American Association Championship Series Preview: Border Battle Brews for Baseball’s Best
Lincoln Saltdogs vs. Wichita Wingnuts
American Association Championship Series
The Lincoln Saltdogs and the Wichita Wingnuts will square off starting Wednesday night to decide who the champions of the American Association are. The best-of-five series pits the Central Division Champions against their neighbor to the south in what should be a series for the ages. The Minor League Sports Report takes a look at the position-by-position comparison and makes their prediction of who should win the series.
Catcher: Tyler Smith/Chris Anderson vs. Chris McMurray/Brent Dean
This is a mismatch in many ways, because the combination of McMurray and Dean are superior at the plate and in the field. Anderson hit .211 during the regular season, and went hitless in 8 at-bats against Winnipeg. His partner behind the plate, Tyler Smith, hit .231 in 50 regular season games with 1 home run and 16 RBI. In the post-season he is 2-11 with a run scored. McMurray was named a post-season All-Star by the league, and is widely regarded as one of the top defensive catchers in the American Association. He hit .261 during the season, with 7 HR and 60 RBI in 83 games. This post-season he was red-hot, recording 5 hits in 13 at-bats with 3 runs scored and 6 RBI. Dean hit .317 in the regular season, but will not see time behind the plate in this series as long as McMurray is healthy.
First Base: Ian Gac vs. David Espinosa
Espinosa is an outstanding hitter who batted .338 during the regular season for Wichita, scored 75 runs and drove in 51 more. He is an outstanding bat in the lineup for the Wingnuts, but Gac has been ridiculously good this season. The slugger hit .349 during the regular year and led the league with 27 home runs. He also drove in 77 runs and scored 63 more. During the playoffs he is 5-18 with 4 runs scored and 3 RBI. He nearly single-handedly took the team on his back down the stretch, willing them into the playoffs. In the 11 games prior to them clinching the division title, Gac was 21-45 with 7 home runs and 19 RBI.
Second Base: Luis Nunez vs. Abel Nieves
Nunez is one of those guys that does whatever it takes to put his team in a position to win. He played all over the infield, and now is settled in at second base. He hit .320 this past season in 61 games, but in the post-season he has really stepped up his game, going 9-22 (.409) with 4 runs and 2 RBI. Nieves was a late season pick-up by the Wingnuts who was having an outstanding season in Grand Prairie, even being named an All-Star, then came to Wichita and got ridiculously hot. He hit .558 in 12 regular season games with the Wingnuts, scoring 11 runs and driving home 10 more. He is 5-12 in the post-season, with five runs and 4 RBI. Both second baseman are delivering when it really counts.
Edge: Slight Edge Wingnuts
Third Base: Brandon Pinckney vs. Chris McClendon
Pinckney bounced around during the regular season, playing for Lincoln as well as Amarillo and Grand Prairie. Between the three he hit 7 HR and drove in 46 while batting a combined .268. In the series against Winnipeg he struggled mightily, getting just 1 hit in 19 at-bats (.053). McClendon may be the best player no one has ever heard of. Playing in the shadow of Brent Clevlen, Ryan Khoury and the rest of the Wingnuts, he does not get the attention that many of the other players do, but he put together an excellent season for Wichita, hitting .296 with 49 RBI in 80 games. He is just 3-13 in the playoffs.
Shortstop: Mike Gilmartin vs. Ryan Khoury
Very few would say that Gilmartin is the better shortstop choice here. Khoury hit .315 during the season, was second in the league with 87 runs scored, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 61, stole 31 bases and was the best defensive shortstop in the league. Gilmartin hit .262, swatted 7 homers and drove in 37 in 88 games. His numbers don’t even compare to those of Khoury’s. However, in the last days of the regular season and into the post-season it has been Gilmartin that has been looking like the league’s best shortstop. Khoury was just 2-15 against Laredo and in the last five games of the season he was 5-20. Gilmartin, on the other hand, had 6 hits in 17 at-bats against Winnipeg with 2 runs and 4 RBI. In his last five games to the season he had 11 hits in 20 at-bats, scored 6 runs and drove in 6 more. The hot streak has to count for something.
Left Field: Jeremy Hamilton vs. Jake Luce
When Jon Gaston was hurt at the end of the regular season, Hamilton was asked to step up and fill some pretty big shoes. He not only stepped up, but jumped to new heights. After a season where he hit .245 with a home run and 33 RBI, Hamilton has taken his game to an entirely different level, rapping out 10 hits in 19 at-bats (.526). Luce was a huge late-season additional for the Wingnuts, hitting .341 in 34 games with 25 runs scored and 16 RBI. In the first round he was 4-13 with a run and three RBI, plus a home run. Both have proven to be valuable for their teams in the playoffs.
Center Field: Matt Forgatch vs. Brent Clevlen
Forgatch is another Saltdogs player who put together a solid season, but once the playoffs got started he stepped up his game to a new level. Forgatch hit .253 in 99 games this season with 64 runs scored, 35 stolen bases, 9 home runs and 42 RBI. During the playoffs he is 8-18 (.444) with 3 runs, 3 doubles and 4 RBI. Clevlen is arguably the best hitter in the league, leading the American Association with a .372 average. He finished in the top 10 in runs scored, RBI, doubles, home runs, extra-base hits, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He has been the hammer for this team all season. In the playoffs his 3-12 with 3 runs, a homer and 3 RBI.
Right Field: Brian Joynt vs. Carlo Testa
Joynt is the guy who protects Gac in the order, and he has done a great job, especially through the playoffs. In the regular season he hit .307 with 59 runs and 58 RBI in 96 games. In the playoffs he has been an even bigger run-producer, driving in 4 runs and scoring 5 more in the five-game victory over Winnipeg. Testa is much like in McClendon in that all he does is hit, but doesn’t get the hoopla that should come his way. The Wingnuts right fielder hit .338 during the regular season and finished in the top 10 in runs scored with 79. Against Laredo he scored 2 runs, drove in 4 and also homered twice.
Designated Hitter: Chad Mozingo vs. Victor Diaz
Mozingo is another Saltdogs player who just puts in a workman like performance every day, doing what this team needs and just delivering for them. He hit .283 with 21 stolen bases and 42 runs scored. In the series against Winnipeg he was just 5-22 with 3 runs scored. Diaz was supposed to be a big late-season bat for the Wingnuts lineup, but the pressure may be a little too much for him at this point. He hit .240 in 12 games with the team to finish out the season, and is just 2-11 in the playoffs.
Both teams got incredible starting pitching during the divisional round. Joe Bisenius pitched a 6-hit shutout to close out the series. Ace Marquis Fleming and Nick Green both gave up just one run in seven innings of work. Fleming should be able to make two starts if needed, which bodes well for Lincoln. Wingnuts starters gave up just 9 total runs in the 25.2 innings they pitched. They were 3-1 and kept the team in every game. Because the Wingnuts won their best-of-five series in four games, it means that ace Tim Brown will be available for two games if needed. The duels between Brown and Marquis should be epic.
This a matchup of the two leading closers in the league. Marshall Schuler set an American Association record with 34 saves, however, he had a 4.26 ERA and had a nearly 1.50 WHIP. Not the ideal numbers for a closer. In the playoffs he has looked solid making two scoreless appearances and recording a save. Jhonny Montoya made three scoreless appearances during the series with Winnipeg. The rest of the bullpen was marginal at best. Dan Sattler has lived dangerously, walking batters virtually every time he appears recently, but he gets the job done every time. He made two appearances in the divisional series, saving both games, and finished third in the league with 21 saves. The set-up guys for Wichita have been dominate for the Wingnuts all season, but Mike Zouzalik and Chris Peacock struggled a little in the first round. Daniel Bennett and Chase Johnson made two scoreless appearances each against Laredo.
Prediction: This has been an amazing run for Lincoln, who proved that they are never truly out of it. They battled back to take the Central Division and were down 2-1 to Winnipeg, a team that won 9 more games than them, yet got outstanding pitching performances and took the series. Their hitters have stepped up in the post-season, and they are completely for real. The Wingnuts are one of the most dominant group of hitters the league has ever seen, but their rotation really stepped up in their series against Laredo. They are a complete team in every way, and have proven that they deserve to be here. They have been the runner-up the last two seasons; three’s a charm. Wingnuts in 4.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA