It's going to click, Jerry Meyers would always tell right-handed phenom Dexter Carter. How could it not? Carter is 6-foot-6, a fantastic raw athlete and capable of throwing a baseball in the mid-90s.
However, height and velocity do not guarantee success, and in two years under Meyers at Old Dominion University, it did not click for Carter. Entering his junior season, expectations were never higher for Carter and the ODU Monarchs. The team would finish 25-27. Carter would finish his last college season with a 8.76 ERA, issuing nearly a walk per inning.
But while tools don't always translate to results, they certainly are always noticed. So despite his junior-season struggles, the Chicago White Sox drafted Carter and his big fastball in the 13th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. Since then?
"I think everything started clicking for me," said Carter, reiterating that his success validates his college coach's longtime predictions.
Carter finished his first pro summer as a Pioneer League All-Star, leading the league with a 2.23 ERA. However, the most glaring statistic -- for Carter and for the Great Falls Voyagers as a whole -- might be that Carter has struck out 89 batters in 68 2/3 innings.
The Voyagers, who have one regular-season game remaining, will likely finish the season with the top three strikeout artists in the league in their rotation. Carter joined Kevin Skogley (88 strikeouts) and Daniel Hudson (a league-leading 90) atop the leader board. Joining Hudson on top is the icing on the cake, as Hudson was Carter's teammate for two seasons at Old Dominion. After the two struggled together in the Colonial Athletic Association all spring, thriving in the Pioneer League all summer was excellent, even if Carter finishes behind him in strikeouts.
"We made a joke about [strikeouts] the other day, it's definitely a friendly competition," Carter said. "We've known each other for a long time, because we played baseball together in Virginia growing up. We're living together now. It's fun."
The two have made big changes since struggling in the spring, as they are certainly the driving influences in Great Falls' playoff run. Carter made a commitment to throw across his body less, and his command improved immediately, with his walk rate dropping from once per inning to about once every three. He also has a new, aggressive approach that has been the driving influence in his strikeout numbers.
"Just try to put batters away," Carter explains. "It's just like a boxing match. You want to throw the first punch, then you want to throw the second punch. If you get the second punch thrown, it's pretty much a knockout."
While Great Falls certainly has its fair share of punch-outs this season, their dangerous pitching staff should be a useful knockout tool in the playoffs.
Billings Mustangs (41-31) vs. Great Falls Voyagers (38-36)
Best-of-3 series begins Saturday, Sept. 6
The Voyagers had some work to do in the second half, finishing the first half in third place in the North Division, a game behind the Helena Brewers. The team got there with a 17-13 August, as the pitching staff got hot to the tune of a 3.42 ERA (and more than a strikeout per inning). However, even through a somewhat lackluster August, the story of this division all season has been the Billings Mustangs and their big offense. While Great Falls will be looking to get back to the championship and avenge last season's defeat against the Orem Owlz, Billings is looking for their first finals appearance since 2004, and their first championship since 2003.
You'd be hard pressed to find things more even than the clubs have played this season, splitting the 16-game regular season. The Voyagers outscored Billings by 11 runs in those games, holding the Mustangs to just about four per game. In fact, Great Falls proved to be one of the league's only teams that could contain the Billings offense, holding it to a mere .238 average. Billings pitchers did their part to stay matched, holding the Voyagers to a .716 OPS.
If the trend continues, and the series proves to be more about pitching than hitting, Great Falls will have their share of arms to throw at the Mustangs. The aforementioned Dexter Carter will certainly be salivating at a chance to face Billings for a sixth time, as he's allowed the league rival just one earned run in 22 1/3 innings. However, the Mustangs won't be outdone too easily, as both Jamie Arneson (2-0, 1.64) and Lance Janke (1-0, 3.27) have had success against the Voyagers this season.
Offensively, Great Falls' focus will be on stopping David Sappelt, one of the few remaining hitters who has given the staff fits. Sappelt hit .362 in 13 games against the Voyagers this season, with eight extra-base hits and 10 runs scored. On the other side, the leader of the Voyagers offense, shortstop Tyler Kuhn, will certainly be expected to lead here, as Kuhn hit .404 against Billings this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Billings: The Mustangs had one of the league's best players in Neftali Soto, only for awhile, as Soto's success was met with a promotion to the Midwest League. The team also hoped that Reds first-rounder Yonder Alonso would join the team, but he was sent to Sarasota instead. So while the current prospect landscape isn't as fruitful as it could've been, there is still a lot of talent. Infielder Alex Buchholz has picked up the slack in Soto's absence, batting .400 average in 33 games. The power comes from first baseman Michael Konstanty, who has 25 extra-base hits and 10 home runs in 51 games. The outfield is also dangerous with Tyler Stovall (.463 SLG), David Sappelt (.509 SLG) and Byron Wiley (.635 SLG). The pitching staff is led most by a diverse bullpen, though despite his troubles, starter Clayton Shunick (1-4, 8.45) is the team's highest Draft pick, selected in the fifth round this June.
Great Falls: There might be no tougher assignment in a short three-game series than the Voyagers, who will likely toss the league's three best strikeout artists at the Mustangs. Dexter Carter is second in the race with 89 strikeouts, but his 2.23 ERA leads the league. Daniel Hudson was the highest Draft pick, struck out the most hitters and probably has the best stuff. But don't sleep on Kevin Skogley, who matches his strikeout-per-inning rate with a 2.24 groundout-to-flyout ratio. In Draft pedigree, reliever Drew O'Neil (fourth round) becomes one to watch, though the right-hander has had his struggles (6.97 ERA) this season. Offensively, it's the Tyler Kuhn show, as the shortstop guides the offense. Kuhn is hitting .378 with a .429 on-base percentage and a .568 slugging percentage in his first summer out of West Virginia, showing fabulous gap power. He'll be flanked by Kyle Shelton (.290 AVG) of the NCAA runner-up UNC Tar Heels and catcher Mike Grace, who leads the team with 13 home runs.
Orem Owlz (51-22) vs. Ogden Raptors (41-32)
Best-of-3 series begins Saturday, Sept. 6
What a season it has been for the Orem Owlz, who will look for their fourth championship in five years this season. The Owlz began the season, 10-1, and never looked back, throwing in a franchise-record 14-game winning streak in August for good measure. Their 52 wins through Thursday are second in Pioneer League history, and they certainly look difficult to topple. However, their familiarity with their first-round opponent should make things interesting, as the two close the regular season with a five-game set, including Friday's regular-season finale. The Raptors started the season by losing their first eight games -- the first six to Orem -- before bouncing back to a 41-25 (.621) mark the rest of the way.
Orem set the tone for the season series in June by beating Ogden in the first six games of the regular season, and it never looked back. The Owlz dominated the Raptors all year long, even finishing the job in clinching the South Division this September. There was just no stopping the Owlz offense, who battered the Raptors to the tune of a .899 OPS in 17 games.
The Owlz's driving forces, third baseman Luis Jimenez and first baseman Roberto Lopez, will both look to lead Orem to the championship against the familiar team. It would seem impossible to do better than Jimenez's .406 average and 10 extra-base hits against the Raptors, but Lopez tops him at .446 and 11, respectively. However, it's outfielder Angel Castillo who leads the way with five home runs. If Ogden looks to fight offense with offense, they will lean heavily on infielder Tony Delmonico all series. Delmonico joined the fray a bit late, but through eight games, his OPS is over 1.000 against Owlz pitching. That pitching staff will surely feature LHP William Smith, who is 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in five appearances against Ogden this season. The best the Raptors can counter with is their bullpen, led by closer Luis Garcia. The right-hander certainly had success against the Owlz this season, striking out 16 batters in 11 innings.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Orem: As a team, the Owlz hit 75 home runs this season, and about 60 percent of that figure came from three players. First baseman Roberto Lopez is the league's most dangerous hitter, batting .400 with 72 RBIs and 14 home runs. He's topped in the later column only by teammate Luis Jimenez, who has 15, as well as 28 doubles and six triples in 65 games. Outfielder Angel Castillo provides some protection for those two, as no one can sleep on his 14 home runs in the five-spot. The pitching staff runs through their two controlled southpaws, LHP Jayson Miller (8-2, 2.33) and LHP William Smith (8-2, 3.08). The two have combined for just 13 walks in 154 innings, contrasted by 144 strikeouts. Reliever Jeremy Thorne, who is a groundball machine, has allowed just 11 hits in 27 1/3 innings while going a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities.
Ogden: It was the newcomers to Ogden that have done the most damage this summer, taking the Raptors from their early-season slump and forming them into a contender. None has been more influential than infielder Tony Delmonico, who is tied for second on the team with 11 home runs, trailing third baseman Pedro Baez. His 1.159 OPS is otherworldly. He will be joined in the middle of the order by outfielder Travis Vetters, who looked for awhile like he would hit .450, but is batting .404. Vetters had a .719 slugging percentage in just 38 games in the regular season. Also, keep an eye on catcher Matthew Wallach, who swings a big stick with 20 extra-base hits in 50 games. The pitching staff will be led by their pair of closers, the aforementioned Garcia and LHP Cole St. Clair, who has struck out 22 batters in 17 innings since joining Ogden.