Thursday, the Princeton Rays start their search for their second Appalachian League title in the team's 28-year history. This is the first time the franchise, which has been affiliated with the Rays for Tampa Bay's entire existence, has reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
In 2014, Princeton lost two games and was eliminated. Its task will be difficult again this season against the Pulaski Yankees, the league's best team. In their first season back in the Appy League, the Yankees rolled to a league-best 45-23 record, beating Princeton for the East division title by eight games.
Appalachian League semifinals (best of three): Princeton Rays v. Pulaski Yankees (probables are me assuming they just keep their rotations in order)
Game 1 9/3: Princeton v. Pulaski 7 PM (Blake Bivens v. Adonis Rosa)
Game 2 9/4: Princeton @ Pulaski 7 PM (Brock Burke v. Melvin Morla)
Game 3 (if necessary) 9/5: Princeton @ Pulaski 7 PM (Eduar Lopez v. Nestor Cortes)
Princeton lost season series, 5-4
After being swept by Pulaski in their first meeting in July, Princeton won the next two series, including the most recent meeting that ended at the start of August. Pulaski outscored Princeton in the season series, 45-27.
Prior to the games of Aug. 13, these teams were tied for first. Pulaski, though, rattled off a nine-game winning streak and finished the season with 17 wins in its last 19 games.
Princeton's pitching will be tested in the series. Pulaski brings the league's best offense to the table, leading the Appy League in runs (393, 5.8/game), BA (.269), OBP (.366), SLG (.426) and home runs (63). It also ranked fifth in steals with 50.
Infielder Allen Valerio was tied for the league lead in homers with 12, one ahead of Princeton's Brett Sullivan. First baseman Kane Sweeney was second in the league in OPS with .999, and they are joined in the lineup by slugging outfielders Carlos Vidal and Frank Frias.
The lineup is not solely dependent on the dinger, though. Former second-rounder Gosuke Katoh led the league in walks with 49 and was fifth in on-base percentage. Pulaski could hit some balls out of the park, but the key will be keeping runners off base before it happens. Its lineup can run out nine players all above the league-average .333 OBP.
With its record, Pulaski was certainly not a one-dimensional team. It led the league with a 3.08 earned-run average, its WHIP (1.24) was second, it was the only team to strike out more than a batter an inning and issued the fourth fewest walks.
Of the three "probable" starters, the most dangerous, Cortes, is going in Game 3, so Princeton may not even have to face him. He was third in the league in ERA with a 2.26 mark on the season, second in the league in strikeouts with 66 in 63 2/3 innings and first in WHIP (0.91). Rosa was around league average with a 3.93 ERA, but Moria appears to be very beatable. Had he qualified, he would be last in the league in ERA and WHIP.
Pulaski boasts a deep bullpen. Of the six active players on the roster who recorded a save this season, three owned an ERA under 2.00, including Andrew Schwaab, a college pitcher who led the team with six and struck out 22 in 16 1/3 innings.
Its bullpen has one name that might be familiar to Rays fans: Willie Gabay. The 24-year-old reliever was a 15th-round pick by the Rays in 2012 and peaked at Class A-Advanced Charlotte before being released just prior to the start of this season.
The West division semifinal pits the division-winning Kingsport Mets against the Greeneville Astros, who edged out Elizabethton by half a game to win the wild card. Elizabethton, Johnson City and Danville combined to win nine of the last 10 Appy League titles, but none of them were able to even make the postseason in 2015. Kingsport boasts another potent offense, while Greeneville brings some prospect power with a pair of top picks from the 2015 draft, Kyle Tucker and Daz Cameron, patrolling the outfield.
The semifinal winners will meet in the best-of-three final with home-field advantage going to the winner of Princeton's series.