American Association Playoff Series: Round 1 – Laredo Lemurs vs. Wichita Wingnuts
American Association Playoffs
For the second year in a row the Laredo Lemurs and the Wichita Wingnuts will meet in the first round of the American Association playoffs. These two teams faced off last year in a series won in four games by Wichita, and since then there has been a lot of animosity between the two clubs. Wichita won the season series 10-8.
Both of these teams have excellent pitching as Laredo had the third best ERA in the league (3.52) and Wichita was fourth (3.64). As proof that pitching wins championships, the four teams that were 1-4 in ERA made the playoffs this season. Pitching is what carried these two teams to the post-season, especially early on.
While the pitching staffs are similar in statistics, the hitting numbers are not even close. Laredo had the fourth best batting average (.284) and trailed only the St. Paul Saints in home runs (86). This is a team that can score runs and do it in bunches, and it has shown in their success on the diamond.
The Wingnuts offense has been a work in progress all season long. They finished ninth in batting average (.270) and hit just 57 home runs. The offense looked lethargic at times, but the late season additions of Andy LaRoche, Brent Clevlen, and Nick Van Stratten make this an entirely different offense now. They can score runs in bunches as well, as four 5-run innings against Grand Prairie this last Saturday demonstrates.
Wichita Wingnuts: 59-41, South Division Champions, 2 Game Lead
Laredo Lemurs: 57-43, Wild Card Winner, 2 Games Out
Here is a position-by-position look at the matchups of the two teams. (The Wingnuts player(s) is listed first in each comparison.)
Catcher: John Nester vs. Phil Pohl
Nester continues a long line of great catchers for the Wichita Wingnuts. He is arguably the best defensive catcher in the league, and had a good season at the plate as well. Nester played in 80 games, and hit .281 with 33 runs, 5 home runs and 43 RBI. For much of the first month of the season he was carrying this team on his back, and his play then is a big reason this club is in the post-season now. Nester is brutal on base-runners, throwing out 44 percent this season.
Pohl is a late addition to the team, and he has been nothing short of incredible. The Lemurs receiver hit .311 with 10 runs and 11 RBI in 23 games since joining the team, and he is just another quality bat in this club’s lineup. Pohl is nowhere near as adept behind the plate, throwing out just one of 20 attempted base stealers this season.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
First Base: Andy LaRoche vs. Travis Denker
LaRoche was released by the Chicago White Sox organization and quickly found his way to Wichita where he was a savior in this lineup. In 26 games he hit .269 with 18 runs scored, 6 home runs and 23 RBI. He also posted a .386 on-base percentage and had 15 extra-base hits. The Wingnuts new first baseman has been clutch and has the kind of bat to turn a game around.
Denker has also only been with his team for short-time, but he has been a major bat in the Laredo Lemurs lineup as well. Denker hit .361 in 20 games with 17 runs, 4 homers and 15 RBI. The Lemurs first baseman enters the post-season on a seven-game hitting streak (12-28, .429).
Second Base: Taylor Smart vs. Abel Nieves
Second base has been a revolving door for Wichita this season, but Smart has become the primary guy manning the position. Despite a .149 average in 27 games, manager Kevin Hooper has stuck with the youngster, primarily because he is a vacuum at second base.
Abel Nieves was in the other dugout last season, but now plays against his former team come playoff time this year. This is a guy with a ton of playoff experience, and he is one of the best pure hitters in the league. This season Nieves hit .353 with 48 runs, 2 home runs and 35 RBI in 66 games. He is a key to the club’s lineup and if he has a hot series the Wingnuts will be in trouble.
Edge: Laredo Lemurs
Shortstop: Leo Vargas vs. J.D. Pulfer
Much like Smart, Vargas is in this lineup because of his stellar defense and the team will simply live with his offense. In 56 games he hit .219 with 25 runs scored and 11 RBI. He is brilliant in the field, and has made a great double-play combination with Smart this season.
Pulfer had 80 games in Gary Southshore before coming to Laredo to finish the season. He had a quality season for the RailCats, hitting .275 with 43 runs and 27 RBI, but stepped up his game after coming to the Lemurs, hitting .294 with 9 runs and 13 RBI in those 20 games. He did make five errors.
Third Base: T.J. Mittelstaedt vs. Juan Silverio
While Nester carried the offense the first month of the season, until LaRoche arrived, Mittelstaedt was the man that was the key to the offense. He hit just .258 in 98 games, but walked a league high 86 times and finished with a .407 on-base percentage. Mittelstaedt led the team with 16 home runs, 68 runs and 65 RBI. He also led in doubles (21) and extra-base hits (40), and has proven to be one of the biggest assets for the team this season.
Silverio is a quality bat who can be a bit shaky at third. Silverio hit .269 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI. His home run and RBI totals were second on the team and he hit 36 extra-base hits. Silverio did make 19 errors and hit into 14 double-plays, so there is some downside, but he makes the bottom portion of this lineup a lot more formidable.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
Outfield: Harrison Kain, Nick Van Stratten, Brent Clevlen vs. Denis Phipps, Ty Morrison, Drew Martinez
What makes the Wichita Wingnuts outfield so good is that they have three natural center fielders out there. That means that they can cover a huge amount of ground, and all of them can hit as well. Van Stratten came late to the Wingnuts after hitting .400 in Mexico, and opted to snub Laredo to come to the Wingnuts. That has only fueled the animosity, especially considering that the Wichita center fielder has hit .420 in 17 games with 16 runs and 20 RBI. Add to it a .506 on-base percentage and he has been a true stud for this team. Clevlen also returned from Mexico, and in 11 games he hit .444 with 7 runs and 9 RBI. He, too, posted an on-base percentage above .500 (.510) and showed last season that he can be the most dangerous hitter in the league. Kain is a former Lemur that hit .286 in 45 games with 24 runs and 17 RBI.
The Lemurs have a quality outfield as well, led by Phipps, who hit .336 with 62 runs, 17 home runs and 76 RBI. He led the club in most offensive categories, and posted a .404 on-base percentage. Morrison played in 55 games for Laredo this year, and had an outstanding season at the plate. He hit .355 with 42 runs and 10 RBI. He also led the club with 22 steals and was solid in the outfield. Martinez has struggled since arriving in Laredo, hitting just .238 in 20 games, but he has proven that he can get hot at any time. Martinez was hitting .269 in Gary before coming to Laredo, after hitting .358 last season. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but is a great outfielder who has speed.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
Designated Hitter: Jayce Ray vs. Kevin Taylor
Ray is a great outfielder, but a bum ankle is going to relegate him to the designated hitter role for the rest of the season, which works out fine considering the Wingnuts are so deep at the position. Ray was the team leader in batting at .310 with 57 runs and 35 RBI in 89 games. He led the team with 17 stolen bases and had the team high with a .422 OBP. Ray can do it all.
Taylor played in 98 games, and hit .327 with 11 home runs, 69 runs and 54 RBI. He led his team in runs scored and has power to all fields. He tied for the team lead in doubles (24) and his 65 walks helped him to generate a .435 on-base percentage. Taylor is a formidable bat, and will be a key to this series.
The Wingnuts do not carry a deep bench, which leaves Brent Dean and Taylor Oldham. Even with two, this duo is better than most that have four or five. Dean hit .281 in 69 games this season with 28 runs and 21 RBI. He also stole 10 bases. Oldham returned to the Wingnuts after moving to Fargo-Moorhead for a time, and he hit .224 in 27 games. Oldham does know how to get on-base, posting a very respectable .353 OBP.
Laredo also has two guys on their bench in Roger Bernal and Ty Forney. Bernal appeared in just three games for the Lemurs, while Forney appeared in 35, although he hit just .158. The Lemurs like to go with their everyday lineup and don’t really need a pinch hitter, so two players is plenty enough for this team.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
Starting Rotation: Scott Richmond, Jon Link, Tim Brown, Jason Van Skike vs. Matt Loosen, Henry Garcia, Luis Pollorena, Matt Sergey
There are two former Major Leaguers in Richmond and Link in the Wichita rotation and you can’t complain about that. Richmond went 6-1, winning his last six decisions, and posting an amazing 1.75 ERA. The right-hander has just been awesome. Link was released by the Marlins organization and has been a stud for the club since returning. He has yet to lose (6-0), allowing just 36 runners in 47.2 innings pitched, with 46 strikeouts. Brown won 10 games for the second year in a row, and he is as consistent as any manager could ask for after going 10-2 with a 3.28 ERA. Van Skike has struggled with injuries all season nad had a down year by his standards, going 7-8 with a 4.88 ERA.
Greg Holle would have been the No. 1 guy, but injuries have left him inactive entering the post-season. Loosen was 7-6 with a 4.42 ERA and led the team in strikeouts. Garcia will start Game 1. He was 6-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 25 appearances, 15 of which were starts. Pollorena was 5-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 36 appearances, 11 starts. The big X-factor is Sergey, who has been a beast since joining the club, He has yet to be scored upon in his three starts lasting over 20 innings. That includes a one-hit shutout in his second start. He has allowed just eight hits.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
The bullpen has been in flux in Wichita as closers Matt Nevarez and Dakota Watts both saw their contracts purchased. Paul Smyth took over the job and did a great job, saving seven of eight opportunities, and really only had one bad outing in his 12 appearances. Daniel Bennett continues to be a stud out of the bullpen, making 49 appearances and posting a 1.96 ERA. He is 1-8 with 3 saves. Alex Sogard came from St. Paul and has been a quality left-hander the club can rely on, and Alex Boshers has established himself as one of the best setup guys in the league. Boshers was 4-2 with a 1.86 ERA in 28 appearances. Brad Orosey has been a big addition to the bullpen since joining the club.
The bullpen was a focus for the team this off-season, and it has paid off in a big way. John Brebbia has become one of the most deadly closers in the American Association, saving 19 games and winning seven more. He has a 0.98 ERA in 51 appearances, allowing a miniscule 34 hits and 15 walks in 64.1 innings pitched, while striking out 79. Setup man Ryan Beckman is a sniper himself, posting a 1.37 ERA in 49 appearances. He has yielded just 70 baserunners in 72.1 innings pitched, and what this says is that if you are looking to rally late against Laredo – FORGET IT! Luis De La Craz is another outstanding arm in this bullpen, going 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 31 appearances, as is B.J. Hyatt who was 4-1 with a save and a 2.49 ERA in 41 appearances. This is as good of a group of relievers as anyone will face, and if teams don’t score in the first five innings, they shouldn’t count on it afterward.
Managers: Kevin Hooper vs. Pete Incaviglia
Kevin Hooper has built the most incredible organization in independent baseball, and his five straight division championships prove that he can create a winner each and every season. With the loss of several key players to Mexico and affiliate ball, Hooper has still managed to keep this club winning. This is arguably the finest season he has put together as a manager, because this team would not have won the division if he not been the manager.
The fiery Incaviglia is one of the more colorful characters in the American Association, and this season he is proving that he is one of the best managers as well. In four seasons with the Laredo Lemurs Incaviglia has now won 221 games. He has already won a championship in 2008 with the Grand Prairie AirHogs, and consistently finds a way to get the most out of his players. To the outside world he may seem a bit over the top at times, but his team loves playing for him and they are quite loyal to the Lemurs manager.
Edge: Wichita Wingnuts
Three weeks ago the Laredo Lemurs would have won this series hands down. The Wichita Wingnuts simply could not hit enough to win this series, but the additions of LaRoche, Van Stratten and Clevlen turned the tide on this series. It is still tough to vote against this Laredo bullpen, but Wichita’s starting staff is a level above. Take the Wingnuts in five, but no one should be surprised if the Lemurs sweep.
By Robert Pannier