Bees on cusp of playoff berth

As the minor league season enters its final two weeks, the Burlington Bees stand poised to do something they haven't done since 2002 – qualify for the playoffs. The Bees had a miserable first half, but they turned the corner in June and now possess the Midwest League's best second half record. Today RC takes a closer look at the Bees' miraculous turnaround.

The Royals began their affiliation with the Bees in time for the 2001 season, but only once has a club qualified for postseason play. The 2002 Bees, which included future Major Leaguers Ruben Gotay, Donnie Murphy, Brian Bass, and Jorge Vasquez, squeaked into the playoffs with a 35-35 second half record. Unfortunately, they were swept in the first round by the Peoria Chiefs, who went on to win the Midwest League title.

Since 2002, the Bees have struggled mightily, never finishing the season less than nine games under .500. The 2007 Bees, 61-77, were particularly bad, but it was clear that a good deal of talent figured to graduate out of rookie ball to Burlington this spring. Indeed, with a solid young pitching staff, along with a promising offense anchored by 2007 first rounder Mike Moustakas, things were looking much better for the Bees this year.

Unfortunately, this year's Bees got off to a rough start, going 11-14 in April and limping to the first half finish line with a 30-39 record, good for last place in the Western Division. Given the talent on the roster, finishing the first half in the basement was certainly a disappointment, but signs of the club gelling became evident even before the break.

If the Bees were asked to identify the turning point, they might reference a four-game series beginning June 1 against the eventual first half champion Clinton Lumber Kings. Clinton entered the series boasting an impressive 38-13 record, by far the best in the league, and they possessed the league's most dominant offense. The series looked like a mismatch, but thanks to solid pitching performances from starters Matt Mitchell, Sam Runion, and Danny Duffy, along with great relief pitching and timely hitting, the Bees took three of the four games to win the series.

The Bees won eight of their final 14 games (excluding a rare tie) entering the break, and since that series against Clinton began, they've gone 45-27, including winning records in June and July, and a 15-4 mark so far in August. With a second half mark of 37-21, the Bees sit atop the Western Division standings, and seem to be a lock for their first postseason berth since 2002. The team is riding a seven-game winning streak at the moment, and they are 4.5 games ahead of their closest pursuer, Cedar Rapids, with 11 games left to play. Their magic number for clinching the second half title is 7, and just 4 for clinching a wild card berth.

So how are they doing it? Power and pitching. Here's a fun fact. Since becoming a Royals affiliate in 2001, just four Bees have hit 15 or more home runs in a season for Burlington: Chad Santos (16 in 2001), Kila Kaaihue (15 in 2004), Rusty Brown (16 in 2005), and Michael Thompson (19 in 2007). This year alone, four players have already accomplished that feat – Moustakas (Midwest League-leading 21), Jason Taylor (17), Clint Robinson (16), and David Lough (15).

Moustakas has been particularly good since June began. He, like the Bees, came out of the gate slowly, hitting just .190 in April with just one extra base hit. He had a decent rebound in May, but he still finished the first half with a line of just .228/.285/.386 and nine home runs. Since the break, however, "Moose" has been on fire. He's hitting .315/.378/.562 with 12 homers in the second half, and he has already hit more home runs than any Bee since the Royals partnered up with the club in 2001. He's a big reason the Bees stand among the Midwest League leaders in both home runs and runs scored, which has been a rare sight for the club in recent years.

Indeed, the 2008 Bees can score runs like no other Bees team in recent history, but they're also pretty good at preventing them. The pitching rotation of Duffy (8-4, 2.20 ERA), Mitchell (8-8, 3.45 ERA), Daniel Gutierrez (4-3, 2.87 ERA), and Alex Caldera (11-6, 3.04) has been excellent all season, and both Luis Cota (on injury rehab) and newcomer Kelvin Herrera have also pitched well in limited action. In the bullpen, Joe Augustine, one of the Bees' two Midwest League All-Stars, and Anthony Bradley have been outstanding in the late innings, and Juan Abreu was lights out prior to being shut down earlier this month.

Looking ahead to the playoffs, the most likely scenario is that the Bees will face the Kane County Cougars in the first round, provided they hold off Cedar Rapids for the second half title. The Cougars secured the first half Wild Card with a 39-29 record, but they've fallen to just 28-31 in the second half. The Bees, however, are just 4-8 against the Cougars this year, so it could be a tough opening round. Meanwhile, if the Bees cough up their 4.5 game lead over Cedar Rapids, they'll open against Clinton. Either way, it would certainly be exciting to finally see the Bees in the postseason again, and this time with a team that could do some damage in the playoffs.

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