Are the playoffs that simple?
The Inland Empire 66ers swept through the first round of the playoffs with relative ease, never trailing in either game against Rancho Cucamonga. The starting pitching continued its dominance and struck out 13 batters while walking only one. The hitters batted .288 and showed power that seemed to be absent throughout the regular season with seven extra base hits.
Though the line scores showed the Sixers winning both games by a combined three runs, the games themselves showed the Sixers cruising towards one last collision course against the Lancaster Jethawks in the second round of the playoffs.
The Sixers took care of business and now it's time to look ahead at the best-of-five series against the Jethawks.
Inland Empire (77-63; 2-0 in playoffs) vs. Lancaster (86-54; 0-0 in playoffs)
Even though the Jethawks own a 15-13 record against the Sixers this season, it could easily been reversed if the Sixers' bullpen held onto a couple of late leads in Lancaster. Phil Avlas, who is still on the Jethawks team, punished Inland Empire in those late inning loses with a decisive home run in the eighth inning, followed a by a walk-off home run the next night.
To say the least, these two teams have battled each other all year long. Both teams have also defended home field to near perfection as Inland won 9-of-14 games at Arrowhead Credit Union Park. Lancaster won 10-of-14 at The Hanger. In the second half, the two teams split the 16 games played against each other.
Manager Wally Backman began the year with a group of heavily touted first and second round draft picks. So when the team won 43 games in the first half, it was at no big surprise. Those top players then moved up the ranks to Double-A and virtually a completely new team put on the Lancaster uniform in the second half. But Backman got his new players to produce and equal the same amount of wins in the second half. Because of this, Backman, a member of the Seattle Mariners in 1993, was recently named the Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year.
It is a team built around offense. Only two offensive players have played in 100 or more games for the JetHawks this year, Jared Ball and Phil Avlas. The pair is hitting .297 and .315 respectively on a team that hit .297 overall. The newest pop to the Lancaster lineup is Jon Zeringue, who was drafted this June from LSU. Zeringue has been explosive at the plate, batting .335 with 10 homers and 41 RBI in just 56 games. The right fielder, however, broke a finger late in the season and has been cleared to play only as a designated hitter.
THE KEY PLAYERS:
Jesus Guzman hit .365 against the Jethawks in the regular season. He will again be a key component to drive runners home and also split the gap to set up Jon Nelson with RBI opportunities. Thus far in the playoffs Guzman is 2-8 with two RBI.
Wladimir Balentien has now put himself on the California League radar after his two bombs in round one against Rancho Cucamonga. Lancaster has seen Balentien already drive a ball out of hitter friendly Lancaster and can't afford to let the right-fielder beat them again. If Balentien can continue his powerful threat, Carlos Arroyo, who has quietly hit .323 this season, will continue to see better pitches. Arroyo went 4-7 against the Quakes.
A. J. Shappi will have to hold home field advantage for Lancaster. If Enrique Gonzalez continues his success in the rotation, Shappi could put the Jethawks out of trouble if he can pitch a quality start. If he can't, Jon Huber and Bobby Livingston wait in the shadows to put away Lancaster without having to go back to the desert. The worst-case scenario for Lancaster is if the long four days off throws Gonzalez off his rhythm and Shappi can't pitch like he previously did against the Sixers, which could put Lancaster in a devastating 0-2 hole.
Reggie Ambecrombie was acquired by the Diamondbacks from the Dodgers in the Steve Finley trade and has been the motor to the Jethawk offense the last month. Ambercrombie is hitting .342 in the leadoff spot since joining his new organization. But he will also play another factor to the series. His speed in center field can turn a hitter's park into a pitcher's park in a matter of a quick stride or two. If he can prevent the Sixers from taking the extra base on hits into gap or even take hits completely away, Inland Empire could find itself struggling to get runners to cross the plate.
WHAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO:
The Sixers did a good job of saving their bullpen in the last series against Rancho. However, the relief appearances by Ryan Rowland-Smith and Cesar Jimenez had its shaky moments. Rowland-Smith walked two batters in an inning and wiggled out of it. Against Lancaster, those walks will almost always find a way to haunt a pitcher. Jimenez threw a fastball down the middle and Carlos Duncan did not miss it. Lancaster won't miss it either. The Sixers' bullpen has blown games in Lancaster before this season. It can't happen in the playoffs. Inland Empire will need to steal one of the opening two games in Lancaster. If they can, it will set up an uphill battle for the Jethawks against two of the more dominating pitchers in the California League.
Sixers win in four.
Game 1 at Lancaster
Thomas Oldham (4-3; 3.21 ERA) vs. Enrique Gonzalez (13-6; 3.22 ERA)
The sweep of Rancho was also important in that the Sixers were able to save Thomas Oldham for this series. Oldham, in his short time with the Sixers, has faced Lancaster twice, accounting for a 1-1 record. Meanwhile, Gonzalez, Lancaster's current ace, has beaten Inland Empire in three of his four starts against them with an ERA of 2.79. Gonzalez was added to the Jethawks' rotation on June 4 after making 25 appearances from the bullpen. Since joining the rotation, the ace has won 10 of his last 12 starts.
Game 2 at Lancaster
Juan Sandoval (11-11; 4.12) vs. AJ Shappi (1-0; 3.00)
Sandoval has not pitched since the first of September and has not officially been penciled into the line up card for game two. Daren Brown may be looking at the match-ups between Sandoval against the Jethawks. The right-hander has failed miserably against Lancaster, posting a winless 0-3 record with a ballooned 8.02 ERA. It could be interesting if Sandoval takes the mound, especially since he would not have pitched in 10 days in a place where the ball jumps off the bat. A.J. Shappi beat the Sixers in his Lancaster debut on September 2 after being called up from Yakima. He handled the Sixers bats well in six inning of work, only allowing one run. This could have all the makings for a high scoring affair that will be decided between the bullpens.
Game 3 at Inland Empire
TBA vs. Adam Bass (10-8; 5.03)
The Sixers have yet to announce their starter for game three but could possibly turn back over to strike out specialist Jon Huber. In four starts against the Sixers in the regular season, Adam Bass had only one decision, a win. Bass holds a 3.00 earned run average against Inland Empire. While Huber had an excellent record against Cucamonga, he has not faired as well pitching against Lancaster. Huber went 0-3 with a 4.09 ERA against Lancaster.
Game 4 at Inland Empire
TBA vs. Peter Zamora (3-3; 6.15)
If the Sixers go with Huber in game three, the likely candidate for game four would be Bobby Livingston. This would be great news for Sixers fans if Livingston takes the mound at home. Including his win in the playoffs, the southpaw has a dominating 8-1 record along with an ERA just over 2.10 in the friendly confines. Peter Zamora has been beaten up by the Sixers this year and owns a 5.57 earned run average against Inland Empire.
Game 5 at Lancaster
TBA vs. TBA
Most likely a rematch of game one, all bets off the table.
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