Tuesday, the Charlotte Stone Crabs begin their hunt for their first Florida State League title. They reached the championship in their first two seasons in 2009 and 2010 but fell to the Tampa Yankees each time. In 2013, they stumbled in the championship again, falling to Daytona.
To start their fourth attempt, they will take on the Palm Beach Cardinals, the South division's second-half winners. They had the best record in the league in the second half.
Florida State League semifinals (best of three): Charlotte Stone Crabs v. Palm Beach Cardinals (probables are me guessing)
Game 1 9/8: Charlotte @ Palm Beach 6:35 PM (Brent Honeywell v. Corey Littrell)
Game 2 9/9: Charlotte v. Palm Beach 6 PM (Chih-Wei Hu v. Trey Nielsen)
Game 3 (if necessary) 9/10: Charlotte v. Palm Beach 6 PM (German Marquez v. Luke Weaver)
Teams split season series, 9-9
It was a tale of two halves for the Stone Crabs, winning the division in the first half and finishing in last place over the final half. The 18-game season against Palm Beach closely mirrored that.
Charlotte won eight of the nine first-half meetings and outscored Palm Beach by a 59-34 margin. The script flipped after the All-Star break, though, when the Stone Crabs lost eight of nine and were outscored 37-22.
Bats for each are going to have their work cut out for them. In a league completely devoid of offense, Palm Beach was near the bottom of the barrel, finishing 10th in runs scored and 10th in OPS with an ugly .629 mark, 21 points below the league average. To its credit, Palm Beach was second in the league in walks, and Roger Dean Stadium seems to be more unforgiving to hitters than most FSL parks.
Palm Beach's big slugger is first baseman Luke Volt, who led the team with 11 home runs and was just one of 14 FSL hitters to collect double-digit homers. Carson Kelly was second with eight dingers, but the former second-round pick had a poor season with a .594 OPS.
Stone Crabs catcher Armando Araiza was again strong behind the plate, throwing out 45 percent of attempted basestealers. Palm Beach is a middle-of-the-pack team on the bases overall, but outfielder C.J. McElroy was third in the league with 39 steals.
Palm Beach leaned on its pitching to earn a postseason berth. Its staff was first in ERA and first in WHIP. The staff did not rely on the strikeout but got its fair share, and it owned the best walk rate in the league.
Charlotte would do well to win the first two games of the series. Looming in Game 3 of my probables is Luke Weaver, a first-round pick by the Cardinals. In three starts against the Stone Crabs this season, Weaver fired 19 scoreless innings, yielding just 11 hits and three walks with 16 strikeouts.
Palm Beach's expected Game 1 starter, Corey Littrell, is no slouch himself. Acquired along with John Lackey for minor league hitter Allen Craig and future Cy Young winner Joe Kelly last summer, Littrell posted a 2.69 ERA in 130 1/3 innings with 90 strikeouts for Palm Beach.
Trey Nielsen was just as good with a 2.59 ERA in 111 innings, but the good news for the Stone Crabs is who they are not facing -- Alex Reyes and Rob Kaminsky. Reyes, one of the quickest risers in the minors, was promoted to Double-A Springfield, and Kaminsky was traded to Cleveland for Brandon Moss.
Palm Beach's saves leader, Chris Perry, is also on the Double-A staff now, but the bullpen still has some arms. Josh Lucas pitched to a 1.29 ERA in 56 innings with 41 strikeouts, and Kyle Herget struck out 71 in 67 innings.
The North division semifinal features the two best teams in the league, the Clearwater Threshers and Daytona Tortugas. The Threshers are a rare Phillies affiliate in the playoffs. With a solid pitching staff and one of the league's best offenses, they are a complete team. Outfielder Andrew Pullin tied for the league lead in homers with 14, and catcher Willians Astudillo led the league in batting average with 10 strikeouts and 10 walks in 418 plate appearances.
If the Stone Crabs face Daytona in the championship again, they won't have to deal with Kris Bryant, The Vogelbach and Carl Edwards Jr. this time. Now the Tortugas and a Reds affiliate, they have a bit of a banged-up pitching staff with Jonathan Crawford, Nick Howard, Keury Mella and Nick Travieso on the DL, but rising prospect Amir Garrett is pitching effectively.
The semifinal winners will advance to a best-of-five championship, hosted by the winner of Charlotte's series.