Texas League playoff preview

Tulsa opens title defense vs. Arkansas; Amarillo meets Midland

Ivan Castillo (left) leads Amarillo against Midland, while Cody Thomas and Tulsa take aim at Arkansas. (John Moore, Tim Campbell)

By Troy Schulte / Special to MiLB.com | September 3, 2019 1:20 PM

The last time the Arkansas Travelers had a midseason manager change, the team advanced all the way to the Texas League Championship Series.

Eight years after that loss to the San Antonio Missions, the Travelers are in a similar position: entering the playoffs after a bit of unease brought on by manager Mitch Canham's June departure to become the head coach at Oregon State.

"That's a good precedent," current manager Cesar Nicolas joked when reminded of the last time the team faced such circumstances.


Arkansas Travelers (81-57, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Tulsa Drillers (77-61, North Division second-half champion)

Arkansas won the season series, 21-9

Game 1 at Arkansas, Sept. 4, at 8:10 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Arkansas, Sept. 5, at 8:10 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Tulsa, Sept. 6, at 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Tulsa (if necessary), Sept. 7, at 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Tulsa (if necessary), Sept. 8, at 2:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

The Travelers, the Seattle Mariners' Double-A affiliate, mostly have their pitching staff to thank for being in this position. Arkansas is set to host the Texas League North Division series after finishing the year with the league's best record at 81-56, but Nicolas, who had been serving as the Mariners' Latin America development coordinator when Canham left, said the whole team gets credit for their resolve.

"A lot of credit goes to them for the way they've handled it," Nicolas said. "You might call it adversity, but the way we look at it, they're just different challenges that you might face over the course of the season, whether it's a new manager or new players coming into your team."

But it starts with the pitching staff, which put together a league-best 3.09 ERA. Though Arkansas won't have Texas League Pitcher of the Year Darren McCaughan -- promoted to Triple-A Tacoma in July -- they still have Justin Dunn, who led the league with nine wins and 158 strikeouts, and Ricardo Sanchez, second with eight wins and 135 strikeouts.


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"Playing in [Dickey-Stephens Park] with that staff is definitely an advantage," Nicolas said. "But it's baseball and balls are going to fall and you still have to go out there and make plays."

The staff will get a challenge to start with in Tulsa, the defending Texas League champions. Led by Cody Thomas, who paced the Texas League with 23 home runs, the Dodgers affiliate enters the playoffs having scored the second-most runs and hitting the most home runs (168) in the league.


Amarillo Sod Poodles (72-66, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Midland RockHounds (73-66, South Division second-half champion)

Midland won the season series, 18-12

Game 1 at Amarillo, Sept. 4, 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Amarillo, Sept. 5, 8:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Midland, Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 7, 8:00 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Midland (if necessary), Sept. 8, 3:00 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

Veteran Amarillo manager Phillip Wellman has spent more than two decades as a Minor League skipper and coach, but this season has perhaps been one of his most enjoyable. A large part of that has to do with the brand-new Hodgetown that his Sod Poodles, a San Diego affiliate in its first season, play in and an energized fan base sparked by the return of Minor League Baseball after 37 years.

"It's been a great summer," he said. "The support has just been unbelievable. I hope the newness doesn't wear off any time soon, because it's been great. It's been a great place to go to work."

Success on the field has only added to the enjoyment. Powered by a consistent and deep lineup, Amarillo edged Midland by a half-game to win the South Division first-half title.

Led by infielder Ivan Castillo, who led the league with a .313 average, the Sod Poodles had four players hit .280 or better and four with 15 or more home runs. But it starts with Castillo, a 24-year-old in his first season in the Padres system.

"He's got tremendous instincts as a baseball player," Wellman said. "He can flat-out hit."

He's complemented by outfielder Edward Olivares, who hit .283 with 18 home runs, catcher Luis Torrens (.300 with 15 homers in 97 games) and third baseman Owen Miller (.288 with 13 dingers).

"When [Castillo] and Miller and Torrens are all hot at the same time, we're really good," Wellman said. "But you can't expect that all year long out of them. But when they're going good, and the guys on the bottom are getting on base, it's usually pretty good."

Amarillo's first test is Midland, the team it edged for the first-half title. The RockHounds missed the playoffs last year after winning four consecutive league titles, but this year bring with them two of the league's best starting pitchers in Brian Howard and Kyle Friedrichs.

Howard is 8-8 with a 3.25 ERA, second in the Texas League, while Friedrichs is 6-7 with a 3.43 ERA, third in the league.

In brief

Another slugger: The Drillers are taking the league's best offense into the Texas League playoffs, and that was evident even before Connor Wong joined the team in late July. Wong, ranked 28th in the Dodgers system, has had little trouble adjusting after his promotion to Double-A. He hit .412 and a league-best nine homers in August, and in 39 games overall he batted .349 with a .390 on-base percentage and .610 slugging percentage.

Getting the hang of it: Brady Singer, MLB.com's No. 53 overall prospect, had a rough beginning in his first taste of Double-A, giving up four or more earned runs in his first six starts for Northwest Arkansas as his ERA rose to 6.28. He finished the season on an upward trend, though, holding his final four opponents to two runs or less while pitching into the sixth inning in each start. He compiled a 2.45 ERA in August and struck out a league-best 40 batters. In 16 starts for the Naturals, Singer was 7-3 with a 3.47 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 90 2/3 innings pitched.

Another record: Corpus Christi's season ended short of the playoffs, but their pitching staff helped put them in the record books for the second straight year. The Hooks entered the last game of the season with 1,439 strikeouts, well ahead of their own Texas League record set last year at 1,319. Right-hander Cristian Javier led the Hooks with 114 strikeouts this year, while J.B. Bukauskas had 109, Brandon Bailey had 103 and Bryan Abreu had 101.

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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