Sacramento vs. Tacoma Playoff Preview

The Sacramento River Cats are setting out to do what few teams have done in any professional sport: win three consecutive titles. Their quest for a three-peat begins tonight in Tacoma, Washington. We have a preview of the series.

Winning has been an annual tradition in Sacramento since the River Cats came to the Capitol City a decade ago. The 2009 season was no different for Sacramento, who cruised to a Pacific South division title with a league-best 86-57 record. Sacramento is coming off of two consecutive PCL titles and is looking for its fifth PCL title in 10 years, a run of dominance rarely seen in minor league baseball.

Series Overview

Sacramento will start its title defense against the Rainiers in Tacoma, Washington, where Games One and Two of the best-of-five series will be played. Game Three will be at Raley Field in Sacramento, as will Games Four and Five, if necessary. Sacramento will go with a five-man rotation in the series. All five pitchers are right-handed: Chris Gissell, Chad Reineke, Jerome Williams, Shawn Chacon and James Simmons. They will take on lefties Chris Seddon and Garrett Olson in Games One and Two and righties Brandon Morrow and Gaby Hernandez in Games Three and Four. Tacoma has not yet indicated who would start a potential Game Five.

During the regular season, the River Cats and Rainiers played 16 games and neither team held a distinct advantage. Sacramento won the season series nine games to seven. The River Cats hit .248 as a team and posted a 4.94 ERA, while Tacoma batted .276 and had a 4.15 ERA. Tacoma holds the distinction of being the last team to beat the River Cats in a playoff series. That series came in 2005, when Sacramento fell three games to one in the semi-final series.

River Cats On Offense

If Sacramento is going to win the series and make the PCL finals, they will most likely win it in the batters' box. The River Cats are stocked with talented position players, many of whom have big league experience.

Sacramento boasts an intimidating middle of the order that features top A's prospects Brett Wallace (20 homers and an 822 OPS) and Chris Carter (28 homers and a 992 OPS), as well as Tom Everidge (20 homers and a 958 OPS). Washington state natives Aaron Cunningham (.302 BA and an 851 OPS) and Travis Buck (.272 BA and a 763 OPS) will also figure prominently in the River Cats' line-up, as will team homerun leader Matt Carson (25 homers for Sacramento) and the catching tandem of Eric Munson (13 homers and an 812 OPS) and Anthony Recker (12 homers and a 782 OPS).

The River Cats will miss Eric Patterson, who is now with Oakland and was the team's table-setter throughout the season. Lead-off duties will be shared by Buck and Chris Denorfia (nine homers and 15 stolen bases), and the team will look to Adrian Cardenas (.299 BA between Midland and Sacramento) and Gregorio Petit (.244 BA) to ignite the offense from the bottom of the order. Sacramento has done a lot of running this season, but the team's two best base-stealers (Patterson (43) and Cliff Pennington (27)) are currently in the big leagues. Denorfia, Carson and Cunningham are the only three members of the current roster to be in double-digits in stolen bases.

River Cats On The Mound

If the River Cats have a major vulnerability, it is in the starting rotation. The team has lost a significant portion of its starting rotation to major league call-ups throughout the season, including team aces Gio Gonzalez (2.51 ERA in 12 starts) and Vince Mazzaro (2.38 ERA in 10 outings). More recently, Sacramento lost Brett Tomko, Clayton Mortensen and Dana Eveland to major league promotions.

The River Cats will be turning to Chris Gissell in the series opener despite the fact that Gissell made only two appearances for Sacramento this season (he allowed three runs in 7.2 innings). Gissell spent most of the season pitching in Taiwan, but the River Cats are hoping that Gissell can provide them with the same level of pitching during the post-season that he did in 2008, when he helped Sacramento win the title.

Gissell will be followed by Chad Reineke, who went 9-4 with a 4.75 ERA in 30 appearances for the River Cats this season. He also made one start for the A's, allowing four runs in five innings. Reineke is a five-year minor league veteran who appeared in four games in the major leagues with the San Diego Padres last season.

In Game Three, the River Cats will turn to another veteran, right-hander Jerome Williams. Williams spent the entire season with Sacramento and went 5-6 with a 5.58 ERA. Williams has 76 career major league appearances, mostly starts, but last pitched in the big leagues in 2007. He will be followed in Game Four, if necessary, by another major league veteran, Shawn Chacon, who is the only member of the River Cats' rotation to have pitched in the major league playoffs (Yankees, 2005). He went 8-4 with a 6.29 ERA in 14 appearances for the River Cats this season.

If the series goes to five games, Sacramento will be leaning on the least experienced starter in the rotation (and the only one without big league experience) – right-hander James Simmons. Simmons, the A's top pick in 2007, had an up-and-down first season in Triple-A, finishing with a 5.72 ERA. That ERA took a big jump in September when he allowed 11 runs in five innings after missing more than a month with a strained right deltoid. Simmons made three starts versus Tacoma this season and went 1-0 with a 5.40 ERA.

The River Cats' bullpen has been solid all season, but Sacramento will be missing a few key arms. Closer Jeff Gray was promoted to Oakland in mid-August and he left the River Cats with a 1.54 ERA and 16 saves. The River Cats have also lost their top three left-handers to recent promotions – Jay Marshall (3.20 ERA), Jerry Blevins (3.84 ERA) and Brad Kilby (2.13 ERA).

Sacramento will be counting on Chris Schroder (2.22 ERA in 56.2 innings), Kevin Cameron (2.77 ERA), Scott Patterson (3.96 ERA) and Michael Benacka (1.98 ERA) in the middle innings. Of this group, only Benacka doesn't have major league experience.

Sacramento will be able to turn to two electric arms in the late innings – Sam Demel and Henry Rodriguez. Demel, in his first year at the Triple-A level, posted a 3.62 ERA and saved three games with the River Cats. He began the year at Double-A, where he had 11 saves and an 0.61 ERA. Rodriguez possess the best fastball on the team (regularly clocked at 100 MPH), but he has been inconsistent. In 43.2 innings, he has struck-out 71 batters, but he has walked 38 and has a 5.77 ERA and four saves. How Rodriguez and Demel fare in the late innings may go a long way towards determining if the River Cats win the series.

Scouting Tacoma

The Tacoma Rainiers were a surprise playoff team. Tacoma was 7.5 games behind the Colorado Springs Sky Sox on August 22, but they stormed back to overtake the Sky Sox on the season's final day. Tacoma finished fourth in the league in team batting with a .280 average and in runs scored with 778. Pitching was another story for the Rainiers, who finished third-to-last in the league in that category.

On offense, the Rainiers are led by Bryan LaHair (26 homers and an 883 OPS), Chris Shelton (15 homers and a 905 OPS) and Prentice Redman (21 homers and a 900 OPS). The team will be without big boppers Mike Carp (818 OPS), Michael Saunders (922 OPS) and Jeff Clement (871 OPS), all of whom have been promoted or traded. The Rainiers don't have a lot of team speed, as outfielder Jerry Owens is the only member of the team to steal more than 10 bases (he has 23).

The Rainiers will be using an experienced starting rotation in the playoffs. Chris Seddon, Garrett Olson and Brandon Morrow all have big league experience. Seddon was a PCL All-Star in 2008 when he was in the Marlins' chain. He appeared in seven games with the Marlins in 2007. Seddon was originally a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2001.

Olson was once one of the top pitching prospects in baseball when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, but the Orioles gave up on him after he posted a 6.65 ERA last season. He split this season between Tacoma and Seattle, posting a 4.94 ERA with the Rainiers and a 5.88 ERA with Seattle.

Morrow was expected to be the Mariners' closer this season, but he posted a 5.28 ERA in 46 innings with the M's. Seattle converted Morrow, a starter in college, back into the rotation mid-season, and he has found some success in that role. In 10 starts, the Cal alum and Santa Rosa native has a 3.60 ERA.

Gaby Hernandez , the Rainiers' Game Four starter, is another former top prospect. Hernandez began his career in the Mets' organization and was traded to Florida for Paul LoDuca in 2005. He struggled with injury and inconsistency in 2008 and was traded from Florida to Seattle before the 2009 season for Arthur Rhodes. Hernandez has a 5.23 ERA in 146.1 innings for Tacoma this season.

The Rainiers will be without their top reliever, right-hander Randy Messenger, who saved 25 games and posted a 2.86 ERA before being promoted to Seattle. Justin Thomas (4.48 ERA) will be asked to pick up the slack for Messenger.

Prediction

The River Cats and Rainiers will be entering this series on two different streaks. Sacramento struggled during the season's final week, having sown up the division title back in August, while Tacoma was the hottest team in the league. Both teams are strong offensively, so the series will most likely come down to which veteran starting rotation can pitch more effectively. Sacramento was the best team in the league in one-run games this season, something that should help them in a playoff series.

River Cats in five.


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