2011 MWLCS Preview

The 2011 Midwest League Championship Series is now set.  The Lansing Lugnuts, champions of the East will take on the Quad Cities River Bandits, winners of the West in the best-of-five series to decide the title.  It’s the battle of black-and-red teams, the junior Jays vs. the baby Cards.

Since the LumberKings aren’t vying for the ring this year, I get to view this series semi-objectively.  Below is my MWLCS preview.

The Series:

Game 1:  Wednesday, 6:05 PM CT at Cooley Law School Stadium (Lansing, MI)

Game 2:  Thursday, 6:05 PM CT at Cooley Law School Stadium (Lansing, MI)

Game 3:  Saturday, 7:00 PM CT at Modern Woodmen Park (Davenport, IA)

Game 4:  Sunday, 5:00 PM CT at Modern Woodmen Park (Davenport, IA)

Game 5:  Monday, 6:00 PM CT at Modern Woodmen Park (Davenport, IA)

How They Got Here:

Quad Cities took out your LumberKings, 2-0 in the West Division Quarterfinals and then swept Kane County, 2-0 to take the West Division title.  The River Bandits earned an extra day of rest when it looked like the Cougars would force a game three as they scored four times in the bottom of the ninth to erase a 5-2 deficit.  Nick Longmire belted a game-winning three-run homer off lefty Antonio Cruz to propel the Bandits to the MWLCS.  Neither the Kings or Cougars really presented all that much of a challenge to Quad Cities in those four games as the Bandits out-scored them 27-13.

Lansing battled back from a 1-0 series deficit to oust powerful Dayton in the first round, also utilizing a walk-off home run in the Quarterfinal Round.  Matt Nuzzo delivered a two-run clout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Dragons and MWL saves leader Drew Hayes (who was 22-of-23 in the regular season) for a 3-2 win.  Then, in game three, they took out Dayton with a 4-3 win thanks to a deciding solo home run by Marcus Knecht.  The East Division Championship Series proved to be a little less climactic until the bottom of the ninth in game two, when Michael Crouse drew a walk-off bases-loaded walk from Fort Wayne right-hander Kevin Quackenbush  to give the Lugnuts an 8-7 win over the TinCaps and the East crown.

Head-to-Head:

The two clubs met up from June 7-9 in the Quad Cities with the River Bandits taking two of three.  All three games were close and low-scoring, with the Bandits winning 5-3 and 4-3 and Lansing taking the finale, 2-0.  Both teams hit under .200 for the series and Nuzzo had the only series home run.  It’s tough to pick up any trend out of this series, let alone any three-game match-up between East and West teams that occurred three months ago.

Comparing the Offense:

Quad Cities hit .261 during the regular-season, third amongst all Midwest League teams, while Lansing hit .250, ninth-best.  Aside from those numbers, the offenses were fairly identical.  The Bandits bashed 89 home runs, scored 687 runs and drove in 605 RBI.  The Lugnuts hit 88 home runs, scored 691 runs and drove in 610 RBI.  The one edge Lansing had during the regular year was on the basepaths…they stole 154 bases to Quad Cities’ 101 steals.

Lansing has maybe the brightest trio of prospect hitters in the Midwest League with Knecht, Crouse and Jake Marisnick, all who landed on the MWL Post-Season All-Star list.  Since the playoffs started, Nuzzo, Carlos Perez and Oliver Dominguez have stepped in to impact roles while Crouse and Marisnick have struggled.  This time of year, you look for performances from everyone up and down the lineup, and the Lugnuts have had key contributions from different players nightly.

For Quad Cities, it seems like everyone in the lineup has been hot since August.  That has clearly carried over into the postseason as the Bandits are hitting .274 with 23 RBI in four games.  Jonathan Rodriguez is hitting .500 with two HR and eight RBI while Colin Walsh has been a surprise contributor, batting .833 in two games.  The regular-season hitting champion, Oscar Taveras, is batting .313 with no extra-base hits and four RBI.  The Bandits have made it look easy without getting much yet from their top two spots in the order, Kolten Wong (.250) and Ronny Gil (.188).

The offensive edge goes to Quad Cities, as Rodriguez remains the most feared hitter in the postseason.   While quiet so far, guys like Wong, Gil, Chris Edmondson and Cody Stanley could erupt at any time.  I believe Lansing’s Knecht/Crouse/Marisnick trio is going to be better in the long-run than the Bandits’ group, but the overall lineup in the Quad Cities is more threatening right now.

Comparing the Arms:

Quad Cities finished fourth in the MWL in team ERA at 3.63, while Lansing finished ninth (one spot behind the LumberKings) with a 3.78 ERA during the regular season.  The Bandits and Lugnuts are #3 and #4 in the league in team ERA since the playoffs began. 

Both clubs have quality arms in the rotation.  Lansing has received wins from starters Egan Smith (1-0, 0.00) and Marcus Walden (1-0, 3.60), plus they received a boost in the form of Toronto’s #10 prospect, right-hander Aaron Sanchez.  The 19-year-old Sanchez turned in 4.0 innings with two runs allowed in his debut outing with the Lugnuts last night.  Left-hander Justin Nicolino (0-0, 1.69) pitched well in one no-decision while lefty Sean Nolin (0-1, 7.71) is the only Lansing starter to have lost so far.  Egan, Nolin and Smith all had .500 records with ERAs in the mid-3.00’s during the regular season, not a single one of them was all that dominant.

Quad Cities has received wins from right-handers Boone Whiting (1-0, 4.50) and Trevor Rosenthal (1-0, 0.00) and left-hander Anthony Ferrara (1-0, 4.50) in the playoffs.  Right-hander Zach Russell (0-0, 8.31) is the only starter to have struggled so far.  Whiting posted the league’s third-lowest ERA of 2.41 while going 5-2 during the regular year, while Ferrara went 13-7 with a 3.03 ERA.  Rosenthal’s 7-7 record and 4.11 ERA wasn’t tremendously impressive, but his 133 strikeouts to just 39 walks over 120 innings were eye-opening.  Starting pitching has been just as lethal for the Bandits as their offense.

The Bandits have the more impressive rotation, and they also have a more solid bullpen.  Right-hander Aidan Lucas saved 11 of 15 attempts while posting a 2.75 ERA during the season and isn’t even being used as the closer right now.  That role belongs to left-hander Dean Kiekhefer, who had a 1.26 ERA and was 8-for-8 in saves during the season.  Kiekhefer closed down both games of the series with the LumberKings without a run allowed and hasn’t had to work since then.

Lansing has its own lock-down closer in right-hander Danny Barnes, who after going 5-1 with a 2.32 ERA and 13 saves in 16 chances during the regular season is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA and two saves in three outings in the playoffs.  Right-handers Brandon Berl and Dayton Marze combined for 10 saves in 17 chances in 2011, but each have ERAs above 6.00 in three outings apiece these playoffs.  Right-hander Dustin Antonlin has thrown 4.0 scoreless innings (one unearned run) and has fanned six out of the Lugnuts’ pen.

Pitching-wise, Quad Cities gets the nod again.  They have the better rotation overall and a bullpen that puts close games away.  Lansing’s rotation and bullpen have been great this postseason, but the Bandits look better on paper.

The Managers:

Quad Cities’ skipper Johnny Rodriguez has the lead on Lansing’s Mike Redmond as far as experience is concerned, but Redmond took home the Midwest League Manager of the Year award this season.  Plus, while Rodriguez has been in the MWL playoffs before, Redmond has won a World Series before with the Florida Marlins.  And since I’ll support the Fighting Fish till the day I die, Redmond is the better of the two here.

The X-Factor:

If Wong starts setting the table the way he did during the regular season, Quad Cities will win this series handily.  If any one of the three star prospects for the Lugnuts gets going (my vote is on Marisnick), then their offense could match the Bandits every step of the way.  Clutch hitting has won out over clutch pitching this postseason, that’ll hold true this series also.  The Bandits have the home-field advantage with the final three games at Modern Woodmen Park, so having the last at-bat in three of the potential five games could be a determining factor.

My Pick:

Everything seems to be coming up Bandits on paper the more I glance over the numbers on this series.  They’re hot at the plate, they’re pitching well, they’re confident and they’re rested.  Quad Cities also hasn’t taken home a title since 1990, so you’d think the home fans will be hungry. 

With that being said, Lansing wins this series in five games, capturing their first title since 2003.  The East Division has produced the champion in seven of the last eight years.  The Lugnuts have already stared their last out of the season in the face and still won, taken out the East’s top team in Dayton and eliminated a surging Fort Wayne club for the East title in thrilling fashion.  Things have been just too easy for the Bandits so far, and that ends with a loss to the Lugnuts in the MWLCS.

Why You Should Still Pull for the Bandits:

It goes against my nature as the Clinton broadcaster to cheer on our closest rival, but here’s one historical reason why you might want to.  Last time a Quad Cities club captured the title (1990 over South Bend), the city of Clinton celebrated the next year as the Giants won the Midwest League in 1991.  If one title drought ends in the state of Iowa, maybe another will end next year.

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Me Anyways:

Because the last time I did a playoff preview in 2009, I was wrong about the winner of every series except the first two in the East Division.  I picked Great Lakes over Peoria for the championship, when it was in fact Fort Wayne claiming the title over Burlington.

-DL

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