TL Finals Preview: Midland Rockhounds

After a solid series victory over the San Antonio Missions in the first round of the playoffs, the Midland Rockhounds will tangle with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in the Texas League championship series. We preview the series inside…

How They Got Here:

Despite finishing the season with the best overall record in the Texas League, the Midland Rockhounds needed a dramatic, walk-off victory during the season's final weekend to secure a second-half South division title and a playoff berth. The Rockhounds then took care of the first-half South division title champs, the San Antonio Missions, in the first round of the playoffs, three games-to-one.

It was a tightly contested series against San Antonio, as no game was decided by more than three runs and the Rockhounds pulled out two one-run victories. The most dramatic victory for Midland came in Game One, when the Rockhounds beat the Missions 1-0 in 11 innings. Despite boasting the highest scoring offense during the regular season, Midland scored only 12 runs in the four games, but it was enough for the series victory.

Who's Hot:

Matt Spencer: Spencer had a terrific regular season (833 OPS for Midland and Stockton), but he was in a slump when the playoffs began. He got hot at the right time for the Rockhounds, collecting seven hits in 15 at-bats, including two homeruns.

Jemile Weeks: Weeks, the A's top pick in 2008, struggled for much of his time with the Rockhounds during 30 regular season games (645 OPS), but he swung a potent bat during the first round of the playoffs. In four games, he had four hits and two walks. In the decisive Game Four, Weeks drove-in four runs, three of which came on a homerun that broke the game open for Midland.

Kyle Middleton: Middleton was a huge find for the A's, who signed the tall right-hander late in the season out of the independent leagues. In nine regular season starts for the Rockhounds, Middleton won five games and had a 2.69 ERA. He continued that dominance into his first playoff start, tossing six shut-out innings, earning a win.

Graham Godfrey: Godfrey was named to the Texas League's post-season All-Star team after posting a 3.50 ERA for Midland during the regular season. He got the Game One start for the Rockhounds in the playoffs and responded by allowing only one hit and no runs in 6.2 innings. He wouldn't get a decision, as the game was scoreless into the 11th inning.

Tyson Ross: The A's second pick in 2008 earned the win in the series clincher with 6.1 strong innings. He allowed only two runs on four hits and he struck-out eight. In his first full pro season, Ross went 10-10 with a 4.09 ERA and 113 strike-outs in 136.1 innings for Midland and Stockton.

Mickey Storey: Storey's unbelievable 2009 season continued into the playoffs, as the right-handed reliever tossed 4.2 scoreless innings over three appearances and he struck-out five. Storey pitched for all four of the A's full-season affiliates in 2009 and posted a 1.22 ERA and a 71:8 K:BB ratio in 51.2 innings in his first full professional season.

Starting Rotation:

Midland will go with the same five starters that they listed for the first round of the playoffs, but they will be in a slightly different order. Arnold Leon, who was scheduled to pitch in Game Five of the first round, will start Game One. Game Two will feature Godfrey, Game Three will feature Middleton and Game Four will be started by Ross. Travis Banwart is tentatively scheduled to start Game Five. Banwart, who was the Game Two starter in the first round, will be available to pitch out of the bullpen during the early games of the series, and if he is called upon to throw significant innings in any of those games, the Game Five start could go to Leon.

All five of the Rockhounds' starting rotation members are right-handed. Should Midland need a longman (and Banwart isn't available), they will likely turn to lefty Carlos Hernandez, who was a starter during the regular season with Midland and Stockton. Hernandez was suspended for the final two games of the first round of the playoffs for throwing at San Antonio catcher Mitch Canham in Game Two, but he has been reinstated for the finals.

Leon was the only member of the five-man rotation not to pitch in the first round, but he is arguably the team's hottest starter right now. A reliever for much of the season, Leon moved into the starting rotation in August and posted a 1.76 ERA and a 29:8 K:BB ratio in 30.2 innings as a starter.

Head-to-Head with Northwest Arkansas

Midland enjoyed a 9-3 advantage over the Naturals during the regular season. The Rockhounds' offense produced a .304 average and hit 14 homers in 12 games, while the pitching staff recorded a 4.08 ERA and struck-out 98 in 106 innings.

The Rockhounds will be without some of the players who performed the best against the Naturals this season, however. Adrian Cardenas, who has been promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, hit a blistering .455 against Northwest Arkansas, while Chris Carter, who has also been promoted to Triple-A, hit three homers and drove-in 11 in 12 games.

Of the players still with the team, Josh Horton (.326 BA with seven RBIs), Archie Gilbert (.355 BA and a .444 OBP), Spencer (.313 BA and three homers), Shane Peterson (.304 BA), Matt Sulentic (.297 BA and six RBIs), Josh Donaldson (.281 BA and eight RBIs) and Alexander Valdez (.400 BA and two homers) all performed well against the Naturals.

On the mound, Godfrey was dominant against the Naturals. In three starts, he allowed only two earned runs in 18.1 innings and had 19 strike-outs. Leon also shined, posting an 0.83 ERA in two starts (one run in 9.2 innings). Closer Jared Lansford saved three games and had a 1.59 ERA in 5.2 innings, while starter-turned-reliever Jason Fernandez had a 3.50 ERA in 18 innings and reliever Jonathan Hunton had a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings. On the flipside, Banwart (12 runs in six innings) and Ross (seven runs in five innings) struggled versus Northwest Arkansas.

Midland's Keys to the Series:

Maintain the Momentum: Midland's series victory in four games over the San Antonio Missions may have come without too many of their usual offensive fireworks, but the Rockhounds' ability to find their way to a victory was just par for the course for a team that went 41-29 during the second half of the season. Midland was able to maintain their winning ways despite losing their three top offensive players to promotions (Carter, Cardenas and Tom Everidge). Midland scored first in all four games against San Antonio, something that allowed them to set the tone throughout the series. They will be looking to do the same against the Naturals.

Strong Starting Pitching: Offense has carried the Rockhounds into the playoffs, but it was their starting pitching that earned them a first round win. Midland will be looking to the starting staff to once again go deep into games, especially since Lansford, the team's closer, struggled during the first round, and Angel Garcia, a reliable reliever during the regular season, has left the team to play in the World Cup.

What's at Stake:

Midland is looking to win its first Texas League crown since 2005, when manager Von Hayes led a Rockhounds' team that included Andre Ethier, Danny Putnam, Daric Barton, Kevin Melillo, Brian Stavisky, Jeremy Brown, Steve Stanley, Jason Perry, Omar Quintanilla, Dallas Braden, Jason Windsor, Shane Komine and others to the league crown.

Midland manager Darren Bush is looking to extend his personal title streak to two, as he skippered the Stockton Ports to a Cal League crown in 2008. A number of the current Rockhounds' players were also a part of that Ports' squad.

Series Schedule:

The series begins on Tuesday in Midland. Game Two will be in Midland on Wednesday, while Game Three, as well as Games Four and Five if necessary, will be hosted by the Naturals Friday through Sunday.

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