Walker Named Top MWL Prospect by Baseball America

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to post on here except predictions that turn out to be wrong.  Clinton LumberKings’ right-hander Taijuan Walker has been named the Midwest League’s top prospect by Baseball America editor Jim Callis on his annual Top 20 list.

Walker and left-hander James Paxton (#8) both show up on the list.  Walker edged out Dayton shortstop Billy Hamilton (#2) and Midwest League MVP/Prospect of the Year Rymer Liriano (#5) of Fort Wayne.  Check out the full list here:  http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/prospects/rankings/league-top-20-prospects/2012/2612401.html.

For bonus content, here’s my interviews with Walker and Paxton from the 2011 season:

Things have been extra-quiet here at The LumberBlog as I’ve been wrapping up the 2011 Final Report and Bios.  I should have that out for viewing both here and on LumberKings.com in the next few days.

-DL

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

Game 2 Highlights

The 2011 season came to an abrupt end for your LumberKings last night as they saw a 3-1 lead slip away in a 5-3 loss to the Quad Cities River Bandits.  The loss gives the Bandits a two-game sweep of the West Division Quarterfinals series, they’ll now play the winner of the Kane County/Burlington series to determine this year’s West Division champion.

Eddie Menchaca’s Kings scrapped with the Bandits last night, getting a run right away in the first inning on Mike McGee’s first-career playoff home run, a bomb off the center-field batter’s eye (listen:  McGee Solo HR (#1) 9.8.11).  Quad Cities tied the game with help from an error in the second inning, getting a two-out RBI single from Colin Walsh.  Left-handers Anthony Fernandez and Anthony Ferrara dueled to a 1-1 tie over the first five innings (listen:  Fernandez Fans Gil 9.8.11), and it would be the LumberKings that took a 3-1 advantage in the top of the sixth.  Stefen Romero clubbed a solo home run to left (listen:  Romero Solo HR (#1) 9.8.11) and Anthony Phillips added a two-out double scoring John  Hicks (listen:  Phillips RBI double 9.8.11), giving Clinton their largest lead of the entire series.

However, the Bandits would score three times against Fernandez in the bottom of the sixth, including an RBI double by Jonathan Rodriguez, game-tying sacrifice fly by Nick Longmire and game-winning RBI single from Walsh.  Walsh would walk and score on a Jonathan Arias wild pitch for insurance in the ninth inning, and that was the end of the hopes for the Kings.  Left-hander Dean Kiekhefer worked a scoreless ninth for the second-straight game, finishing off the series.

And so, the season ends far short of the goal this club had established after finishing the first half at 24-46.  Still, what a remarkable job done by Menchaca, pitching coach Rich Dorman and hitting coach Terry Pollreisz in turning this team 180 degrees around with a lot of the same pieces as the first half.  The pitching staff jumped from 16th to 8th in the Midwest League in the second half, while the hitters heated up in time to reel off eight-straight wins, sending the Kings to the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 14 years. 

Thanks again to all who have been reading the daily updates here at The LumberBlog all season long.  This blog ranked #24 out of the top 50 ProBlogs in August, and I couldn’t be more proud to see so much interest in a team located in such a small market.  With the onset of the offseason, there won’t be as much daily content here, but in the near future I’ll be rolling out the full 2011 season wrap-up and player bios and probably composing a few “Top 10″ lists like I did last year.  Stay tuned for all of that, and of course, if you have any ideas for content or words of any kind you’d like to pass my way, you can do so by emailing me at davelezotte@lumberkings.com.

It still feels weird to say on a bright and sunny day perfect for baseball, but enjoy the start of your offseason.  I’ll do my best to enjoy mine.

-DL

MWL Quarterfinals – Game 2 Notes

The LumberKings opened the 2011 Midwest League Playoffs at home with a 9-5 loss to the Quad Cities River Bandits last night.  Bandits’ first-baseman Jonathan Rodriguez went 2-for-3 with five RBI on the night including a three-run homer in the first inning off left-hander Tony Butler that ensured Quad Cities would never trail.  Oscar Taveras drove home two more runs as part of a three-run second inning, giving the Bandits a 6-0 lead.  Mike McGee doubled home Anthony Phillips in the third (listen:  McGee RBI double 9.7.11) and John Hicks blasted a two-run homer down the left-field line in the sixth (listen: Hicks 2-R HR (#1) 9.7.11) to cut the deficit to 6-3 and chase right-hander Boone Whiting from the game.  RBI from Hicks and Julio Morban brought the Kings to within two runs in the bottom of the seventh, but Mickey Wiswall missed out on a golden opportunity with the bases full and one out.  Bandits’ right-hander Aidan Lucas got Wiswall to bounce back to the mound, then turned a 1-2-3 double play to end the threat.  Right-hander Tyler Burgoon surrendered an RBI single to Taveras and RBI double to Rodriguez in the top of the ninth, and Clinton couldn’t touch left-hander Dean Kiekhefer in the final at-bat.

Thus, Eddie Menchaca’s LumberKings are down 1-0 in the best-of-three series as things shift to Modern Woodmen Park.  The Davenport, IA home of the Bandits wasn’t kind to the Kings this season as Quad Cities won seven of the nine meetings, but the only path to the West Division Championship Series is back-to-back road wins.  Fortunately, left-hander Anthony Fernandez has excelled in road parks this year, going 5-0 with a 1.91 ERA in 11 games, 10 starts.  He’ll earn the pivotal Game 2 start tonight, while the Bandits counter with left-hander Anthony Ferrara (13-7, 3.03).

Tonight’s Game Notes:   9.8.11 kingsnotes _quarterfinals.gametwo_

A bonus note that is encouraging for the Kings tonight…Clinton went 0-6 in the opening games of playoff series from ’07-’10, but followed up with wins in Game 2 four times in that span, winning three of the six series.  Last year, the Kings went 5-1 in elimination games in the playoffs, including back-to-back road wins at Cedar Rapids in the West Division Quarterfinals.  Meanwhile, Quad Cities held a 1-0 lead on Kane County returning home last year, but were eliminated with two-straight home losses to the Cougars.  Will history repeat itself?  Listen to the broadcast at 7:00 PM on 1390kcln.com to find out.

-DL

Playoff Preview: Eddie Menchaca

T-minus 3 hours, 30 minutes until Game 1 of the West Division Quarterfinals.  Eddie Menchaca’s LumberKings begin the quest for Clinton’s first Midwest League title since 1991 as they open a best-of-three series against the rival Quad Cities River Bandits.  Left-hander Tony Butler (3-4, 3.26) gets the start tonight at Alliant Energy Field, while the Bandits will counter with right-hander Boone Whiting (5-2, 2.41).

Menchaca joins me for tonight’s interview and weighs in on the LumberKings’ second-half turnaround, the match-up against Quad Cities, the starting rotation for the series (Butler, left-hander Anthony Fernandez, right-hander Stephen Kohlscheen) and his own playoff memories as a player.

Listen Here:  Menchaca Interview 9.7.11

Tonight’s Game Notes:  9.7.11 kingsnotes _quarterfinals.gameone_

Starting Lineups:  9.7.11 lineup

First pitch is at 6:00 PM, make sure to wear your green LumberKings shirts for a “green-out” at AEF tonight.  If you’re not making it down to the ballpark, tune in on AM 1390 KCLN and 1390kcln.com.

-DL

Second-Half Highlight Reel

With Game One of the Midwest League West Division Quarterfinals just over six hours away, it’s time to get hyped up.  As promised, I’ve completed a second-half highlight reel featuring a few of the best moments of Clinton’s run to the West’s top playoff seed.

Relive the sounds of Stefen Romero’s home run to reach a 13-game hitting streak in Burlington, the final out of Taijuan Walker’s complete-game win over Great Lakes, Anthony Phillips’ steal of home in Wisconsin, Carlos Ramirez’s walk-off two-run single against Peoria, John Taylor’s playoff-clinching save against Beloit and more.

Listen Here:  2011 Second Half Highlight Reel (Finished)

Game notes, pregame interview, Game One lineups and more coming up later today.

-DL

Regular-Season Finale Notes (9/5)

I had a second-half highlight reel all planned out to be finished for today as the LumberKings wrap up their regular-season schedule in Kane County, but I conveniently left my laptop power cord in the Elfstrom Stadium pressbox last night.  Thus, you’ll have to wait for that clip til’ tomorrow.

I did get game notes done, just under the wire.  I don’t think I could have slept tonight if I saw a 139-game streak broken on the last day.  So, enjoy my hastily-prepared notes:  9.5.11 kingsnotes

It’s meaningless baseball today for the Kings as they wrap-up the series with the Cougars.  Left-hander Roenis Elias (3-2, 6.32) starts for Clinton against Cougars’ right-hander Jason Mitchell (3-0, 1.05).  The game starts at 1:00 PM, listen at 1390kcln.com.

-DL

Tonight’s Interview: Stephen Kohlscheen (Vol. 2)

Clouds overhead at Elfstrom, but likely no two-our rain delays tonight.

The LumberKings completed their final goal of the regular season last night at Kane County, clinching the top playoff spot in the West Division with a 6-1 win over the Cougars.  Eddie Menchaca’s crew had to wait out a two-our, 20-minute rain delay before finally hitting the field at 8:15 PM, but once they did, they were ready to go.  Brad Miller went 3-for-5 with three RBI on the night (listen:  Miller 2-run single 9.3.11), while right-handers Stephen Kohlscheen and Jessie Nava combined on a seven-hitter with just one run allowed.  Kohlscheen improved to 5-3 with the win, getting some assistance from his defense (including Stefen Romero’s throw to John Hicks on a double-steal attempt, listen:  Romero to Hicks Play on Espinal 9.3.11) as he pitched largely to contact all night.  Nava struck out six over the final 3.0 innings including Yowill Espinal to end the game, cementing Clinton as the top second-half seed in the West (listen:  Nava Strikes Out Espinal to Clinch Top Playoff Spot 9.3.11).

My interview guest tonight is Kohlscheen, the starting pitcher in each of Clinton’s last two wins including their August 28th victory over Beloit that clinched a playoff spot.  He talks about last night’s outing including waiting out the two-hour-plus rain delay, pitching in back-to-back clinching games, facing Quad Cities in the first round of the playoffs, the club’s second-half turnaround and more.

Listen Here:  Kohlscheen Interview 9.4.11

Tonight’s Game Notes:  9.4.11 kingsnotes

Left-hander Anthony Fernandez was scheduled to start tonight, but has been given the game off to rest up.  Left-hander Ryan Kiel (0-1, 3.24) will make just his second pro start in a spot role tonight instead.  Kane County counters with right-hander Leondy Perez (7-13, 3.53).  First pitch is scheduled for 6:00 PM, listen to the game on 1390kcln.com.

-DL

Saturday Notes (9/3)

Things have been admittedly quiet over here at the LumberBlog as the LumberKings have dropped four-straight games since clinching a playoff berth last Sunday.  The last series against Quad Cities, the team they’re likely to face in the first round of the postseason, saw the River Bandits sweep by a combined score of 34-16.

Last night, Stefen Romero beat out an infield single to score Brad Miller in the first inning, but the Bandits scored four unanswered runs — three coming against left-hander Tony Butler in an otherwise-quality outing — to take the game, 4-1.

The last regular-season series begins tonight for Eddie Menchaca’s crew as they take on the Kane County Cougars at Elfstrom Stadium.  These two teams met up at the conclusion of the first half with nothing on the line as they finished fifth and sixth in the West.  This time around, the Kings are looking to clinch the top playoff spot with a win in one of the three games.  The Cougars, also headed to the playoffs, would need to sweep the series to move ahead of Clinton in the standings.  Thus, if the Kings win tonight, they’re assured a first-round match-up with rival Quad Cities.

Tonight’s Game Notes:  9.3.11 kingsnotes

Right-hander Stephen Kohlscheen (4-3, 4.70) started the last time the LumberKings won, but took a no-decision against Beloit.  Still, he’s 4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in six starts with Clinton this season.  He’ll be opposed by Cougars’ right-hander Jason Adam (6-8, 4.22), a loser at the hands of the Kings back on June 19 when they finished the first half with a 1-0 victory on a Julio Morban home run to right field.  Morban is in the lineup batting second tonight.

First pitch is at 6:00 PM, listen to the broadcast at 1390kcln.com.  Hopefully the rain holds off tonight.

-DL

Off the Diamond: Tyler Hildreth

For one final time in this 2011 season, I’m venturing away from the game between the lines for an “Off the Diamond” interview segment.  My guest tonight is Tyler Hildreth, LumberKings’ clubhouse manager since 2007.

Tyler will be leaving the LumberKings after five seasons for a new position within the University of Iowa’s athletic department.  He’ll be in an equipment manager role for several of the Hawkeyes sports teams, including Men’s and Women’s Basketball and Volleyball.  It’s a dream come true for Hildreth, a die-hard fan of Iowa sports.

Tyler looks back at five years with the LumberKings, talks about heading to Iowa and shares some advice for the next clubhouse manager on today’s interview.

Listen Here:  Tyler Hildreth OTD Interview 9.2.11

Tonight’s Game Notes:  9.2.11 kingsnotes

The LumberKings wrap up a three-game road series in the Quad Cities tonight, looking to snap a three-game losing streak.  Left-hander Tony Butler (3-3, 3.16) gets the start for Clinton, while the River Bandits counter with left-hander Anthony Ferrara (12-7, 3.11).  First pitch from Modern Woodmen Park is scheduled for 7:00 PM, listen online at 1390kcln.com.

-DL

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