Split-season formats in the Minor Leagues can produce playoff opponents with unimpressive overall records, but that's not the case in the South Atlantic League this season. The four teams with the best records will meet in the semifinals, beginning Wednesday.
In the best-of-3 Northern Division Finals, first-half champion Hagerstown faces the West Virginia Power, who were three games better than the Suns in the second half. In the South Division, first-half winner Savannah battles Augusta, which coasted to the second-half crown by eight games.
The semifinal winners will meet in the best-of-5 Championship Series.
Savannah Sand Gnats (77-61, Southern Division first-half champion) vs.
Augusta GreenJackets (82-55, Southern Division second-half champion)
Savannah won the season series, 16-8
Game 1 at Augusta, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Savannah, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Savannah (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 6:05 p.m. ET
No team in the Minors enters the postseason playing better baseball than the GreenJackets. Manager Mike Goff's club concluded the slate with a league-best 82-55 record, going 25-6 in August and September, including an eight-game winning streak to open the penultimate month and a nine-game string near the end.
"The entire team has played well, especially during the second half," Goff said. "The first half was a little bit of a struggle, but over the course of the season these guys have really come together and played as a team. We have a bunch of competitors. The guys have executed on offense and our pitching has been outstanding throughout the year."
Augusta did not have a representative on the league's postseason All-Star team, and offensively the only GreenJacket to rank among the leaders was center fielder Jesus Galindo, who was fifth with 48 stolen bases. Even so, the team had several players put together strong finishes, led by third baseman Mitchell Delfino, who hit .319/.352/.504 with five homers and 19 RBIs over the final month. Outfielder Charles Jones added four homers and 19 RBIs while batting .290/.354/.480. Outfielder Shawn Payne (17), catcher Ben Turner (16) and first baseman Joseph Rapp (15) contributed at least 15 RBIs apiece over the final 32 games.
"We've got a bunch of gamers," Goff said. "We have guys who have played through injuries and toughed it out. We don't have any true superstars on offense, but we do have guys who are willing to do the little things like moving runners over, working the count, coming through in the clutch. We've executed well at the plate even though our overall batting average may not rank among the best in the league."
While the 'Jackets were seventh in the league with a .250 batting average, they ranked third with a 3.42 team ERA. Kendry Flores was fifth with a 2.73 ERA to go with a 10-6 record, while 2012 first-round pick Chris Stratton (9-3) ranked ninth with a 3.27 ERA. The key, Goff said, were less-heralded arms like relievers Tyler Mizenko (a league-leading 25 saves), Stephen Johnson and Ian Gardeck.
"The back end of the rotation has also really carried us down the stretch," Goff said. "I can't say enough about the job guys like Matthew Lujan and Justin Schumer and a handful of others have done. You expect guys like Stratton and Flores to get the job done, but the back-end guys have played as big a role as any of our pitchers down the stretch."
Despite dropping 16 of 24 meetings with the Sand Gnats, Goff pointed out the games were hard-fought.
"I believe both clubs are a lot alike," he said. "The teams are built in a similar manner, and we play the game the same way. It's going to come down to who makes the plays at the key moments. It's been a war all year long with those guys, and it may come down to which team gets the last at-bat. It's going to be a fun series because their coaching staff does a great job with their kids and they play the game the way it's supposed to be played."
Hagerstown Suns (80-57, Northern Division first-half champion) vs.
West Virginia Power (82-58, Northern Division second-half champion)
Hagerstown won the season series, 8-5
Game 1 at West Virginia, Sept. 4 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Hagerstown, Sept. 6 at 7:05 ET
Game 3 at Hagerstown (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 ET
In many ways, this season has been everything 2012 was not, both for outfielder Josh Bell and the Power.
Last year, the Power's hopes for a strong season were dashed when Bell tore the meniscus in his left knee while running the bases on April 26. He missed the rest of the season and West Virginia finished 61-79, the second-worst record in the SAL.
Bell recovered from the injury and returned to the Power in April after a solid showing in Spring Training. He proceeded to lead the team with 76 RBIs, rank second with 13 homers and third with a .279 batting average. He also tied for third in the league with 37 doubles and joined teammate Tyler Glasnow on the league's postseason All-Star team.
"The entire season has been awesome," Bell said. "Having the chance to win a championship is an opportunity that doesn't happen a lot in a player's career. I've never experienced anything like what we've had the chance to do this past week. I couldn't ask for a better season, and I want to take this opportunity as far as we can."
Bell's success this season included solid production against Hagerstown. In 12 games vs. the Suns, the switch-hitting outfielder batted .340/.385/.489 with four doubles, a homer and eight RBIs. His batting average was second only to Walker Gourley, who hammered Hagerstown to the tune of .409/.481/.545.
Glasnow prepared: The Pirates were careful with Tyler Glasnow throughout the season by limiting his pitches, which prevented him from working beyond the sixth inning in any of his 24 starts. Still, the 6-foot-7 right-hander led the league with 164 strikeouts while going 9-3 with a 2.18 ERA. He was 0-1 with a 2.13 ERA in three starts against Hagerstown.
Mooneyham missing: The Suns' title hopes took a hit when left-hander Brett Mooneyham was promoted to Class A Advanced Potomac after throwing seven shutout innings on Aug. 17. Mooneyham went 4-0 with a 0.33 ERA in four starts for Hagerstown in August.
From one playoff team to another: Second baseman Dilson Herrera was traded by the Pirates to the Mets as part of the deal that sent outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck to Pittsburgh with a week left in the Minor League season. As a result, the infielder moved from West Virginia to Savannah, which won its first five games with Herrera in the lineup.
Bill Ballew is a contributor to MiLB.com.