MiLB Postseason Preview
While the Major League club continues to fight its uphill climb toward the fifth and final postseason spot in the National League, the Washington Nationals Minor League system has combined to compile quite a year. Four of the six stateside affiliates clinched postseason spots, with one already taking home its league title.
After cruising through the regular season, the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Nationals swept through the postseason to claim the GCL Championship on Sunday.
The GCL Nats, who set a Minor League Baseball record for the best domestic regular-season winning percentage (49-9, .845), defeated the GCL Pirates in a one-game semifinal on Friday, 6-1, to reach the best-of-three championship. On Saturday, they snatched a 10-3, come-from-behind win over the GCL Red Sox at the Washington Nationals Training Complex in Viera, then followed that with a 7-2 win, in Game 2 on the road in Fort Myers to earn the title.
The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, WHIP and shutouts this season, compiled a 1.67 ERA through the playoffs, led by righty Wander Suero and southpaw Hector Silvestre. Suero tossed five solid innings in the clincher, allowing just one run on one hit with seven strikeouts, while Silvestre shut down the Pirates in the semifinal with six shutout innings in which he allowed just one hit and struck out seven.
Offensively, the GCL Nats showed pop in all three playoff games, but impressively used an eight-run outburst in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the Championship Series to erase a 3-0 GCL Red Sox lead. Randy Encarnacion collected five hits, four runs scored and five RBI throughout the three-game postseason run, while Drew Ward added four hits, three runs and four RBI.
The Nationals have three other playoff-bound affiliates remaining, with the Low-A Hagerstown Suns, High-A Potomac Nationals and Double-A Harrisburg Senators and each headed for the postseason.
South Atlantic League First Half Northern Division Champion Hagerstown (80-57) will take on the West Virginia Power (Pirates) in a best-of-three series, where the Suns will have the home-field advantage for the final two games. The series opens Wednesday at 7:05 p.m., while the Augusta GreenJackets (Giants) and Savannah Sand Gnats (Mets) battle for the Southern Division title.
Two Hagerstown representatives earned SAL All-Star honors in second baseman Tony Renda and Manager Tripp Keister. Renda leads the league in games played (134), at-bats (517), doubles (43) and runs scored (99). Keister is in his first season with the Suns after helming the GCL Nationals last year. Both were also named as midseason All-Stars.
Potomac (84-55) claimed both first- and second-half Carolina League Northern Division titles and will face the Lynchburg Hillcats (Braves) in a best-of-three set starting Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. at Pfitzner Stadium. By virtue of winning both halves, the P-Nats will enjoy home-field advantage for all three games of the series, should a third game be necessary. The winner will take on either the Salem Red Sox or Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Rangers) in the best-of-five Mills Cup Championship Series.
Potomac righty reliever Robert Benincasa and outfielders Michael Taylor and Billy Burns were chosen as year-end Carolina League All-Stars. The trio ties the P-Nats with the Carolina Mudcats (Indians) for most representatives on the roster. Benincasa has registered 25 saves in 26 chances between Hagerstown and Potomac this season, logging a 3.54 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 28.0 innings since his promotion in June. Taylor leads the league in doubles (39) and extra-base hits (55) and has also fired 20 outfield assists this season. Burns, who was recently promoted to Harrisburg, led the Carolina league in batting average (.312) and steals (54) in 91 games.
Burns and Harrisburg (77-65) will face the Erie SeaWolves (Tigers) in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs, as the Senators wrapped up their Western Division title with a 1-0 shutout Monday. They will play in a best-of-five set starting Wednesday, and the winner will advance to the Eastern League Championship series for another best-of-five showdown with either the Binghamton Mets or Trenton Thunder (Yankees).
The Senators feature a dynamic starting rotation, headlined by righthanders Nathan Karns and A.J. Cole, and rising lefty Robbie Ray. Karns, who made his Major League debut in May, went 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 132.2 innings this year for Harrisburg. Cole, acquired from Oakland prior to the season, had a terrific finish in Double-A after starting the season in Potomac. He went 4-2 in seven starts for the Senators, compiling a 2.18 ERA and 0.904 WHIP in 45.1 innings of work. The 21-year-old Ray capped off a breakthrough campaign with an 11-5 record across two levels, striking out a system-high 160 batters in 142 innings.
To catch all the Nationals Minor League postseason action streaming online, click here for gameday audio listings.