Let the Minor League Playoffs begin! The Columbus Clippers (79-65), winners of the West Division, kick off their best-of-five playoff series with the International League South division champs the Durham Bulls (75-69).
The first two games of the International League Governors’ Cup semifinal round begins tonight in downtown Columbus at beautiful Huntington Park. The Clippers’ organization is familiar with the essence of playoff baseball as Columbus won the 2010 and 2011 titles in back-to-back years and 9 total Cup championships. This is also the third West Division title in five years, their first since 2011, but their 14th International League division title overall. Throughout their existence, the Clippers have been one of the more prolific minor league organizations in baseball.
Columbus comes into this playoff series having won 16 of their last 25 games while Durham has won 13 of their last 25. The last time these two clubs matched up was all the way back in May when the Bulls swept the Clippers in a 4-game stint at Huntington Park. The Bulls won the regular season series 6 games to 2; however, that was a different Clippers team. The Clippers began the season on a sour note, starting out at 26-29 for the months of April and May. Thereafter, the Clippers rallied to a 19-10 mark in June and haven’t looked back since.
The Durham Bulls, affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays and famous in part by the 1988 movie classic Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, are defending Cup champions and seek to continue their pursuit of excellence. Durham’s strength is definitely their pitching with a 2.19 ERA against Columbus this year (courtesy of John Wagner’s International League playoff preview article at MiLB.com).
The Bulls find themselves in the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. It’s not a shock to see them so successful every year because it is arguable that the Tampa Bay Rays invest more time and money in their minor league system than any other team in the big leagues.
The most anticipated infielder that fans are begging to see is shortstop Francisco Lindor. Lindor, drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft, is one of Cleveland’s top prospects and has a .273 average with Columbus. In his last ten games he is hitting a stellar .356 in 45 at-bats. Another hot hitter entering this series is centerfielder James Ramsey. He’s batting .308, with 8 RBIs, 12 hits and 9 runs scored in his last ten games.
One-time Indian Russell Branyan, recently signed from the Mexican League, has only played in 4 games so far but has compiled 4 hits in his 12 at-bats. Branyan is batting .298 if you combine his stint in the Mexican League with his at-bats in Columbus. Tonight also features David Murphy from the Indians who will be hitting second and starting in rightfield.
Shaun Marcum, once a star pitcher on the Toronto Blue Jays was released by the New York Mets in the summer of 2013. In December of that year, he signed a minor league contract with Cleveland and is now penciled-in to start Game 3 in Durham for the Clippers. He’s only thrown 17.1 innings this year due to shoulder problems, but has a 2.08 ERA in two games started with 13 strikeouts. Starting third baseman Giovanny Urshela (Yo-VAH-nee), promoted from Akron earlier this year, is hitting a respectable.276 with Columbus this season. Gio’s strength is becoming his fielding competence with a .968 fielding percentage at the hot corner.
For the Durham Bulls, Matt Andriese, Mike Montgomery, Nate Karns and Merrill Kelly are among the International League’s top leaders in wins, with 11, 10, 9 and 9 respectively. While the strength of Durham’s success is their pitching (with a combined 3.98 team ERA), their hitting is lacking.
The Bulls have a combined .248 team average which is last in the league and score just under an average of 4 runs per game that sits them in second-last place in that category. Second baseman Tim Beckham has a .295 average this season in the minors, but he is hitting only .258 with the Bulls and .158 in his last ten games. On the positive side, the 2011 first-round pick, outfielder Mikie Mahtook is batting .292 with 68 RBI’s on the season, and infielder Cole Figueroa is hitting .282 with Durham. Figueroa also has 10 hits in 43 at-bats with the Rays this season.
One thing to keep in mind about minor league playoff baseball is that the major league squads are able to expand their rosters and often call up a few of the best performing players down on the farm. Generally pitchers are promoted to the major league bullpen in order to give a few extra days of rest to pitchers that have been grinding out a long season in the big leagues. The Indians have called up pitchers Austin Adams, Bryan Price and Zach McAllister as well as infielder Jesus Aguilar. Meanwhile the Tampa Bay Rays have called up pitcher Brandon Gomes, catcher Curt Casali, and purchased the contract of pitcher Steve Geltz.
Columbus will also play host to Game 2 that takes place tomorrow at 7:05 PM. The series will then shift to Durham, North Carolina for Game 3, as well as 4 and 5 if necessary. The winner of this series will compete for the Governors’ Cup against the successor of the Pawtucket Red Sox (Red Sox) and Syracuse Chiefs (Nationals).
The Cleveland Indians are in a playoff race to close out the regular season, but the Columbus Clippers (AAA), Akron Rubberducks (AA), and Lake County Captains (A) all take the stage tonight and begin their run at a title today.
To sum up the starts for tonight, first pitch for the Clippers-Bulls game is at 7:05 PM at Huntington Park in Columbus, OH. The Akron Rubberducks (Indians) square off against the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Giants). Starting on the bump will be Duke von Schamann (8-8, 4.20 ERA) for Akron and Adalberto Mejia (7-9, 4.67 ERA) for Richmond. First Pitch is at 6:35 PM at Canal Park in Akron, OH. The Lake County Captains (Indians) take on the South Bend Silver Hawks (Diamondbacks). The starting pitchers for Game 1 will be Mitch Brown (8-8, 3.31 ERA) for Lake County and Anthony Banda (9-6, 3.03 ERA) for South Bend. First pitch is at 7:00 PM at Classic Park in Eastlake, OH.
If you’re looking for some good entertainment, the start of the minor league playoffs has your ticket!