The 2016 Frontier League Playoffs get underway Tuesday night at CarShield Field as the River City Rascals get set to host game one of the five game series against the 63 win Western Division Champion Southern Illinois Miners.
Tonight’s game will mark the second consecutive season that these two teams have met in the postseason and the Rascals got the better of their rival last season by defeating them 9-5 in the deciding game to advance to the Frontier League Championship Series. The Rascals also sent the Miners home early in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs but have not fared well against them during the first twelve games this season, winning just three of 12.
However, one of those three wins came on Sunday to clinch the playoffs and it marked the fifth year since 2010 that the Rascals have been in the postseason under Manager Steve Brook. In each of the first four years, the Rascals advanced to the final round but have not been crowned the champion since the 2010 campaign where they defeated the Traverse City Beach Bums.
The 2016 Frontier League playoffs also include the Eastern Division Champion Joliet Slammers and the Evansville Otters. Both are five game series and the Division Champions will play the first two games on the road and then host games three, four and five if necessary.
All four teams are ranked in the top half offensively and all lead the league in at least one offensive category. Through the 96 game campaign, the Rascals finished the year leading the league in batting average at a .283, eight points above the trailing team.
One of the three offensive players who was with the Rascals during last year’s postseason push, Josh Silver, leads the way offensively with a .352 average, nine home runs and 44 RBI despite missing out in 32 games towards the middle of the season. The second year Rascal finished eleven points away from the Frontier League batting title and out of the 64 games he played, he reached in 62 of them and enters tonight’s contest having reached in 27 straight, including a 14 game hitting streak.
The other two players that will be in the lineup from last year are shortstop Johnny Morales and catcher/designated hitter Josh Ludy. In last season’s playoff run, the three returners were stellar tallying a total of 22 hits and had 21 of the team’s 29 RBI.
Morales and Ludy have combined to play in 555 games under Manager Steve Brook and are his second and third place hitters in the lineup. This season, they are hitting .281 and .289 respectively and have been solid defensively at their spots on the diamond.
Alexi Colon is another Rascal who has postseason experience. This will be his first with the Rascals though as he played for the Schaumburg Boomers the last three years and was part of the Boomers team that won back-to-back championships in 2013 and 2014.
Colon has had a career year notching a career high 17 home runs, 22 stolen bases and was five RBI away from passing up his record of 46 RBI set with Schaumburg last year.
Other offensive notables are Kyle Gaedele, who is second on the team in batting average and set a new career high at a .308 mark, Frontier League Postseason All-Star Mike Jurgella who hit .409 in the month of August and second baseman Jason Merjano. The California native and first year Rascal leads the team with 33 multi-hit games and has driven in the most runs (51).
The offense has proven how dominant they can be but the Rascals pitching staff will also be crucial to get themselves past the Southern Illinois Miners in the first round.
Manager Steve Brook has slated the 22 year old southpaw from Bellarmine University Austin Warner to start in game one and then probable’s for game two are right-handers Joe Pavlovich and Tim Koons.
Warner enters the postseason with a 4-1 record and has not faced the Miners this year. All of his wins came in a row and he is the only Rascals pitcher to earn four or more wins in a month. Named the Rascals August Pitcher of the Month, Warner combined to allow just six earned runs in 23 2/3 innings while striking out 25. He also had a career outing in his third win lasting 7 2/3 innings and tallying a career high eleven strikeouts against the Windy City ThunderBolts on August 19th. Prior to joining the Rascals, he started 12 games at Bellarmine and went 4-4 with a 3.67 ERA (29 ER in 73.2 IP), 64 strikeouts and 29 walks which earned him All-Great Lakes Valley Conference honors for the second straight year.
After Warner and Pavlovich/Koons, the Rascals other three arms who were in the starting rotation to end the year include right-handers Dylan Brammer and Zeb Sneed and former Miner Dan Ludwig.
Brammer was the last addition to the Rascals roster and has posted a 3.06 ERA through 17 2/3 innings, two starts and two relief appearances after coming over from the Pittsburg Diamonds of the Pacific Association.
In his first year starting since 2012, Zeb Sneed has been the workhorse of the Rascals rotation and holds an 8-8 record with a 3.77 ERA. The right-hander also leads the team with 20 starts, 121.2 innings pitched, two complete games including a two hit shutout, and is eight strikeouts away from being the only Rascal to reach 100.
Dan Ludwig is another stellar arm however not all of his starts have been in a Rascals uniform. Ludwig came to River City via a trade on August 5th from the team the Rascals host tonight, the Southern Illinois Miners. With Southern, he was 7-2 with a 4.23 ERA and has been better with River City in his five starts with the club. He has lasted seven or more innings three of the five games and those three starts have been quality starts. Overall between the two clubs, ten of his 18 starts have been quality and in those games, he has gone 8-0 with a 1.75 ERA (15 earned runs in 77 1/3 innings).
As for the bullpen, the Rascals have long relievers Reese Gregory and Dylan Brammer (if he doesn’t start), situational guys such as Will Schierholz, Michael Gunn and Jason Zgardowski, the Rascals “get out of a jam guy” Nick Kennedy and then Shane Street and Skylar Hunter have been used to set up the Rascals All-Star closer Zac Treece.
Treece has posted a team low 1.86 ERA through 48 1/3 innings of work and is 22 for 23 in save opportunities. The second year Rascal has allowed an earned run in just five appearances and leads all relievers with 75 strikeouts and is third with an opponent’s batting average of .209.
The Rascals on paper have one of the deepest bullpens in the league and they will be a huge factor for the Rascals quest for their second Frontier League Championship in team history.
First pitch is scheduled for 6:35 tonight and for more information about tonight’s game download the game notes attached.