Burlington Notebook: Playoff-Ready

The Burlington Bees finished the 2011 regular season in just about the same fashion as they started it: riding a hot streak while fighting inclement weather.

That should be good news as manager Aaron Nieckula's squad opens the Midwest League playoffs tonight against the Oakland A's former affiliate in Kane County.

The past week was reminiscent of April and May, when it seemed the only thing that could slow the Bees down was rain. Burlington wrapped up the regular season with five wins in six games, with a pair of rain-outs sandwiched in between.

Burlington will be led into the playoffs by a trio of hot hitters in first baseman Josh Whitaker, outfielder Jose Crisotomo and catcher Beau Taylor.

Whitaker closed a breakout 2011 regular season by posting an August line of .370/.462/.580, and was barely beaten out for the MWL batting title by a late-qualifying Brian Fletcher of Kane County, .328-.326. The A's 25th-round selection last summer was the Bees' triple-crown winner with 17 homers and 68 RBIs to go along with his .326 batting average.

Although his late-summer surge was cut short by a brief DL stint in late August, Crisotomo still managed to hit .419 last month over 16 games. He added eight extra-base hits and finished with an OPS of 1.068. Crisotomo batted .325 with an 823 OPS this season, but battled injuries much of the way and played in just 46 games.

After demotions and injuries opened up a spot earlier this season for Taylor, Oakland's fifth-round pick in June, the catcher is coming off his best month as a professional. Taylor hit .324 in 24 August games, scoring 13 runs and driving in 14. He has shown the knack for coming up with big hits in crucial situations for the Bees. Defensively, Taylor has thrown out 14 of 38 potential base stealers.

Burlington owned the top starting rotation in the MWL in the early-going, but never fully recovered from the mid-May promotions of A.J. Griffin and Jacob Brown. Blake Hassebrock and Josh Bowman have remained the stalwarts of the Bees rotation, and Game Three starter Jose Macias has been impressive down the stretch.

Hassebrock was one of the top pitchers in minor-league baseball in April, when he opened by not allowing an earned run in 22.1 innings. However, the 6'4'' right-hander has seen his ERA climb since then. In five August starts, Hassebrock allowed 18 runs (10 earned) and 42 hits and walks combined in 21 innings. He has been plagued by bad run support this season and only has a 7-8 record to show for his 2.64 ERA.

Bowman has either pitched lights-out or scuffled the second half of the season, with not much in-between. The 6'2'' right-hander has allowed one earned run or less in five of his past eight starts. On the other hand, he's allowed 10 earned runs in 14 innings of the other three outings. But one thing the 10th-round draftee from '10 has done is eat up innings. He led the Bees with 154.2 innings pitched.

Perhaps Burlington's best starter of the second half is Macias, who shined in six August starts. The 18th-round selection in last June's draft allowed just five runs on 28 hits in 38 innings and won all five of his decisions. MWL opponents hit just .207 against him last month.

Comings and Goings

While losing a trio of players to promotions, Burlington has not had the benefit of any new additions from Vermont or Arizona, as the Oakland brass has been content with the nucleus in place. Catcher Juan Nunez, outfielder Jose Rivero and right-hander Zack Thornton were all promoted to Double-A Midland within a two-day span last week.

The Bees enter the MWL playoffs relatively healthy and should be bolstered by the return of infielder Tony Thompson from the disabled list. The oft-injured Crisotomo is also back in the lineup and Burlington will need his bat – and health – to succeed in the postseason.

MWL Playoff Outlook

The Bees won the first-half West Division title with a 45-25 record, giving them an automatic bid into the postseason. Kane County finished 37-33 in the second half of the season, which clinched the second-half Wild Card spot. The Bees and Cougars will play a best-of-three series.

During its first-half title run, Burlington won seven of nine contests against the Cougars. However, Kane County took five of six following the All-Star break. The Bees posted a .245 batting average this season, compared to a .242 mark for the Cougars. Burlington, meanwhile, had a slightly larger edge in team ERA (3.45 to 3.81).

Hassebrock toes the rubber for the Bees in game one of the MWL playoffs. He last took the mound in Wisconsin on September 2, allowing one earned run on four hits over five innings pitched. Kane County will counter with right-hander Greg Billo, the 2011 MWL ERA Champion. He allowed one earned run on two hits over five innings pitched last time out. He is 9-5 with a 1.93 ERA this season.

The best two-of-three series shifts to Burlington on Thursday night, where Bowman will oppose Cougar right-hander Yordano Ventura (4-6, 4.27). If necessary, Macias would face Kane County right-hander Jason Adam in a decisive game three on Friday night.

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