PCL Finals Preview: Sacramento River Cats

The Sacramento River Cats look to make it three Pacific Coast League titles in a row as they take on the Memphis Redbirds in the PCL finals. The playoff series begins on Tuesday in Memphis and will come to Sacramento on Friday. We preview the series from the River Cats' perspective inside…

How They Got Here

The Sacramento River Cats, after posting the best record in the Pacific Coast League during the regular season, reached the PCL finals by beating the Tacoma Rainiers three games-to-one in the first round of the post-season.

Sacramento used a potent offense to make quick work of the Rainiers, scoring 36 runs in four games. The River Cats homered eight times, collected 43 hits (including 12 doubles) and posted a team OPS of 947 in the four-game set.

The River Cats' pitching staff had a decent series, as well, posting a team ERA of 4.37 in 35 innings. Sacramento pitchers struck-out 37 batters in the Tacoma series and allowed only three homeruns. They did walk 21, however.

Who's Hot

Chris Carter: One of the A's top hitting prospects, Carter only joined the River Cats for the final two weeks of the regular season. Before that, he had been at Double-A, where he won the Texas League's MVP award. He made a quick impact with Sacramento in the playoffs, homering in each of the four games against Tacoma and driving in six. Carter has shown a propensity for big performance since joining the A's organization in a trade before the 2008 season. In the 2008 California League playoffs, Carter helped lead the Stockton Ports to a title by hitting five homeruns and driving in 18 in 12 games. He has homered 77 times in 291 regular and post-season games since joining the A's organization.

Adrian Cardenas: Like Carter, Cardenas – another top A's prospect – spent the majority of the season at Double-A. However, he looked like a grizzled Triple-A veteran versus Tacoma, collecting seven hits and three walks in 15 at-bats, mostly from the number two spot in the line-up. The smooth-swinging Cardenas scored seven runs in the four games. Cardenas hit .289 with Sacramento in August and September.

Brett Wallace: Wallace, who is in a battle with Carter for the title of "top A's prospect," is one of the reasons that the Memphis Redbirds are in the playoffs. The third-baseman hit .293 with six homers in 62 games for the Redbirds before St. Louis traded him to Oakland near the July trading deadline. Wallace hit even better with Sacramento after the trade (.302 with nine homers in 44 games) and was a key contributor for Sacramento versus Tacoma. He homered twice, drove-in seven and reached base at a .400 clip in the four-game series.

Gregorio Petit: Petit, a defensive wizard at short, isn't known for his bat, but he did a nice job for Sacramento in the first-round of the playoffs. Batting in the number nine hole, Petit collected four hits (including two doubles) in 12 at-bats and he scored three times.

Matt Carson: The River Cats' regular season MVP had a homer and three doubles included in his six hits for Sacramento in the series. Carson had 25 homers during the regular season to lead the River Cats. He won an International League title in 2008 as a member of the Yankees' Triple-A club.

Chris Denorfia: Denorfia acted as the River Cats' lead-off hitter for the Tacoma series and he was instrumental in getting the Sacramento offense humming. The veteran outfielder had six hits in 17 at-bats, including two doubles, and he scored six times. He also walked three times.

Jerome Williams: The veteran Williams didn't have an impressive regular season (5.58 ERA), but he was outstanding in his playoff start versus Tacoma. In seven innings, he allowed one run on seven hits with eight strike-outs and one walk. Williams has made 71 starts in the major leagues (and 76 total appearances), but he last pitched in the bigs in 2007 with Washington.

Chris Gissell: Gissell was an instrumental part of the River Cats' starting rotation in 2008 when they won the PCL title, but he spent the majority of the 2009 season pitching professionally in Taiwan. He only joined Sacramento during the final week of the regular season, but the veteran right-hander was the team's Game One starter against Tacoma and he responded by allowing two runs in five innings.

Starting Rotation

Sacramento announced on Monday that they will be going with the same rotation that they featured in the first round of the playoffs. Gissell will pitch Game One, followed by Chad Reineke in Game Two, Williams in Game Three, Shawn Chacon in Game Four and James Simmons in Game Five. All of Sacramento's starters are right-handed, and all but Simmons made starts in the first round. Simmons is the only one of the five pitchers without major league experience. Chacon is the only member of the rotation to have pitched in the major league playoffs (Yankees, 2005).

Head-to-Head with Memphis

The River Cats and the Redbirds squared off four times in 2009, all in Memphis. Sacramento took that four-game series from the Redbirds by a three games-to-one margin. Sacramento's offense was red-hot during the series. The River Cats scored 26 runs and homered eight times. Catcher Anthony Recker (five hits in seven at-bats, including a homer), as well as Cardenas (.467 BA and a homer in four games) and Wallace (.467 BA and two homers in his return to Memphis) led the River Cats' offense.

The pitching staff compiled a 4.25 ERA against the Redbirds. Former Redbird Clayton Mortensen (who was also part of the trade that sent Wallace to the A's) took the only Sacramento loss in the series when he allowed four earned runs in three innings. Mortensen won't pitch in the finals, as he is in the major leagues with Oakland. Lefty Dana Eveland had a strong start for Sacramento (six innings/three runs allowed), but he, too, is in Oakland. Of the current River Cats, Chacon (one earned run in 7.2 innings), Reineke (two runs in seven innings) and relievers Sam Demel and Chris Schroder (two scoreless innings each) had the most success against Memphis.

Sacramento's Keys to the Series

Power Ball: The River Cats have seen their pitching staff depleted by major league promotions, so they will rely on their potent offense. Wallace, Carter and Tom Everidge (seven RBIs in the first round and a 958 regular season OPS) form a potent middle of the line-up. With Cardenas and Denorfia hitting in front of those three and hitters such as Carson, Aaron Cunningham (.302 BA in the regular season) and major league veteran Travis Buck rounding out the line-up, Sacramento boasts a dangerous line-up from top-to-bottom. Sacramento did lose one of its top hitters during the first round when catcher and PCL All-Star Eric Munson (13 HR and an 812 OPS in the regular season) was promoted to Oakland. Recker is a capable replacement for Munson, however, having hit 15 homeruns during the regular season himself.

Effective Bullpen: Sacramento has seen some outstanding relievers promoted to the big leagues over the past six weeks, including closer Jeff Gray (16 saves and a 1.54 ERA for Sacramento/ 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings in the majors) and lefties Brad Kilby (2.13 ERA with Sacramento/ zero runs allowed and seven strike-outs in the majors), Jay Marshall (PCL All-Star/ 3.20 ERA with Sacramento) and Jerry Blevins (3.84 ERA with Sacramento/ one run allowed in 6.2 innings in September for Oakland).

Sacramento still has a veteran bullpen (Kevin Cameron, Chris Schroder and John Meloan all have big league experience), but the team is relying in the late innings on two youngsters – Demel and Henry Rodriguez. Both have electric stuff but have struggled at times with command issues. Demel was solid in the first round (no walks and three strike-outs in 1.2 scoreless innings), but the hard-throwing Rodriguez allowed four walks and three runs in 1.1 innings. Keep an eye on Michael Benacka. Signed out of the independent leagues last season, Benacka posted a 2.61 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A this year and worked two scoreless innings with five strike-outs in the Tacoma series.

What's at Stake

Sacramento is playing for its third consecutive PCL title and its fifth PCL title since moving to Sacramento in 2000. The River Cats are also the two-time defending Triple-A champions, thanks to wins in the last two Bricktown Showdowns, which feature the title winners from the PCL and the International League in a one-game, winner-takes-all title match.

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