American Association Playoff Series: Round 1 – St. Paul Saints vs. Sioux City Explorers
American Association Playoffs
St. Paul Saints
Sioux City Explorers
The teams with the two best single season records in American Association history will begin a five-game series Wednesday night. The 75-win Sioux City Explorers will face off against the 74-win St. Paul Saints, in a series that is sure to be one for the ages.
What makes the series so interesting is that this should be a great battle between the two best pitching staffs in league history. The Explorers set a league record with a 3.04 ERA and the Saints had the second best ERA of all-time at 3.24. Runs should be at a premium, and so key players should make a real difference in this series.
While the pitching staffs are quite similar, the offenses are not. The Explorers set a league record for stolen bases in a season this year (188) and had the highest team batting average (.292). Sioux City did not play the long ball much, however, clubbing just 49, 10th best in the 13 team league. They were second in runs scored (564).
The Saints led the league in home runs (104), setting a club record, and were first in runs scored (612). Their .290 team batting average ranked second in the American Association, but they were 12th in stolen bases with 82.
Clearly both clubs know how to score runs, but they take different pathways to get there. This should make for a very entertaining series as the Saints will be looking to drop bombs on the Explorers, while Sioux City looks to manufacture runs against St. Paul.
Sioux City Explorers: 75-25, Central Division Champions, 25.5 Game Lead
St. Paul Saints: 74-26, North Division Champions, 26.5 Game Lead
Here is a position-by-position look at the matchups of the two teams. (The Explorers player(s) is listed first in each comparison.)
Catcher: Matt Koch vs. Vinny DiFazio
Koch is having a quality season since joining Sioux City. The Explorers catcher hit .280 in 89 games with 41 runs scored, 4 home runs and 42 RBI. He also threw out 23 percent of would-be base stealers (15-64) and calls one of the best games in the business. It is no coincidence that the Sioux City pitching staff was so dominant and Koch was behind the plate for nearly 90 percent of their games. He is brilliant at situational pitching and the staff has confidence that they can throw any pitch and he can block it. The Explorers catcher is in a mini-slump to end the season, going just 6-34 over his last 10 games.
In virtually any series Koch would have the edge, but he is opposed by what is likely to be the American Association MVP. DiFazio has been nothing short of awesome this year, leading the league in hitting (.361) and tied for the AA lead in RBI (82). The Saints captain fell just three home runs short of winning the Triple Crown. DiFazio is a force behind the plate, but he is not as adept at throwing out runners (13 percent) as Koch. He does have the confidence of this staff however, and they know he can block pitches in the dirt. DiFazio is red-hot entering the post-season, going 13-34 over his last 10.
Edge: St. Paul Saints
First Base: Rene Tosoni vs. Angelo Songco
Tosoni had a fine season for the Sioux City Explorers, and can play outfield as well. He hit .251 with 54 runs, 2 home runs, and 60 RBI in 87 games. He also stole 20 bases and made just three errors at first base. A solid clubhouse guy with speed, Tosoni is a key asset for the Explorers.
Angelo Songco is the other MVP candidate of the St. Paul Saints. He had a phenomenal year, hitting .339 with 64 runs scored, 17 home runs, and he was tied for the league lead in RBI with DiFazio. Songco is also an excellent defensive first baseman, and his fiery spirit makes him a key clubhouse presence for the team. The only issue for him will be whether he will be back in time as his wife was expected to have a baby.
Edge: St. Paul Saints
Second Base: Ryan Court vs. Ryan Cavan
This would have been a lock for Court having the edge a few weeks ago. He played in 99 games, and hit .331 with 65 runs, 9 homers and 52 RBI. Court also stole 15 bases, but he hit into 16 double-plays and made 17 errors. He is a supreme talent despite these small blemishes.
Court should have made this a clear advantage for the Explorers, but the late addition of Cavan to the Saints evened this out. The new St. Paul second baseman hit .351 in 58 games in Kansas City with 52 runs scored and 28 RBI before deciding to retire. After un-retiring he hit .375 in St. Paul and finished in the top five in on-base percentage. He played in just 6 games with the Saints, but scored 6 runs, hit 3 doubles and 2 home runs, and drove in 5. Remarkable to say the least.
Shortstop: Noah Perio vs. Anthony Phillips
Perio was voted the American Association’s top shortstop and with good reason. He played in all 100 games, hitting .316 with 61 runs scored, 7 homers and 74 RBI. He also stole 18 bases, but made 22 errors. Perio is a big-time catalyst for the club and his stats show that he can do it all.
Phillips is probably the best defensive shortstop in the league, and his hitting has really materialized in the second half of the season. He reached a high at .278 but has struggled in the last week of the season, and enters the series with a .269 average, 45 runs, 2 home runs and 35 RBI in 91 games. He made just 11 errors at short this season, and has incredible range.
Edge: Slight edge to Sioux City Explorers
Third Base: Tommy Mendonca vs. Nate Hanson
Josh Mazzola was rated as the league’s top third baseman, but there may be none better than Mendonca. The Explorers third baseman hit .311 with 46 runs, 2 home runs and 47 RBI in 90 games. He also made only 11 errors but was the only player in their starting lineup who did not swipe a base. This young man can hit, play outstanding defense and is smart in all facets of the game. His 26 doubles led the team and he was hit 14 times.
Hanson was a late addition to the St. Paul Saints after being released by the Minnesota Twins organization. He is outstanding at third and has established himself as a key player at the position, and his hitting has improved in his 19 games. He finished the season hitting .275, but he comes into the series on a five-game hitting streak that has seen him go 8-17 with 6 runs and 3 RBI. If Hanson is swinging the bat well he will be a difference maker.
Edge: Sioux City Explorers
Outfield: Brent Keys, Matty Johnson, Michael Lang, Tim Cowell vs. Willie Argo, Alonzo Harris, David Espinosa
The outfield is the strength of this Sioux City roster. Each of these players can fly, can hit and play good defense. Keys led the team with a .348 average in 34 games played. He scored 18 runs and drove in 11, while posting a .427 on-base percentage. Lang is an MVP candidate with a .343 average, 75 runs scored, 10 triples, 6 home runs and 59 RBI. He also stole 45 bases, which was second in the American Association. Johnson played in all 100 games, hitting .264, with a league leading 80 runs scored, 38 RBI, and 42 steals. Cowell hit .258 in 92 games with 44 runs scored and 26 RBI. He stole 29 bases while only getting caught 4 times, but may find himself more on the bench in the post-season. The combination of this group is absolutely deadly.
When Mike Kvasnicka had to leave the team to care for his wife, this became a clear advantage for Sioux City, but the acquisition of David Espinosa from Wichita makes this a lot closer matchup now. Espinosa hit just .250 in his six games since being acquired, but he also walked seven times, giving him a .444 on-base percentage. Between the two teams the Saints new right fielder was fourth in on-base at .433, and hit .288, walked 85 times (second in the league), scored 64 runs, and drove in 40 others. Alonzo Harris set a club record with 39 stolen bases. He hit .298, scored 75 runs and clubbed 15 home runs with 62 RBI, all while batting leadoff, and he can cover more ground than anyone in the league. Willie Argo was having a phenomenal season, but he has tailed off lately, finishing at .287 with 12 home runs and 49 RBI. He is still an incredibly dangerous hitter, and combined the three make the best defensive grouping in the league.
Edge: Slight Edge to Sioux City Explorers
Designated Hitter: Brock Kjeldgaard vs. Ian Gac
Kjeldgaard spent some time away from his club playing in the Pan-Am Games, but he still led the team with 14 home runs and 70 RBI, and hit a solid .291. His 50 walks gave him an outstanding .390 on-base percentage, and he is a threat to go deep at any moment.
Gac was out for virtually all of July and a lot of the early part of August, but he has come back with a vengeance. In just 72 games he hit .331, with 60 runs scored, 10 homers and 52 RBI. He also has 26 doubles. Gac enters the post-season on a nine-game hitting streak (11-32).
Edge: St. Paul Saints
The fourth outfielder, likely Cowell, and backup catcher Brendan Slattery are the primary guys off the bench for the Sioux City Explorers. The problem for opposing pitchers is that there is not a weak spot in this lineup, so the bench is virtually unnecessary.
The Saints are going to have the deepest bench in the playoffs, because manager George Tsamis chose to go with 14 position players. That means five guys will be riding the pine, but this is a quality group. Dan Kaczrowski has warmed up his bat after taking nearly two years off from the game and is a whiz in the field. Ryan Lashley can play all over the diamond and hit .295 with 26 runs and 25 RBI in 38 games. Joey Paciorek is the backup catcher, but his defense is solid no matter where he is asked to play, and he has some pop to his bat as well. Steve Nikorak is an outstanding infielder defensively who can go deep, and Sam Maus is a vacuum at second.
Edge: St. Paul Saints
Starting Pitchers: Ryan Zimmerman, Patrick Johnson, John Straka, Ryan Strufing vs. Kramer Sneed, Jeff Shields, Dustin Crenshaw, Robert Coe
This is the most interesting matchup of the series, because both pitching staffs have guys that get batters out. Sioux City has quite possibly the two best starters in the American Association in Johnson and Zimmerman. All these two did was combine to win 29 games this season. Johnson was 15-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 132 innings pitched, and he led the team with 132 strikeouts. Zimmerman was 14-2 with a league leading 1.79 ERA in 120.1 innings. Straka was 11-3 with a 3.27 ERA and was second on the team with 110 strikeouts, and Strufing was a late addition to the team, going 1-2 in 7 appearances, with an impressive 2.33 ERA.
Those numbers would make it easy to give the edge to the Explorers, but the Saints have four outstanding starters of their own, and all four won at least 12 games this season. Sneed has established himself as the ace, going 15-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 127.o innings pitched. He has won six of his last seven starts. Shields was 13-2 this season with a 3.11 ERA in 127.1 innings pitched. Crenshaw finished 14-2 with a 2.43 ERA, and Coe enters as probably the hottest pitcher on the staff. The right-hander is 12-3 after winning his last six starts, and has a 3.11 ERA.
It isn’t just the starting rotation of the Sioux City Explorers that has made this the best pitching staff in league history. Setup man Rob Wort has been a beast out of the bullpen this year, posting a 1.79 ERA and winning 11 games. He also saved 4 others and struck out 92 in 65.1 innings. Jose Flores is the club’s closer, and he is a good one. Flores finished with 22 saves and a 2.70 ERA in 36.2 innings pitched. The backend of Flores and Wort is quite devastating, but this is a deep bullpen besides these two. Jimmer Kennedy also had a 2.70 ERA, and was 2-0 with 2 saves in 38 appearances. Billy Bullock was 2-1 with a 3.42 ERA in 35 appearance, and Brandon Stennis and Jeff Marquez add more quality arms to the club.
For the Saints they will rely on four relievers, with the possibility of Pedro Hernandez coming off the disabled list and joining the bullpen. It may not be a deep bullpen, but it is a quality one. Ryan Rodebaugh led the American Association in saves with 25 to go along with a 2-5 record and a 2.84 ERA in 41 appearances. The primary setup man is Mike Zouzalik, and he is the best in the American Association. Zouzalik was 4-1 with 3 saves and a 2.43 ERA in 39 appearances. Kevin Cravey has been a welcome addition to the team, joining 10 days ago and becoming a reliable arm with a 2.57 ERA and a win in four appearances. Chris Peacock closes out the bullpen and has been pitching really well of late. He has a 3.29 ERA in 30 appearances, and is looking for his third championship in 13 months.
Managers: Steve Montgomery vs. George Tsamis
In 2013 the Sioux City Explorers won just 38 games. At the end of that season Montgomery became the manager, and in two years he nearly doubled that win total, as the club won 75 and he was named the Manager of the Year by the league. He led this team to several American Association records, including wins in a season, road wins (38), stolen bases (188) and team ERA (3.04). Montgomery is not only a master leader on the field, but he showed he is equally as brilliant in the way he built this team.
This is Tsamis’ 14th season at the helm of the St. Paul Saints, and is probably his best yet. He led the team to a club record 74-wins, moving his career mark to 875-736. He has also won three championships, including the 2004 title with the Saints. Tsamis has a very business-like approach to managing games, and his team has responded to that approach. His late season moves to acquire Cavan, Espinosa, and Cravey were difference makers.
These two teams are very evenly matched, but play a different style of offense. This should make this a very entertaining series to enjoy. The Saints won the season series 5-4, taking 2-3 in each of the two series in St. Paul, while the Explorers won 2 of 3 in Sioux City. The extra game should matter, but the biggest difference is the two additions to the St. Paul lineup. A month ago Sioux City wins this in four. With Cavan and Espinosa in the lineup, take the Saints in four.
By Robert Pannier