On The Farm: Southern Leauge playoff preview

On The Farm: Southern Leauge playoff preview

Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010
3:47 PM

By Kevin T. Czerwinski
CSNChicago.com
Tennessee and West Tenn were almost evenly matched throughout the regular season in the Southern League. Now, these in-state rivals will get the chance to grab bragging rights and play for a league title. Heres a closer look at the opening-round matchup in the Southern League playoffs.
Tennessee Smokies vs. West Tenn Diamond Jaxx(Best of five beginning Thursday)

Regular-Season Series

Tennessee had the slightest of edges winning 11 of the 19 games played between the two teams. The Diamond Jaxx took of three late last month at home but Tennessee took four of five games at the end of July and beginning of August at Smokies Park.
HEAD-TO-HEAD
Tennessee

The Smokies have pitched well all season and their contests against West Tenn were no exception. Tennessee had a 3.64 team era in the series with the starters posting a 3.39 ERA. Chris Archer was 2-0 with a 0.84 ERA while Luke Sommer posted a 1.93 ERA in eight relief appearances. Brandon Guyer scorched the Diamond Jaxx at the plate, hitting .406 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Brett Jackson hit .321 with nine RBIs though he did strike out 16 times.
West Tenn

Johan Limanta hit .347 with 12 RBIs while Alex Liddi hit .303 with 14 RBIs. The Diamond Jaxx, however, struck out once every 4.2 at-bats led by Carlos Peguero, who fanned 30 times in 65 at-bats. Limanta and Liddi combined for 33 strikeouts. Luis Munoz was 2-0 but he had a 6.57 ERA in his six appearances. Steve Bray and Mauricio Robles each made four starts against the Smokies, combining to go 1-5 with a 7.28 ERA.
ON THE MOUND
Tennessee

The Smokies had the highest winning percentage .619 and the third-best ERA 3.71 in the league. They also topped the circuit with 49 saves. Chris Carpenter 8-6, 3.16 ERA was sixth in the league in ERA but that was it for placing pitchers among the league leaders. Tennessee had a fluid staff throughout the season, moving people up to Iowa while plucking arms off the Daytona roster. Though the Smokies lost Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Andrew Cashner and Hung-Wen Chen, who combined for 16 wins, to Iowa, they were replaced with Chris Archer 8-2, 1.80 and Trey McNutt. Archer was a combined 15-3 with a 2.34 ERA at Daytona and Tennessee while McNutt went 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA at Peoria, Daytona and Tennessee. Craig Muschko was 9-3 with a 3.77 ERA in 26 games 23 starts. Kyle Smit also proved to be a fine addition after coming over in a trade with the Dodgers, going 5-1 with a save and 1.96 ERA in 12 appearances. As for finishing games, the Smokies have been closer by committee for much of the year with several plays
rotating in, out and around promotions.

West Tenn
The Diamond Jaxx finished seventh in the league with a 4.25 team ERA. Mauricio Robles was having a solid season and was near the top of several categories in terms of the league leaders when he was bumped up to Triple-A Tacoma last month. Game One starter Luis Munoz has appeared in 35 games but only 10 as a starter, during which he was 3-5 with a 4.17 ERA. His last four appearances were starts and he went 2-2 with a 3.43 ERA. Game Two starter Anthony Vazquez has been all over the map this season, spending time in the Midwest and California Leagues. The former 18th-round selection was a combined 11-9 with a 2.46 ERA. West Tenn has gone closer by committee all season and lately Mumba Rivera has been getting many of the chances to finish things off. He has four saves in his last six appearances, during which he didnt allow any runs. Anthony Varvaro led the team with nine saves.

PITCHING MATCHUPS

Game One: RHP Chris Archer 8-2, 1.80 vs. RHP Luis Munoz 7-6, 3.88
Game Two: RHP Chris Carpenter 8-6, 3.16 vs. LHP Anthony Vazquez 2-3, 2.61
Game Three: RHP Trey McNutt 0-1. 5.74 vs. RHP Jarrett Grube 5-5, 3.48
Game Four: RHP Craig Muschko 9-3, 3.77 vs. Stephen Bray 7-11, 5.50
Game Five: TBD vs. LHP Jim Gilheeney 1-2, 6.87
If necessary
AT THE PLATE

Tennessee

The Smokies had three of the top four hitters in the league, including Brandon Guyer who led the circuit with a .344 average despite missing time early with a shoulder injury and in August with a case of pink eye. He had an 18-game hitting streak in July and August during which he batted .471 while propelling himself to the crown. Tony Campana finished second with a .319 batting average while Blake Lalli was fourth at .311. The trio was the biggest reasons why the Smokies led the league with a .285 batting average. The Smokies also led the league in hits, runs scored, homers while striking out the fewest times on the 10-team circuit. Campana was also second in the league in hits 156 and stolen bases 48 while Guyer led the league in slugging percentage .588. Russ Canzler was second .566. If thats not enough, Steve Clevenger hit .317 with 47 RBIs. He hit .383 after the All-Star break and at one point in late August had hits in nine consecutive at-bats.
West Tenn

Third baseman Alex Liddi led the league with 92 RBIs second most in team history. The un-drafted free agent, who was born in San Remo, Italy, finished the regular season riding a 14-game hitting streak. Overall, he hit .281 but hit .490 during the streak to raise his average from .260. The Diamond Jaxx had Dustin Ackley through the first-half of the season but lost him to promotion at the All-Star break. Matt Lawson, one of the players the Mariners got from Texas in the Cliff Lee deal, has played well, hitting .319 with 22 RBIs in 42 games after driving in 34 with Frisco of the Texas League. Nick Franklin, the clubs first-round pick 27th overall in the 2009 draft, was called up from the Midwest League earlier this week and pressed into service when Carlos Triunfel sprained his index finger and went on the DL. Triunfel is likely done for the year meaning Franklin, who skipped right over High Desert, will be the starting shortstop after hitting .281 with 23 homers and 65 RBIs for Clinton. Triunfel had
been hitting .257.

NOTES

Tennessee finished with an 86-53 mark, a franchise record. The Smokies will host four of the five games because they won both halves in the Southern League season. The Diamond Jaxx will change their names next season to the Jackson Generals. Leury Bonilla played all nine positions in the Diamond Jaxx season-finale on Monday. He pitched a scoreless inning, recording a strikeout and inducing a 6-4-3 doubleplay. The Diamond Jaxx last made the playoffs in 2008 when they won the first-half championship by defeating Huntsville in a one-game playoff. They are riding a five-game winning streak heading into the post-season this year. Jacksonville Florida and Mobile Arizona will play in the other opening-round series.

Kevin Czerwinski can be reached at ktczerwinski@gmail.com.

Never say die: Cubs battle back for wild walk-off win over Pirates

Never say die: Cubs battle back for wild walk-off win over Pirates

It would have been so easy for the Cubs to just chalk this one up as a loss and head home.

But this 2016 Cubs team isn't built that way.

They showed what they're made of again Monday, walking off the Pirates, 8-7, in front of 38,951 fans at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs had plenty of chances to score all game, including in extra innings as Javy Baez was thrown out at home plate to end both the 10th and 12th innings.

In the top of the 13th, the Pirates finally broke through, loading the bases with nobody out against Rob Zastryzny and scoring a run — but only one run.

In the bottom of the 13th, the Cubs got their offense going again as Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant led the inning off with singles to put runners at the corners. Anthony Rizzo then singled through the infield to tie the game and drive home Fowler.

Ben Zobrist was intentionally walked to load the bases with nobody out, setting the stage for Miguel Montero's walk-off single to start the Cubs' homestand off on a positive note and send Zastryzny home with his first MLB victory.

It capped off a game in which almost 465 pitches were thrown and took more than five hours to complete.

"We got in late last night," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I got back about 3 a.m. So these guys — they're coming off West Coast to the Central Time Zone, they're tired, we had to show up today early for a picture — that happens sometimes — and they came out and played until Midnight.

"Of course you want to win that game. That's a tough game to lose. But understand the effort that you saw tonight based on a lot of fatigue. And that's probably what I'm most proud of."

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The Cubs opened up a 3-0 lead on Pirates rookie starter Steven Brault early, but they could have easily had more, narrowly missing home runs in the first (Zobrist) and third innings (Jorge Soler).

The Pirates, meanwhile, came roaring back against Jake Arrieta. 

First, Josh Bell hit a solo homer just over the basket in left field in the fourth inning. Then Gregory Polanco deposited a three-run shot down the left-field line in the sixth inning, two batters after it appeared the Cubs had gotten a strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double play. Home plate umpire Tripp Gibson disagreed, calling the pitch Ball 4 to Bell and putting two runners on with nobody out instead of two outs and nobody on. Arrieta was irate, staring down the umpire and prompting a visit from Maddon, who proceeded to get in Gibson's face at the base of the mound after calming down Arrieta.

"That's an entirely different baseball game right there that occurred on that particular pitch," Maddon said. "Everything turned on that particluar pitch.

"But I'm not gonna denigrate the umpire. We had plenty of opportunities — PLENTY — to win that game in a normal fashion or earlier. We had so many great at-bats to set it up and then we could not seal the deal."

Arrieta was also saddled with a pair of runs in the seventh inning, with Travis Wood letting two inherited runners score on Josh Harrison's two-out double to make it a 6-3 Pirates lead.

The reigning NL Cy Young winner finished with a tough-luck line that flashed six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings on five hits and three walks.

Then the Cubs began their comeback.

In the eighth, Jason Heyward doubled and Willson Contreras homered to straightaway center.

With one out in the ninth, Soler sent a charge into Tony Watson's offering to tie the game with a blast to center.

That set up Montero for the storybook ending.

"The resiliency of our team is incredible," Arrieta said. "That's what you need down the stretch. ... Just a crazy ballgame all the way around."

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Joe Maddon has been trying to find a chance to give Kris Bryant a day off.

But how do you sit the hottest hitter on the planet?

Bryant just finished a torrid road trip in which he staked his claim to the National League MVP Award by hitting .417 with a 1.365 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in nine games. 

That pushed his season line to .305/.398/.588 (.986 OPS) with a league-leading 35 homers and 107 runs plus 89 RBIs.

So is he the Most Valuable Player in just his second season in "The Show"?

"I don't want to get too wrapped up in individual awards," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He's an outstanding player having a great year. It's never too early.

"(Red Sox second baseman) Dustin Pedroia is another guy we drafted over a decade ago and he did the same thing — Rookie of the Year in the first year and then MVP the next year. It can be done.

"(Bryant is) helping us win in so many different ways. Obviously coming up big of late, which is great to see. He deserves all the accolades that are coming his way and that may eventually come his way.

"But I think he'd probably be the first one to tell you he wants the team awards; he wants the team recognition in the end. The only one that really counts is winning your last game and the parade. Everything else is nice to fill the trophy case, but that's what everyone here is all about."

Bryant will undoubtedly split some MVP votes with teammate Anthony Rizzo (.946 OPS, 25 home runs, 89 RBIs), but the Cubs third baseman/outfielder woke up Monday morning leading all of baseball in WAR on FanGraphs' page.

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Even the Cubs admit Bryant has progressed beyond their realistic expectations.

"I would never have held him to this standard," Epstein said. "I wouldn't say, 'This is his development path. He's gotta go be maybe the Most Valuable Player in the league in the second year.' But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me.

"He's always been outstanding at making adjustments. Very cerebral player. Makes great use of his down time, whether it's the winter where he can work on swing adjustments or even the time between at-bats or pitch-to-pitch. He's just really, really good at making adjustments and thinks about his own game at a really high level.

"He's such a good athlete, he's able to take it right out on the field."

Bryant has also surprised Epstein and the Cubs with how he's evolved as a player.

"In some ways, surprising," Epstein said. "I thought he would always hit five to 10 opposite field home runs a year at a minimum, and he hasn't this year — that was his first one of the year the other day at Dodger Stadium.

"But he's added the ability to turn on the inside pitch and hit it in the air and keep it fair, so he's hitting more home runs as a result. So I never saw that coming.

"It's interesting the way his swing and his game have evolved."

In discussing the difference between 2016 Bryant and the rookie model, Maddon pointed to a decrease in strikeouts (from 30.6 percent in 2015 to 22 percent) and a smoother product on defense.

"The biggest for me is consistently shorter swing. More contact," Maddon said. "He's had smaller windows of chasing pitches out of the strike zone compared to last year when he did it more often.

"But recently, he's been using the outfield gap, which is really impressive. So offensively, that's what I'm seeing. Defensively, better feet on the infield.

"You'd see a lot of the patting of the glove as the feet were moving. I see it on occasion now, but not to the extent I saw it last year. He's still a great baserunner.

"So primarily — shorter hack, greater contact, less chase, right central is coming back into play right now and better feet on defense. That's what I'm seeing."

Put it all together and you have an MVP frontrunner entering September.

With season's final month looming, Cubs will apply lessons learned from 2015 playoff run

With season's final month looming, Cubs will apply lessons learned from 2015 playoff run

What a difference a year makes.

Last season, the Cubs put the pedal to the metal in advance of a four-game series with the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field in August and never looked back until they ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the NLCS.

This season, with another four-game set with the Giants at the "Friendly Confines" on tap this week, the Cubs are in a completely different position.

There is no need for Joe Maddon to step on the gas and floor it into the postseason.

The Cubs entered play Monday 14 games up in the NL Central and they've already started counting down their magic number before the calendar has even flipped to September.

This year, it's going to be about rest and keeping guys sharp and fresh entering October, which the Cubs learned is key after last season.

Right now, the Cubs don't need to lean on Jake Arrieta to come close to a complete game each time out or utilize relievers on three straight nights in tight ballgames.

"I think our guys understand where we're at and it's going to be important to get where we want to go to be at their best," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Monday at Wrigley. "Last year's stretch and playoffs especially was instructive.

"I think we pushed guys hard during the year and it'd be nice for them to be at their absolute best during the most important time of year down the stretch and hopefully into October."

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The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way with rosters expanding to 40 players Thursday.

Tommy La Stella continues to work out in the minor leagues and Epstein acknowledged Monday the left-handed role player could be back in Chicago as soon as this week.

"The guys coming up will get some playing time," Maddon said. "I've always talked about in a bad game or even in a really good game, to get guys off their feet, that's important.

"Whoever we're going to bring up right now, they're going to be pertinent people that are going to help us win also right now."

Hector Rondon (triceps) and Pedro Strop (knee) are progressing "really well," Maddon said, with Rondon nearing a return while Strop threw in Chicago during the Cubs' recent road trip and reported no issues. 

"We're just trying to really play it smart, not push them to come back too quickly," Maddon said. "But they're both making great progress."

John Lackey (strained shoulder) is slated to throw a pair of bullpens this week and could return from the disabled list on the current homestand if all goes well.

When Lackey does come back, the Cubs could keep Mike Montgomery as a starter and go with a six-man rotation to keep everybody fresher down the stretch.

With all the rest in mind, Maddon isn't worried about his players getting rusty or losing their edge at all.

[RELATED: With John Lackey ramping up for return, could Cubs go to six-man rotation?]

Maddon admitted he's never been in a position like this where the Cubs are close to locking up a playoff spot and still have a month to play. But he compared the idea of taking the foot off the gas to the same way teams handle pitchers at the end of spring training before the regular season starts.

"You're trying to conserve their moments for the most important time of the year," Maddon said. "Regardless of any kind of pushback you might get from the players themselves, I still think you can do it and control it and not worry about the rust component.

"I think by this time of year, rest in a more intelligent manner - limiting innings or number of pitches thrown - I don't think that's going to cause a negative downturn in their abilities by the end of September."

Of course, just because the Cubs are prioritizing rest doesn't mean they're going to take their foot off the gas completely.

Epstein, Lackey and Jon Lester saw firsthand how quickly a large lead can evaporate with the 2011 Boston Red Sox

"I think once you go through a year in which you have a double digit lead right before Labor Day and screw it up and don't even get into October, you don't take anything for granted," Epstein said. "I guess that's the only good thing to come out of September 2011 for me - I'll never look too far ahead and I'll never take anything for granted.

"You have to have a broad perspective and look ahead and understand what might lie ahead, but you have to go earn it. That's been our team's approach from the very beginning - not to accept some of the praise that's come our way. It's to go out and try to earn it with our play and that's definitely true in the month of September."