been busting their butts all season.
"We've been through some adversity -- Ryan Mount was hitting .329 for us before rupturing a tendon a week-and-a-half ago. He's out for the season. And we started off 0-4. But everyone just kept playing hard and it paid off."
The Angels' Double-A affiliate scored in each of the first five frames to take a 12-4 lead, then added five runs in the eighth. The Travs combined for four homers, matching a season high.
Third baseman Luis Jimenez went 3-for-4 with two homers and four RBIs to tie Mike Trout for the team lead in longballs. Gabe Jacobo went 3-for-6 with a homer and a season-high five RBIs while shortstop Darwin Perez collected four singles, four runs and three RBIs. The Travelers went 8-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
Reliever David Carpenter (1-0) was credited with the win after throwing a perfect eighth inning in his Double-A debut. A former ninth-round Draft pick, the right-hander posted a 0.93 ERA in 25 outings with Class A Advanced Inland Empire before his promotion.
Springfield starter David Kopp (2-4) took the loss, yielding nine runs on nine hits -- three of them homers -- in 3 1/3 innings. He walked two and struck out two.
Arkansas finished the first half at 36-31, despite posting the second-lowest team batting average on the eight-team circuit. The Travelers pitching staff, however, has been excellent, ranking first in complete games and both walks and hits allowed and second in ERA.
Right-hander Garrett Richards (8-1), a first-round pick in the 2009 Draft, leads the league in wins and innings pitched (85 2/3) while ranking third with 68 strikeouts. Teammate Matt Shoemaker's 2.59 ERA is second-best on the loop, while closer Ryan Brasier has posted a 0.89 ERA and 12 saves, second-most in the league.
On offense, top prospect Trout has been as good as advertised, batting .318 with nine home runs and leading the league with 24 stolen bases. The 19-year-old outfielder's 55 runs scored are fifth-most on the circuit and he ranks second with nine triples. He tripled, singled and scored twice against Springfield on Tuesday.
"Our ballpark is the toughest hitters' park in the league, so we can't sit back and wait for home runs," said Mosiello, whose team paces the league in stolen bases and owns its second-best home record. "We run the bases aggressively and really stress going from first to third.
"It isn't always pretty," he laughed. "But we want to make sure we err on the aggressive side. ... One thing that really told me a lot about this team was the fact that we swept three doubleheaders in the last three weeks. It's tough to beat a team twice in a day, but our guys went after it."
Despite the official end of the first half of the season, the Travelers are right back at it Wednesday night with two more games in Springfield. They head home Friday for a four-game set against their arch rivals, the Naturals, before breaking for the Texas League All-Star Game, which takes place in San Antonio on June 29.