Inland Empire Playoff Preview

The Inland Empire Sixty Sixers, High-A affiliate of the Mariners, entered the final week of the season knowing they were in the playoffs, but it took the final regular season game to find to who they would battle in the best of three first round series.

The fuzzy playoff picture became clear as the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Single-A affiliate of the Anaheim Angels, rose to the top and beat Inland Empire on Labor Day to secure their spot in the playoffs against the Sixers.

Here is an in depth analysis of the only playoff games that will be played within the Mariners organization.

Inland Empire 66ers (77-63) vs. Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (69-71)

(Rancho Cucamonga leads the season series against the Sixers 15-12)

PROBABLE STARTERS

Game 1 at Ranch Cucamonga
Jon Huber (12-7; 4.26 ERA) vs. TBA

Huber was acquired by the Mariners from the San Diego Padres for major leaguer Dave Hansen at the trade dealine, and the right-hander posses a devastating breaking ball that has induced opposing hitters to strikeout 138 times this season. Since becoming a member of the Mariners organization, Huber has gone 4-1 with a high earned run average of 6.12. However, Huber has had tremendous success against the Quakes this season. In two starts against Rancho Cucamonga, including his final start of the season last Friday night, Huber went 2-0 with an ERA under one (0.66). He has struck out 21 Quake batters and walked only one.

Game 2 at Inland Empire
Bobby Livingston (12-6; 3.57) vs. TBA

Livingston had a masterful season. The starter of the California League All-Star game was near dominant all season. He pitched a league high 186.2 innings and punched out 141 batters while allowing a mere 30 walks. Like Huber, the southpaw has an undefeated record against the Quakes, 4-0 with a 3.35 ERA.

Game 3 at Inland Empire (if necessary)
Thomas Oldham (4-3; 3.21) vs. Steve Shell (12-7; 3.59)

The Sixers will send their newest pitching callup to the mound, while the Quakes will save their best for last, Steve Shell. Don't let the record fool you; Oldham has been just as good as any starter over the course of the last month of the season. While his record is just over .500, Oldham has been able to escape the one big inning that haunted him since joining the Sixers. The most amazing feat that TO has done at Inland Empire has been his continued accumulation of strikeouts. He has struck out 56 batters in 42 innings and walked only six batters. He won his last two starts, including one against the Quakes on Sunday, when he threw six scoreless innings and struck out seven batters. He beat Shell in the game, who normally had had the Sixers number over the course of the season. In seven starts against Inland Empire, Shell accumulated a 3-2 record with a 3.35 ERA.

Inland Empire's Offensive Attack:
The Sixers offense evolves around three guys in the lineup that have different approaches at the plate. The first is leadoff hitter Gary Harris. The speedy center fielder began the year hitting in the number three spot in the order. However, Harris, who does not have the size and power of a prototypical three-hitter, was moved to the leadoff spot and found much success. Since moving there on July 14, Harris has hit .306 and has scored 44 runs, averaging nearly a run scored per game. He has also been able to drive in runners as well to bring his season totals to .279/8HR/78RBI/92R/18 3B/34SB.

The next key to the lineup is three-hole hitter Jesus Guzman. The 20-year-old, who replaced Ismael Castro on the roster in late April, has been a gap-to-gap hitter and has set the stage for clean-up hitter Jon Nelson. Guzman (.310/6/71) has also collected 35 doubles this year and holds an on base percentage of .393 and OPS of .836.

If Harris and Guzman are able to reach base, it gives Nelson the opportunity to drive them home. Nelson had a breakout 2004 year in a ballpark that is considered to be pitcher friendly. The powerful cleanup hitter smacked 19 homers and drove in 95 runs. He also scored 82 runs and stole 26 bases, second most on the team.

All three of these hitters have hit over .300 in the last 10 games as the team has averaged 5.4 runs per game and nearly 10 hits per game.

Also Michael Garciaparra has been carrying a hot bat. The shortstop, who has raised his batting average from under .190 to .226, finished the regular season hitting .344 in the team's last 10 games.

Rancho Cucamonga's Offensive Attack:
The Quakes have two of the best players in the Cal League this year in shortstop Erick Aybar and catcher Mike Napoli. Aybar is the table setter for the rest of the lineup. As a possible MVP of the league, Aybar hit .330/189H/102R/14HR/65RBI/51SB. He also has the ability to make plays at short that seem impossible to make.

Napoli tore the Cal League apart in the first half of the season. With 19 home runs and nearly 90 RBI by the All-Star break, Napoli appeared to be on a record pace. But like most in the second half, his numbers decreased. A second possible MVP, Napoli hit .282/29HR/118RBI. If Napoli doesn't get you, David Gates might. The outfielder has 20 home runs and has cleaned up whatever Napoli hasn't with 86 RBI of his own.

What the Sixers must do to win:
They have to keep Aybar off the base paths. That is easier said than done. Abyar reaches base 37 percent of the time and once he gets on, he doesn't stop moving.

It will also be a key to keep Reggie Willits off the bases a well. He doesn't get the recognition that Aybar receives but he has stolen 45 bases and has only been caught 15 times, a better percentage than Aybar.

Even though Oldham has been pitching like he has been in the league all season, you don't want to face ace Shell in an elimination game. He has had his way with the Sixers' hitters this year, recording 47 punch-outs, and has been marked as potential ace by the Angels organization.

LINEUPS:

Inland Empire
1. Gary Harris/CF .279. 8HR, 78RBI, 92R, 18 3B, 34SB
2. Juan Gonzalez/2B .291, 2HR, 59RBI, 79R, 26SB
3. Jesus Guzman/3B .310, 6HR, 71RBI, 80R, 35 2B, 10SB
4. Jon Nelson/LF .303, 19HR, 95RBI, 83R, 26SB
5. Carlos Arroyo/DH .323, 6HR, 52RBI, 62R
6. Wladimir Balentien/RF .289, 2HR, 5RBI
7. Matt Hagen/1B .231, 9HR, 47RBI
8. Rene Rivera/C .235, 6HR, 53RBI
9. Michael Garciaparra/SS .226, 1HR, 26RBI


Rancho Cucamonga
1. Erick Aybar/SS .330, 14HR, 65RBI, 102R, 189H, 51SB, 36CS
2. Reggie Willits/CF .285, 5HR, 52RBI, 99R, 45SB, 15CS
3. Mike Napoli/C .282, 29HR, 118RBI, 94R, 166K
4. David Gates/LF .268, 20HR, 86RBI, 31 2B
5. Carlos Duncan/DH .286, 2HR, 12RBI, 23G
6. Jared Abruzzo/1B .252, 11HR, 46RBI
7. Adam Pavkovich/3B .227, 10HR, 44RBI
8. Jason Sugden/RF .238, 1HR, 27RBI
9. B.J. Weed/2B .280, 3HR, 52RBI

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