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Texas League Playoffs: can Midland four-peat?

The RockHounds have won the Texas League since 2014

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Fall Stars Game
Former Texas Leaguers Franklin Barreto and Willie Calhoun
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It’s rare to three-peat in sports. Not many have ever done it. The Boston Celtics dominated the NBA in unprecedented ways in the 60’s, winning eight championships in a row. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls three-peated on two separate occasions in the 90’s, bookended by his baseball career.

In our sport, the New York Yankees ended the 20th century with three straight titles, nearly winning a fourth in 2001.

The Oakland Athletics accomplished the feat from 1972 to 1974 and now their Double-A affiliate is following suit.

The Midland RockHounds have won the Texas League title each season since 2014 and are back in the postseason once again, attempting to make it an incredible four in a row.

It took a win in the season’s final game at Frisco to secure their fourth straight postseason berth, and it also broke a tie between them and Houston’s Corpus Christi Hooks. Nevertheless, here they are. Midland has one more loss in one more game played than the Hooks (minor league games are not always made up), but won the head-to-head tiebreaker. A 9-1 finish for the Hooks went for naught.

Midland clinched the playoffs without winning either half, unlike the other three teams. San Antonio, affiliate of the San Diego Padres, won the first half title as well as the second in the Southern Division and dominated their fellow Texas Leaguers all season long, compiling a league-best 78-62 record.

The Kansas City Royals affiliated Northwest Arkansas Naturals won the first half crown in the North Division and had their 2017 playoff spot guaranteed in June. Thankfully, their second half struggles did nothing to jeopardize their playing into mid-September.

A hotly contested second half race between the Dodgers’ Tulsa Drillers club and St. Louis’ Springfield Cardinals came down to the finals days, as opposed to the very final day down south. An eight game winning streak in August helped the Drillers beat out the Cardinals. Tulsa had the best record in the Texas League’s second half at 44-26, finishing two games better than Springfield.

The bracket sets up as such: the south champion Missions will host back-to-back-to-back champs Midland while the north side sees first half champion Northwest Arkansas host Tulsa.

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San Antonio Missions vs. Midland RockHounds

The first best-of-five series features some of the Padres and Athletics best prospects. I’ve twice written about Missions’ breakout prospect Luis Urias this season and feel as strongly about him as advertised. The Texas League OBP champ at an insane .398 clip leads the Missions against the Hounds, who have a top infield prospect of their own in Jorge Mateo.

Acquired at the trade deadline in the Sonny Gray blockbuster, the relative post-hype candidate Mateo was arguably the third most valuable of three prospects received. He’s had a very strong season, hitting .292 with Midland after hitting .300 with the same-leveled Trenton club with the Yankees. Mateo has seven triples in just 30 games in the Texas League, tied for the league lead with Frisco outfielder Scott Heineman...who has played 87 more games.

The Missions prevailed 18 to 14 in the season series but as is the case in all levels of Minor League Baseball, rosters change on the fly and personnel come playoff time is a mirror’s edge of what came before. Still, the Missions are the best team in the Texas League and come in as favorites against the three-time defending champs.

San Antonio’s last title was in 2011, a team I Bat Boy’d for. Long live the Decker brothers. (Also, pitcher Simon Castro is the nicest and funniest human being I have met in my 24 years of living.)

Others to watch:

San Antonio: The Missions boast a formidable 1-2 punch in the Texas League’s finest rotation. Brett Kennedy (26 starts, 134:38 K:BB ratio) and Enyel De Los Santos (third in the league with 150 IP, 138:48: K:BB ratio) front the group and will look to put the series in San Antonio’s favor before it heads to Midland for games three through five, four and five only being played if necessary.

Behind the dynamic duo, the Missions had a Texas League best team ERA of 3.28. The next best team (Tulsa) was all the way “down” to 3.68. They also led the way with 1,186 strikeouts and a 1.23 WHIP was .09 points better than next-best Springfield. Corey Wingenter led all league relievers with 20 saves.

Midland: Nobody started more Texas League games this season than staff ace Heath Fillmyer with 29. 2016 sixth overall pick A.J. Puk has three straight quality starts for the Hounds and has struck out 13 batters on two different occasions. He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in an outing since July 18th.

All-Star Game MVP B.J. Boyd and second baseman Max Schrock hit .323 and .321 respectively, finishing third and fourth in the league’s regular season batting race.

The RockHounds as a club led the league with an incredible .277 team batting average. Their .346 team on base percentage was also ten points better than the closest competitor and they were the only club to amass over 1,300 hits (1,310).

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game
Rock star A.J. Puk
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Northwest Arkansas Naturals vs. Tulsa Drillers

The best-of-five will start in Northwest Arkansas, home of the first half champion Naturals but will end in Tulsa no matter what. Games three through five (the final two if necessary) will take place in Tulsa.

Northwest Arkansas had a good year. Unfortunately, that’s probably the extent of it. They won the North Division’s first half with a 39-31 beginning but at 28-42, were the worst team in the Texas League during the following baseball semester.

Tulsa, meanwhile, were four games under .500 (33-37) before the schedule reset and were adversely the Texas League’s best team in the second half with a record of 44-26.

The Drillers had a unique managerial change in-season when former Major Leaguer Ryan Garko resigned from his post to take the managerial job at the University of Pacific.

Scott Hennessey went from scout to third base coach in June and less than a month later was the interim Manager for the Tulsa Drillers. After he took over, they went 27-13. They clinched the second half title with a walk-off win on September 2nd after trailing by three in the eighth inning. Winners of eight in a row from August 16-23, they’re hot.

Hennessey and company certainly benefited from having Matt Beaty on their side. I interviewed Beaty in June in the midst of his breakout season. Little did I know he (or perhaps I knew!) would take his elevated play to yet another level and win the league’s MVP aka the Texas League Player of the Year.

The 24-year old corner infield prospect —who can also play second base and the corner outfield positions— led the league in batting average (.326) and OPS (.883) while finishing second in slugging (.505) and fourth in OBP (.378).

Northwest Arkansas is a curious case. Only Frisco’s pitching staff surrendered more runs and nobody allowed more hits than the Naturals crop of arms. Their offense ranked last in slugging and second to last in getting on base. No team got on base less, no team came close to walking as little as them (310 is 43 less than Frisco) and they tied for a league-low 80 home runs.

But they’re here. And they deserve it. They earned the spot. Their margin of victory wasn’t as convincing as others and they benefited from a poor first half showing by both Tulsa and Springfield, but they are hosting tonight.

First baseman Samir Duenez led the league in at-bats with 523. He made the Texas League All-Star team in June and finished tied for fifth in the circuit with 17 home runs and his 75 RBI was third. It’s a team effort and one that struggled in the second half, but Tulsa also gets a big help from Jack Lopez (.281 average, 19 stolen bases) and Donald “Donnie” Dewees, Jr. (20 steals and 46 walks).

As noted, Midland has won three straight Texas League titles. On the losing side for two years straight have been the Naturals. The year prior saw the Drillers fall. One of these teams will be back to either rematch Midland or face the league’s best 2017 roster in San Antonio. The Naturals won the season series 18 to 14.

The last championship captured by Northwest Arkansas happened under the name of the Wichita Wranglers in 1999, still affiliated with the Royals and still calling that trophy their own. The Drillers last came out victorious in 1998, but were far from their Dodgers partnership. The 1998 Tulsa club was part of the Texas Rangers system. The last Dodger’s Double-A team to win their league was the Jacksonville Suns in the 2005 Southern League.

Ironically worth noting, the last two times the Dodgers have switched Double-A affiliates, that team —Jacksonville in 2009 (with the Marlins) and Chattanooga in 2015 (Twins)— won their league.

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game
Naturals pitcher Foster Griffin
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Others to watch:

Northwest Arkansas: On the mound, Northwest Arkansas is led by 2017 Futures Game participant Foster Griffin. Griffin was a first round selection in 2014 (28th overall) and is living up to expectations so far. He went 11-5 in 18 starts with a 3.61 ERA. He’s prone to baserunners and doesn’t punch out a lot of batters, so a playoff start will be a fun evaluation.

Emilio Ogando was the ace and the workhorse all year long for NWA. He finished fourth in ERA among qualifiers with a 3.45 posting in 133 innings. Corey Ray started a Texas League high 29 games but was erratic all year. He did throw a complete game, four hit shutout on June 8th, using just 88 pitches in the process.

Tulsa: Shortstop Erick Mejia’s 25 stolen bases is the highest among playoff participants. (Springfield’s Oscar Mercado led the league with 38.) Mejia also slashed .289/.357/.413 and has given the team great production in lieu of Tim Locastro’s promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Josh Sborz provided the Drillers with the foundation of their rotation. He started 24 games and managed a very efficient 3.86 ERA. The emergent ace was Scott Barlow, however, who allowed three runs in a start only once this season for Double-A Tulsa. That resulted in a 2.10 ERA and his .94 WHIP was proven by an exceptional 124:37 K:BB ratio. Tulsa certainly enters the series as the favorite, on paper and by looking at what has over the past two and a half months of the season.

The Texas League Semifinals begin simultaneously in San Antonio and Northwest Arkansas at 7:05 PM CST.