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Getting Ishi With It…

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Travis Ishikawa hit .250 with two home runs for the Knights in 34 games in 2013. Photo credit: Erica Caldwell

It was just a few days ago, but it is still fresh in my mind. Maybe that’s because I live for baseball — and I certainly live for the excitement of playoff baseball.

Travis Ishikawa etched his name in baseball history on Thursday, October 16, 2014 with a game-winning, walk-off, three-run home run. Much like Bobby Thompson did in 1951 — it was a home run for all the marbles. Both home runs led to — “the Giants win the pennant”. I wasn’t alive to watch the 1951 home run — are you surprised? I’m not that old! Even so, I know all about Bobby Thompson’s home run. Sometimes, history repeats itself. It did last week.

With that home run, Ishikawa will go down as a playoff hero for many years to come — much like Thompson.

So, who is Travis Ishikawa? Charlotte Knights fans should know that name. Right?

Ishikawa played for the Charlotte Knights in 2013. He wasn’t with the team very long — just 34 games. He wasn’t new to the daily grind of Minor League Baseball at that point — it was his 10th season in the minors in 2013. It was also his 9th different Minor League team since 2002. He was a veteran and he was working his way back to the majors — a place where he had already spent parts of six seasons.

At the age of 22, Ishikawa made his Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants as a pinch-hitter. It was April 18, 2006. I’m sure it’s a day he’ll never forgot.

Drafted by the Giants in the 21st round of the 2002 draft, the Seattle, Washington-born slugger earned that spot in the majors. In 2005 with High-A San Jose, he hit .282 with 22 home runs and 79 RBIs. Add in his 28 doubles and seven triples and it was a successful season for the 22-year-old. His 122 hits in 127 games were a career-high.

While it has been a long road for Ishikawa since those days, it was fitting that he was the one who hit that home run. Nearly out of baseball — a few times — the Giants gave him a chance this season after he was designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Giants — the team that drafted him over 12 years ago — gave him one more shot at the majors.

Ishi

From Charlotte to San Francisco. From the minors to Major League hero!

He appeared in 71 games for the Fresno Grizzlies this season (San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliate). He showed power — hitting 11 home runs over that span. An injury to Michael Morse in July meant that he would get one more shot at the majors. This time, he was called on as an outfielder — switching from first base.

Ishikawa played for the Giants at a great time of the season. San Francisco was in the midst of a playoff run. He hit .274 with two home runs and 15 RBIs in 47 games.

Then, there were the playoffs. Then, there was that home run.

Game one of the World Series starts Tuesday in Kansas City and as a baseball fan, I can’t think of a better time of year! This year’s World Series features the Kansas City Royals against the San Francisco Giants in what should be a World Series for the ages. Yes, really.

As a baseball fan, this is a great matchup. The Giants are building a dynasty, while the Royals are in search of postseason success for the first time in 29 years. The Royals have won all eight 2014 playoff games they have played so far. They play small ball, defense, and have an outstanding bullpen. They want to win for their fans — for that city. They have “Big Game James” too!

Then, there are the mighty Giants. Led by Madison Bumgarner on the mound, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence, the Giants have been the class of the National League for the past five seasons. They have former Charlotte Knights reliever Javier Lopez out of the ‘pen. Their game two starter also wore a Knights jersey — Jake Peavy. He rehabbed with Charlotte in 2009 and 2011 while with the White Sox.

Then, there is Travis Ishikawa. Baseball is made up of great stories. His story is one of them.

2014 MLB Postseason: Baltimore Orioles

There are a number of former Charlotte Knights players, as well as a former manager, currently with one of the eight teams playing in the 2014 Major League Baseball postseason.bal_1200x630

Let’s take a look at the Baltimore Orioles, who are facing the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS.

Baltimore Orioles:

Alejandro De Aza (10-11, 12*) – Outfielder
Selected by the Chicago White Sox off waivers from the Marlins on October 21, 2009, De Aza began his Knights career in 2010 and was a solid addition to the team that season. De Aza appeared in 79 games for the Knights that season and hit .302 (96-for-318) with 53 runs scored, 21 doubles, four triples, five home runs, 49 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases. The Domintopps_deazaican native followed up that performance with an even better one a year later.

In 2011 with Charlotte, De Aza hit an International League high .322 (124-for-485) and was named to the Topps Triple-A All-Star Team at the end of the season for his outstanding season. Overall, De Aza appeared in 99 games for the Knights and had 64 runs scored, 29 doubles, five triples, nine home runs, 37 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases. He was called up to Chicago in August and hit .329 in 54 games with 12 stolen bases and 18 extra base hits.

De Aza was traded to the Orioles on August 30, 2014 and playing in 122 games for the Sox this season. In 20 games for the Orioles during the regular season, De Aza hit .293 (24-for-82) with five doubles, three triples, three home runs and 10 RBIs. he proved to be a solid upgrade for the O’s and should help them in the playoffs.

Brian Graham
(94 manager) – Director of Player Development
The Charlotte Knights were affiliated with the Cleveland Indians for just two seasons — 1993 and 1994 — and won a Governors’ Cup Championship in their first season with the Tribe (93). It was also the first season as a Triple-A affiliate for the Knights after jumping from Double-A.

Much has been made about the 1993 squad, which featured IL MVP Jim Thome, a young Manny Ramirez, slugger Sam Horn, and many other future Indians prospects. That team was led by manager Charlie Manuel. Knights Stadium drew its highest crowd ever in a season — 429,132 fans. But what about the 1994 team? graham

Still affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, Manuel, Thome, and Manny left for Cleveland, while a new crop came to town. At the helm of the 1994 team was Brian Graham, who led the squad to a 77-65 record — a second place finish behind Richmond (80-61). Still, the Knights made the playoffs — but lost in the semi-finals.

Graham managed just the one season in Charlotte as the Knights and Indians ended their affiliation after the 1994 season. The Knights became affiliated with the Marlins from 1995-98.

A former Minor League player, who was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, Graham managed 1200 games at the Minor League level and has a career record of 709-491. He is currently the Director of Player Development for the Orioles and has helped put together a solid Baltimore team.

Wayne Kirby (93) – First Base Coach
Kirby spent just one season with the Knights — but it was during the club’s most historic season — and he made history.Kirby has the distinct honor of being the first Knights player — as a Triple-A franchise — to homer at Knights Stadium. He launched the Triple-A Knights’ first home run in the bottom of the first inning during the club’s home opener in 1993. He appeared in just 17 games with the club that year and hit .289 (22-for-76) with six doubles, two triples, three home runs, and seven RBIs.

Kirby, who was originally drafted by the LA Dodgers in the 1983 draft (13th round), spent parts of eight seasons in the majors from 1991-98. In fact, his longest season in the majors came during the 1993 season when he appeared in 131 games for the Tribe that year. He compiled a .269 batting average with 71 runs scored, 19 doubles, five triples, six home runs, 60 RBIs, and 17 stolen bases. A very solid season indeed. Unfortunately for Kirby, Manny Ramirez was also in the organization and he became the team’s right fielder the next season (1994) and never looked back. What about left field or center field? The Indians had Albert Belle in left field and Kenny Lofton in center.

2014 MLB Postseason: LA Angels of Anaheim

There are a number of former Charlotte Knights players, as well as a former manager, currently with one of the eight teams playing in the 2014 Major League Baseball postseason.

Let’s take a look at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who host the Kansas City Royals in game one of the ALDS on Thursday night.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: angels

Jason Grilli
(04) – Pitcher
Grilli started 25 games for the Knights in 2004 and posted a 9-9 record with a 4.83 ERA in 152.2 innings pitched. He tossed two complete games and one shutout. This season, Grilli began with the Pirates, where he was coming off an All-Star campaign in 2013. The former Knights hurler saved 33 games for the Pirates in 2013, but was traded by the Pirates this year after posting a 0-2 record with 11 saves and a 4.87 ERA in 22 games.

Since coming over the Angels, Grilli has regained his form out of the ‘pen. In 40 games with LA, he went 1-3 with a 3.48 ERA and one save in 33.2 innings pitched. He struck-out 36 batters over that span and has become a solid fixture out of their bullpen. In parts of 12 Major League seasons, Grilli has a 22-32 record with a 4.16 ERA and 50 saves in 446 games.Santiago_Hector

Hector Santiago (12) – Pitcher
In just three games with the Knights in 2012, Santiago went 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA (no runs allowed in 14.2 innings pitched). He fanned 13 batters over that three-game stretch and worked his way back to Chicago. Originally a 30th round pick of the White Sox in the 2006 draft, Santiago was traded on December 10, 2013 as part of a three-team trade (White Sox, Angels, and Diamondbacks). Chicago received Adam Eaton in that trade.

In 30 games with the Angels this season, Santiago went 6-9 with a 3.75 ERA (127.1 innings pitched). He was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in six games out of the bullpen (nine innings pitched). The Newark, NJ native started 24 games – with his last start of the season coming on September 24. He tossed 5.1 shutout innings that day in a win over the Oakland A’s.

Gordon Beckham (09, 13 rehab) – Infielder
Beckham was a first-round pick (8th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in the 2008 draft. The University of Georgia product made his Knights debut in 2009 and appeared in just seven games before making his way to the Majors. He hit .464 (13-for-28) with two doubles and five RBIs over that short period.

Beckham briefly returned to the Knights in 2013 on a Major League Rehab assignment from Chicago and hit .333 (12-for-36) in eight games for the Knights. A year later, (August 21, 2014), Beckham was dealt to the Angels for a player to be named or cash. In 26 games for the team, he hit .268 with three doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs.

Jerry Dipoto (93-94) – General Manager dipoto_jerry
Dipoto was one of the most successful relievers in Charlotte Knights franchise history. Currently the GM of the Angels, Dipoto played for the Knights in 1993 and 1994 when the club was the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The 1993 squad was managed by Charlie Manuel and featured the likes of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Sam Horn.

In 1993, Dipoto went 6-3 with a 1.93 ERA and 12 saves for the Governors’ Cup Champions. He finished 27 of his 34 appearances and struck-out 44 batters in 46.2 innings. Dipoto was back in 1994 with the Knights and he compiled a 3-2 mark with a 3.15 ERA and nine saves in 25 games. Overall, he ranks sixth all-time in Knights franchise history in saves with 21.

Dipoto took over as the GM of the Angels nearly three years ago (October 28, 2011). Previously, Dipoto was interim GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks from July 1, 2010 to September 22, 2010.

First Season in Uptown Charlotte

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Josh Phegley at the plate on Opening Knight at BB&T Ballpark (Friday, April 11, 2014).

It was a remarkable first season in Uptown Charlotte for the Charlotte Knights and the city of Charlotte. After opening the 2014 campaign at BB&T Ballpark on Friday, April 11 — to a packed house — the Knights led all of Minor League Baseball in attendance with an impressive mark of 687,715 fans in 71 regular season home games. Add in the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game on Tuesday, September 16, and BB&T Ballpark welcomed 696,601 fans through the gates — nearly 700,000 fans overall. That’s an astonishing number considering the highest attended season in Charlotte Knights history at Knights Stadium was in 1993 with 429,132 fans through the gates.

There are so many things that I will never forget about the first season at BB&T Ballpark. I’ll certainly never forget Opening Knight. All eyes were on the Knights and BB&T Ballpark and what a “Knight” it was. I’ll never forget when Jordan Danks became the all-time Knights hits leader. I’ll never forget when Eli Shenise signed a one-day contract, and I’ll never forget when Philip Elmore caught his daughter’s first pitch.

Throughout this offseason, keep an eye out to http://www.charlotteknights.com as I will rank the “Top 10″ moments in BB&T Ballpark’s first season. There are so many more than just 10, but we’ll start there!

In the meantime, send me your favorite moments from BB&T Ballpark’s first season and I’ll share that here in the “Knight Fever” blog. You can send your favorite moments to me at tommyv@charlotteknights.com or you can tweet them to me at @Tommy_the_V on Twitter!

Also, in the upcoming weeks, I will have weekly blogs as I will follow along with all of the Major League Baseball playoff action. I’ll give my predictions later this week. Also, there will be Alumni Reports, Knight Lights (features), and starting this week, I will be hosting a Charlotte Knights Weekly Podcast.

Stay tuned!

The Bulls Are One Win Away from Charlotte

The Durham Bulls became the first team to take a two-games-to-one lead in the Triple-A Finals on Thursday — beating the Pawtucket Red Sox by a score of 4-3 at home in Durham, NC. With the win, the Bulls are now just one win away from repeating as Governors’ Cup Champions. They are also one win away from competing on Tuesday at BB&T Ballpark in the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game.

Triple A Championship logo

The PCL was off on Thursday and the series shifts to Omaha tonight for game three. That series is all tied up at one game apiece. If Omaha goes on to win, and the Bulls end up getting one more win, it will be a rematch of last year’s Triple-A National Championship game from Allentown, PA.

Let’s take a look back at Thursday’s game and a brief look ahead to Friday’s matchup:

Durham starter Matt Andriese earned the win after allowing two runs on five hits over six innings. Andriese allowed a run in the second inning, as well as the third inning, but was solid the rest of the way. He was saddled with a 2-0 deficit to overcome, and he was quickly helped by his offense in the bottom of the third inning.

Justin Christian led off the bottom of the third frame with a double and Cole Figueroa then reached base to put runners on the corners with no outs. Two batters later, the Bulls added their first run of the game courtesy of a Jeremy Moore RBI single. The Bulls then broke-open the game thanks to Tim Beckham — who ripped a two-run double, which gave them a 3-2 lead at that point.

All three runs in the third inning came off Pawtucket starter Henry Owens, who was dealt the loss after giving up three runs on three hits over four innings. Owens also walked three and fanned five.

Durham second baseman Nick Franklin added an insurance run in the sixth inning — which proved to be huge in the game. Franklin ripped a solo home run in the sixth off reliever Noe Ramirez, which made it a 4-2 ballgame at that point. Franklin finished the game 2-for-3 with a double and a home run. He’s hitting .417 (10-for-24) over seven playoff games. His 10 hits and his .417 batting average (tied with Emmanuel Burris of Syracuse) are tops in the IL Playoffs this year.

Things got interesting in the top of the ninth inning as the PawSox rallied and pulled within a run. Reliever Josh Lueke came on in the ninth and retired the first batter he faced — Alex Hassan — but then ran into a bit of trouble. Lueke struck-out Ryan Lavarnway, but he reached base on a passed ball, which brought the tying run to the plate. Garin Cecchini then followed with a big RBI double to make it a 4-3 game. With the PawSox down by just one run, Lueke got Corey Brown to ground out and Blake Swihart to pop out to end the game. Lueke went on to earn his first save of the playoffs and the Bulls took a major step forward.

On Friday, the Bulls and PawSox will battle in game four. Durham will send LHP Mike Montgomery to the hill as they look to wrap up the series and keep the Governors’ Cup in Durham. Montgomery and the Bulls will have to face Pawtucket LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, who is making his Triple-A debut. First pitch is set for 7:05 PM from Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

All Tied At One After Two

Game twoTriple A Championship logo in each of the Triple-A Finals took place on Wednesday and the two teams that were down a game came back to tie up the series. Over in the International League, the Durham Bulls rallied to beat the Pawtucket Red Sox 4-3. The Governors’ Cup Finals are now tied at one game each.

Over in the Pacific Coast League Finals, the Reno Aces tied up the series with a 4-2 victory last night on their home field. Those two teams will have an off day today before resuming their series on Friday night from Omaha.

Let’s take a look back at Wednesday’s game two matchups, which featured big wins from both Durham and Reno:

Durham Bulls at Pawtucket Red Sox (series tied 1-1)
Game 2: Bulls win 4-3

Wednesday’s game in Pawtucket was an instant classic.

The PawSox came into the game up one game to none after a 3-2 win on Tuesday. It was much of the same early on for Pawtucket on Wednesday. Much like on Tuesday, the PawSox once again knocked Durham’s starter out early as they scored three runs over the first two innings. Durham starter Jesus Colome allowed three runs over 1.1 innings pitched and was out before the second inning was over. The Bulls were forced to turn things over to their bullpen — which was solid once again.

The Bulls, who ended up being down 3-0 after two innings, handed things over to their bullpen, which would go on to toss 9.2 scoreless innings. Five relievers, including starter Merrill Kelly, were sharp on the hill and kept the Bulls in the game.

Corey Brown‘s two-run home run in the second inning for the PawSox proved to be big early on, but the Bulls offense battled back. Mikie Mahtook changed the game with one swing of his bat in the top of the third inning when he launched a two-run home run off Pawtucket starter Brian Johnson. Johnson was solid over six innings, however, allowing just two runs on four hits. He fanned seven batters in his Triple-A debut.

It was a 3-2 Pawtucket lead all the way to the ninth inning — until Vince Belnome sent the game into extras with a solo home run in the top of the ninth inning off Spartanburg, SC native Heath Hembree. It was the first run Hembree allowed in the postseason, but it was a big one for the Bulls, who could have gone down two games to none.

The game went into extras and neither team could score in the 10th frame. In the 11th, things changed when the Bulls got help from Belnome again. This time, he led the inning off with a walk. Three batters later, Mike Fontenot singled home Belnome to give the Bulls a 4-3 lead.

In the bottom of the 11th, reliever Adam Liberatore was back after getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the 10th. Liberatore walked Justin Henry in the 11th to put the tying run on first base, but got Bryce Brentz to strike out swinging to end the game.

The win for the Bulls was huge as they now head home to Durham tied in the series. The series will continue tonight in Durham with RHP Matt Andriese on the mound for the Bulls against Red Sox number two prospect Henry Owens. Game three should be a great matchup and the winner of this one will be a step closer to the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game on September 16 in BB&T Ballpark.

Omaha Storm Chasers at Reno Aces: (series tied 1-1)
Game 2: Aces win 4-2

After falling to the Storm Chasers in game one on Tuesday by a score of 6-2, the Aces came back on Wednesday with a big win.

Needing a win before the series shifted to Omaha for the final three games, the Aces, jumped out to an early 4-0 lead after scoring four runs in the second inning on Wednesday. Those four runs would be all the Aces would end up needing.

Reno starter Bradin Hagens was sharp on the hill as he allowed one run on five hits over six innings en route to the game two victory. Hagens did not allow a walk and struck-out four batters. He was backed by two big offensive performances in the second inning.

Mike Freeman‘s two-run single and Nick Ahmed‘s two-run double in the second inning proved to be enough for Reno to tie up the series.

Despite the loss, Omaha led the way with eight hits in the game. Four of the eight hits came off the bat of University of South Carolina product Whit Merrifield, who went 4-for-4 with a double and a run scored. Merrifield is hitting .480 in six playoff games — leading the PCL in hits (12) and home runs (3). Pedro Ciriaco chipped in with two hits.

Omaha starter John Lamb lasted just two innings after allowing the four runs in the second frame. The Omaha bullpen combined to toss six shutout innings.

The two teams will now have an off day on Thursday and will get things going for game three in Omaha on Friday. LHP Andrew Chafin gets the nod for Reno against RHP Sugar Ray Marimon for Omaha. The Storm Chasers are looking to get back to the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game for the second time in as many years. Stay tuned.

Triple-A Finals: Game One Rewind

Game one in both the IL and PCL Finals are in the books with the Pawtucket Red Sox beating the Durham Bulls in Pawtucket by a score of 3-2 and the Omaha Storm Chasers coming out on top in their matchup against the Reno Aces in Reno by a score of 6-2 on Tuesday. If Omaha and Durham were to win and move on to the National Championship Game on September 16 at BB&T Ballpark, it would be a rematch of last year’s game from Allentown, PA. Omaha came away with the win.

Let’s take a look back at each game one from Tuesday and a look at some of the players that stood out in each series.

Durham Bulls at Pawtucket Red SoxPawSox win 3-2

The PawSox were led in game one by starter Edwin Escobar — who was sharp on the mound over seven innings of work. Escobar gave up two runs on six hits over seven innings en route to the win in the 3-2 victory over Durham. Escobar threw 101 pitches, striking out five batters and walking none. The Pawtucket bullpen followed up Escobar’s solid start with two shutout innings out of the bullpen. College of Charleston product Heath Hembree earned the save after recording the final four outs in the game. Hembree, a native of Spartanburg, SC, has not allowed a run in three playoff games this season. He’s 2-for-2 in save opportunities as well.

Durham starter Enny Romero lasted just three innings — allowing three runs on six hits and was saddled with the loss. The Durham bullpen combined to throw five scoreless innings. Doug Mathis pitched three scoreless, while Cory Burns did not allow a run over the final two.

The PawSox as a team are leading the IL playoffs with a .288 batting average and are tied with Durham for most hits with 40. On Tuesday, it was Durham with eight hits leading the way, as Pawtucket managed just seven. Still, Pawtucket got what they needed as they scored a run in each of the first three innings. Garin Cecchini‘s sacrifice fly RBI in the bottom of the third inning proved to be the game-winner.

Rusney Castillo took a step closer to the majors on Tuesday — playing for the Pawtucket Red Sox and making his Triple-A debut in game one. Castillo, who was recently signed by Boston out of Cuba, appeared in six professional games before Tuesday — making his way through the system. He went 6-for-19 in six games –finishing up with Double-A Portland in their playoff series against the Binghamton Mets. In four games, Castillo hit .357 (5-for-14) with four runs scored, two doubles, and two RBIs.

In game two on Wednesday, RHP Jesus Colome gets the start for the Durham Bulls against LHP Brian Johnson for the PawSox. First pitch is set for 7:05 p.m.

Omaha Storm Chasers at Reno Aces – Storm Chasers win 6-2

The Storm Chasers got off to a solid start in game one on Tuesday — scoring three runs in the first inning and three runs in the second inning en route to victory. Five Omaha sluggers had at least two hits each and the team combined to rope 11 hits in game one. University of South Carolina product Whit Merrifield had another solid game. The Advance, NC native went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and a walk. Merrifield is hitting .381 (8-for-21) in five playoff games this year. Currently, he’s third in batting average, first in home runs (3), and tied for second in RBIs (4). Brett Hayes chipped in with two hits and two RBIs, while Cheslor Cuthbert also had two hits and two RBIs.

Omaha starter Aaron Brooks allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings en route to the win. Brooks, who I wrote about as a player to keep an eye on here, allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings en route to his second win of the 2014 playoffs. He walked one, struck-out five, and needed tossed 100 pitches. In game one of the PCL playoffs, Brooks matched a career-high with 10 strikeouts over eight innings. He allowed just five hits in the 7-0 win over Memphis.

Others notes on Tuesday from game one: Royals number one prospect Kyle Zimmer threw a scorless inning out of the bullpen on Tuesday as he continues to work his way back from an injury… Reno catcher Blake Lalli — a product of Gardner-Webb University, went 1-for 3 in the loss… Veteran slugger Mike Jacobs was 1-for-4 for Reno… Omaha is hitting .280 as a team to lead the PCL in the playoffs… Reno is hitting .265 with a team-high seven home runs… Former Knights hurler Clayton Richard started for Reno and allowed three runs on four hits in just 0.2 IP and was dealt the loss… He threw 29 pitches in the first inning before being removed.

LHP John Lamb gets the ball for Omaha in game two against Reno RHP Bradin Hagens. First pitch is set for 10:05 PM ET on Wednesday.

A Look at the Omaha Storm Chasers

The finals are set in the Pacific Coast League as the Omaha Storm Chasers — the 2013 PCL and Triple-A National Champions — are back to defend their title against the Reno Aces. For the second time in three seasons, the Aces are back in the PCL Finals. The Aces, who beat the Las Vegas 51s, lost game one of the series, but battled back to win the last three games. The Aces and the Storm Chasers played in the 2012 PCL Championship, with the Aces winning the series and the PCL championship in four games. 18-logo

One of these two PCL teams will play in Uptown Charlotte at BB&T Ballpark on September 16. The winner will face the winner of the IL Finals, which features Pawtucket against Durham.

Let’s take a look at the…

OMAHA STORM CHASERS: Triple-A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals

COACHING STAFF

The Omaha Storm Chasers are led by manager Brian Poldberg, who is in his first season at the helm of the team. Poldberg spent the last six seasons as manager of Northwest Arkansas (Double-A affiliate of the Royals). Overall, the 2014 season is his 15th as a Minor League manager and he has compiled 1,010 wins. Omaha’s pitching coach is Larry Carter, who is in his second season with the Storm Chasers. As a player, Carter was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 10th round of the 1986 draft.

Hitting coach Tommy Gregg is a familiar name to Charlotte Knights fans. Gregg spent parts of two seasons with the Charlotte Knights when the team was affiliated with the Florida Marlins organization. In 1995, Gregg appeared in 34 games for the Knights and hit a remarkable .387 with 30 runs scored, 10 doubles, nine home runs and 32 RBIs. The following season, Gregg appeared in 119 games for the Knights (1996) and hit .286 with 69 runs scored, 24 doubles, 22 home runs, and 80 RBIs.

Born in Boone, NC, Gregg is fifth all-time in Knights franchise history in batting average with a .310 mark. He went to high school at Richard J. Reynolds High in Winston-Salem, NC and attended Wake Forest University. The 2014 season is Gregg’s sixth with Omaha. He spent nine seasons in the majors.

TOP PROSPECTS

RHP Kyle Zimmer was drafted by the Royals in the first round (5th overall) in the 2012 draft out of the University of San Francisco. He made his way through the ranks over the past two seasons, finishing the 2013 campaign in Northwest Arkansas (Double-A). He went 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in four starts.

Zimmer entered the 2014 season ranked by Baseball America as the number one prospect in the Kansas City organization, however Zimmer has missed the majority of the season after he strained his lat muscle in May. He was shut down for six-to-eight weeks and made his 2014 debut on August 17 with Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League (Rookie). He appeared in six games (five starts) with the team and compiled a 0-0 mark with a 1.93 ERA in 4.2 IP. Zimmer is moving quickly, however, as he is playing for Triple-A Omaha. He appeared in game three of the first round of the playoffs — making his Triple-A debut. He threw one inning out of the bullpen and did not allow a run or a hit. He walked one.

Jorge Bonifacio, 21, entered the 2014 season ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the Kansas City Royals organization by Baseball America. Bonifacio, the younger brother of Major League infielder Emilio Bonifacio, was signed by the Royals in 2009. The 21-year-old outfielder is moving quickly through the system and has had success at every level. In 48 games with the Royals DSL squad in 2010, he hit .335 over 48 games. Last season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, he hit .301 in 25 games. Bonifacio hit .230 (116-for-505) with four home runs and 51 RBIs this season for Omaha. Bonifacio hit .455 (5-for-11) in three first-round playoff games with two runs scored and a double.

IL VETERANS

The Omaha roster features a number of veterans, including Brian Bocock, Paul Janish, Pedro Ciriaco, and Clayton Mortensen. All four have spent time in the International League over the years. Bocock started playing in the IL in 2010 as a member of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He spent 2010 with Lehigh Valley and parts of 2011 with Lehigh Valley and Indianapolis. He was back in the IL in 2013 with Indianapolis and Syracuse. Overall, Bocock has played nine seasons in the minors and parts of two seasons in the majors.

Janish is an International League veteran — having spent parts of five seasons in the IL over the years. He spent four seasons with the Louisville Bats (2007-2008, 2011-2012) and then was back in the IL in 2013 with the Gwinnett Braves. Janish has spent nine seasons in the minors and has appeared in parts of six seasons in the majors.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Aaron Brooks put together an impressive 2014 season for Omaha. Brooks, 24, posted a 12-3 record with one save in 25 games (23 starts). His final four 2014 regular season starts were all good ones. The California native won all four starts including a complete game on August 23 in a 5-1 win over Tacoma. In his last outing of the regular season on August 28, he allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings. The month of August was a month to remember for Brooks, who went 5-0 with a 3.66 ERA in six starts (39.1 IP). Overall, his wins were tied for second-most in the PCL while he also ranked seventh in ERA and sixth in WHIP (1.27). On September 4, Brooks was named as the Royals Triple-A Pitcher of the Year — a year after winning the Double-A Pitcher of the Year (2013).

Brooks tossed game one of the PCL playoffs for Omaha and matched a career-high with 10 strikeouts. In all, he tossed eight innings and allowed just five hits in a 7-0 win over Memphis.

LOCAL PRODUCT

Whit Merrifield is a product of the University of South Carolina. He played a key role in USC’s first national championship in 2010 — delivering the game-winning single over UCLA in the title game. He was drafted by the Royals in the ninth round of the 2010 draft.

A native of Advance, NC, Merrified, 25, earned the Royals Triple-A Player of the Year Award this year after he hit .340 (109-for-321) in 76 games for the Storm Chasers this season. Merrifield also had 57 runs scored, 28 doubles, three home runs, 29 RBIs, and 11 stolen bases in his first crack at the Triple-A level. He began the season in Double and hit .278 (45-for-162) with 22 runs scored, 13 doubles, one triple, five home runs, and 22 RBIs. He was selected to play in the Texas League All-Star Game this year, but didn’t play due to his promotion to Omaha.

His success has continued into the playoffs and helped Omaha get past Memphis. In four first-round playoff games, Merrified hit .353 (6-for-17) with four runs scored, one double, three home runs, and four RBIs.

PCL Finals Are Set: A Look at the Reno Aces

The finals are also set in the Pacific Coast League as the Omaha Storm Chasers — the 2013 PCL and Triple-A National Champions — are back to defend their title against the Reno Aces. For the second time in three seasons, the Aces are back in the PCL Finals. The Aces, who beat the Las Vegas 51s, lost game one of the series, but battled back to win the last three games. The Aces and the Storm Chasers played in the 2012 PCL Championship, with the Aces winning the series and the PCL championship in four games. ShowImage

One of these two PCL teams will play in Uptown Charlotte at BB&T Ballpark on September 16. The winner will face the winner of the IL Finals, which features Pawtucket against Durham.

Let’s take a look at the…

RENO ACES:
Triple-A Affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks

COACHING STAFF:

Their manager and hitting coach are familiar names to International League fans. The Aces are led by manager Phil Nevin, who spent the past three seasons as the manager of the Toledo Mud Hens. After not making the playoffs in three seasons with the ‘Hens, Nevin is in the PCL Finals in his first season with the Aces after leading the team to 81 wins in the regular season. As a player, Nevin spent 12 seasons in the majors and hit 41 long balls in 2001 with San Diego. Overall, he hit 208 career home runs at the Major League level.

Another recognizable name in the IL on the coaching side is Greg Gross, Reno’s hitting coach. Gross, a former Philadelphia player and hitting coach, was the first hitting coach of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and spent more than two seasons with the ‘Pigs (2008-2010). During the 2010 season, he was promoted to Philadelphia and took over for the fired Milt Thompson. He stayed in Philly through the 2012 season.

Mike Parrott is the pitching coach of the Aces and has a tie to the Charlotte area. Parrott was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round  (15th overall) of the 1973 draft. As a player, Parrott made his way through the Baltimore system and played for the Charlotte O’s in 1976. He pitched in five games and posted a 0-2 mark with a 5.29 ERA. It was his only stint in Charlotte as he found himself in Triple-A Rochester the next year.

FORMER KNIGHT:

LHP Clayton Richard was sharp for the Charlotte Knights in 2008 — posting a 6-0 record with a 2.45 ERA in seven starts. He tossed one complete game that season. The following season, Richard was sent to the San Diego Padres by the White Sox as part of the package to acquire Jake Peavy. He spent parts of five seasons in San Diego with the Padres and went 40-39 with a 4.16 ERA in 108 games (107 starts). In parts of six Major League seasons, Richard owns a 46-47 record with a 4.33 ERA. He just recently signed a Minor League deal with Arizona (July 30) as he is working his way back from injuries. He’s made just one regular season start with Reno (August 28) and earned the win after allowing three runs on 11 hits over 5.1 innings pitched.

LOCAL PRODUCTS:

Catcher Blake Lalli is from Pittsburgh, PA, but he played his college ball at Gardner-Webb University. He was named to the All-Atlantic Sun Conference’s first team as a third baseman  in 2005 and as a catcher in 2006 while with Gardner-Webb. This season with Reno, Lalli hit .275 (78-for-284) with three home runs and 29 RBIs.

Mike Freeman played his college ball at Clemson University. The Orlando, FL native hit .307 (67-for-218) this season for Reno with one home run and 25 RBIs in 71 games. He hit .333 (4-for-12) with a double and three RBIs in the first round of the playoffs (four games).

KEEP AN EYE ON:

Veteran slugger Mike Jacobs is on the Reno roster and he can still hit the long ball. Jacobs, who hit 100 home runs over parts of seven seasons in the majors from 2005-2012, hit .299 (150-for-501) this season with 79 runs scored, 37 doubles, 19 home runs and 97 RBIs over 135 games in the regular season. His power continued into the playoffs and he smacked two home runs over the first round (four games). In 13 seasons in the minors, Jacobs has 180 career home runs. There’s no doubt he would love playing at BB&T Ballpark on September 16 — a hitter’s ballpark!

The Bulls Are Back in the Finals…

The Durham Bulls beat the Columbus Clippers on Saturday by a score of 4-2 in Durham, NC to move on to the Governors’ Cup Finals. The Bulls lost the first game in Columbus, but then went on to win the final three games en route to the series win.4516

In what will be a rematch of last year’s finals, the Bulls move on to face the Pawtucket Red Sox, who clinched on Friday night after sweeping the Syracuse Chiefs. Last season, the Bulls beat the PawSox in four games and moved on to play in the Triple-A National Championship Game. Durham lost the Triple-A National Championship Game to Omaha in Allentown, PA.

More on the Durham Bulls:

After dropping game one to the Clippers by a score of 9-4, the Bulls won games two and three by one run each, and game four on Saturday by two runs. Offensively, the Bulls hit just .239 over their four games. Cole Figueroa and Nick Franklin led the way with solid offensive showings in their four games at the plate. Figueroa hit .375 (6-for-16), while Franklin hit a series high .462 (6-for-13).

As for pitching, the Bulls got two solid starts in their series with Columbus. Their game four starter, Nate Karns, was impressive. Karns led the Bulls back to the championship game after allowing just one run on three hits over seven innings on Saturday. He walked just one batter and struck-out 12. Game three starter Matt Andriese was solid and allowed two runs on three hits over five innings. Andriese struck-out eight batters and earned the game three win. Reliever Adam Liberatore was sharp in two appearances in the series, tossing two scoreless innings and notching two saves.

PROSPECTS:

The Bulls roster is full of Tampa Bay Rays prospects. Looking through the 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, you’ll find that the current Bulls roster is made up of four of the Top 10 prospects — including the number two prospect — Hak-Ju Lee. Lee got off to a great start to the 2013 season — hitting .422 over 15 games — before tearing ligaments in his left knee in a collision at second base. He had surgery in late April of last season and missed the remainder of the year. He made his return to the Bulls on April 23 of this season and appeared in 93 games for the club this year — hitting .203 (64-for-315) with four home runs, 23 RBIs, and 12 stolen bases.

Number four prospect Enny Romero, started game two and allowed three runs on six hits over five innings and did not factor in the decision. Romero, 23, went 5-11 with a 4.50 ERA in 25 games started for the Bulls. Number five prospect Alex Colome started game one and allowed four runs on five hits over five innings and was saddled with the loss. He went 7-6 with a 3.77 ERA in 15 games started for the Bulls this season. Colome also went 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA in two games (one start) for the Rays this year.

Rounding out the Tampa Bay Rays Top 10 Prospects list is Tim Beckham, who entered the season ranked ninth by Baseball America. Beckham began the 2014 on the shelf after tearing his ACL in the offseason. He made his way back to Durham in August and made his 2014 Bulls debut on August 12. That was a great game for Beckham, who went 4-for-6 with three runs scored and an RBI in his return to Triple-A. In 15 games, he hit .258 (16-for-62). In four games during the first round of the playoffs, Beckham hit .267 with two doubles and two RBIs.

FORMER KNIGHTS:

Wilson Betemit was a 2014 International League Midseason All-Star and hit 18 home runs and drove in 50 runs for the Durham Bulls this season. Betemit, 32, has played 14 seasons in the minors and has 89 home runs over that span. He played for the Charlotte Knights in 2009 and hit .241 with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs over 72 games.

Ray Olmedo played for the Charlotte Knights in 2012 — the same season the team went to the Governors’ Cup Finals. Olmedo is a mainstay in the International League and is in his third season with the Durham Bulls (2009, 2011, and 2014). Olmedo has spent 11 of his 16 Minor League seasons in the IL. He’s played for Louisville, Syracuse, Columbus, Durham, Charlotte, and Rochester. In 12 seasons as the Triple-A level (also spent a season in Nashville in 2010), Olmedo has 967 career hits. Overall, Olmedo has 1,403 hits in his 16 year Minor League career.

KEEP AN EYE ON:

Mikie Mahtook was a 2014 International League Midseason All-Star and played in front of his hometown fans at the Triple-A All-Star Game this season. Mahtook entered the season ranked by Baseball America as the 25th best prospect in the Tampa Bay organization. After a solid 2013 campaign in Montgomery (Double-A), Mahtook showed improvement all across the board in 2014 with the Bulls. He hit .292 (143-489) with 33 doubles, six triples, 12 home runs, 68 RBIs, and 18 stolen bases over 132 games. The 24-year-old finished fifth in the IL in hits, tied for fourth in triples, sixth in doubles, and fourth in total bases (224).

MANAGER:

Charlie Montoyo had a record-breaking season and it continues into the playoffs. Montoyo, who is the winningest manager in Bulls franchise history, takes his team back to the Governors’ Cup Championship series for the second-straight year. Even more than that, Montoyo’s resume is one of the best. He has won seven division championships in his tenure with the Bulls, along with two IL Championships (2009, and 2013) and a Triple-A National Championship (2009). Can he lead his team to another IL Championship and a shot to play for the Triple-A Championship for the second year straight?

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