The West Michigan Whitecaps won the Midwest League Championship in 2004, 2006, and 2007, while the South Bend Silver Hawks won it in 2005. That stat alone makes this an intriguing early matchup in the first round of the Midwest League playoffs. But also consider that the proximity between these rivals means that they have played each other 24 times already this season.
In those 24 contests, the Silver Hawks have won 13 times. They are 11-5 over their past 16 meetings, however. The Whitecaps finished 7.5 games behind the Silver Hawks in the second half after beginning the season very hot.
While this makes the Silver Hawks the favorites in the series, there are certainly some reasons not to take the Caps too lightly. Their catcher, Alex Avila, batted .378 with seven doubles in six games verses the Hawks after joining the Whitecaps in late June. The one Silver Hawks pitcher that has been able to shut him down, Bryan Henry, likely will not pitch in the series after tossing six strong innings in the regular season finale against Lansing.
Instead, Jarrod Parker (12-5, 3.44), Christian Beltre (13-8, 3.53), and Josh Collmenter (12-8, 3.41) will start for South Bend. Parker has been fantastic in August after battling through a dead arm period in July. Beltre and Collmenter have been workhorses, finishing second and seventh in Midwest League innings pitched, as well as the Hawks' two most consistent pitchers all season long.
"Those two guys have really stood out to me this year," catcher Sean Coughlin said of Beltre and Collmenter. "It's been fun catching them."
Whitecaps ace Jonathon Kibler has pitched one fewer inning than Beltre, even though he has not thrown since August 22nd. It will be a case of rested versus rusty for the Midwest League's leader in both wins (14) and ERA (1.74). He has only allowed four homers in those 154.1 innings.
Chance Wheeless and Jordan Norberto both cited the Whitecaps as a strong team come playoff time despite their second-half mediocrity, but those two pretty much echoed the sentiments of the whole Silver Hawks team that the Lansing Lugnuts were the team to beat in the Eastern Division. Not Surprising, as Lansing finished with just one fewer win than the Hawks, but beat them 19 out of the 25 times they played.
"I'm not really worried about anyone, but Lansing has got a bunch of good left-handed pitching. It's going to be a grind against those guys, because they've got some good ones," Wheeless said. "We've done a pretty good job in the second half, but Lansing pretty much dominated the first half."
In fact, Lansing won the first seven games of the season series, then 14 of the first 15. The teams have split their past 10 contests, with Lansing taking the final three. The Hawks haven't played the Dragons as frequently, given the distance between South Bend and Dayton, but when they have, they've performed well. South Bend won the first six games of that playoff series and went 9-2 against them overall.
"We kind of owe Lansing, so I'm kind of looking forward to that - a little bit of a revenge factor," said Collmenter, who grew up in Homer, Michigan, just 30 miles south of Lansing. "But we've played well against Dayton, too, so we probably have confidence with either one. I think Dayton's looking at us the way we look at Lansing: they kind of owe us. I think if we play either one, the way we've been playing and the way we've been preparing will serve us well."
Dayton would also be an interesting matchup because they are a slugging team, which is unusual for the Midwest League. They have hit 120 homers this year as compared to the Silver Hawks' total of 70. Catcher Sean Coughlin also hedged his bets.
"Both of them are equally as good," he said of the Dragons and Lugnuts. "I think we play a little better against Dayton, but I don't think it matters when playoff time comes, because I think we're going to step up our game that much."
Objectively speaking, the Hawks match up better against Dayton than they do against Lansing, but a series against Lansing would make for better viewing given their history this season. Right now, the important thing to remember is not to overlook the West Michigan Whitecaps.
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