The Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants may be closer to competing on the golf course than in the postseason, but there’s playoff baseball to come in Northern California.
It won’t be in stadiums with 40,000 people, and it won’t be on national television. There may be horrible traffic on 580 impeding fans who want to get to the games. But there’s warm weather, do-or-die baseball and excitement abound in the California League playoffs.
The California League is a High-A league anchored in the Central Valley. All five NL West teams and three AL West teams have affiliates in the league, which is known for high-scoring affairs.
The Modesto Nuts, affiliated with the Seattle Mariners, will take on the Oakland-affiliated Stockton Ports in the five-game North Division Finals starting on Wednesday.
Game 1 will be at John Thurman Field on Wednesday, with Game 2 on Thursday. Stockton hosts Game 3 and a potential Game 4 at Banner Island Ballpark, the crown jewel of the California League, on Friday and Saturday. A winner-take-all Game 5 would be at Modesto on Sunday if needed.
Modesto’s playoff fate has been known since the Nuts won the first half in June. Stockton, on the other hand, didn’t clinch a postseason berth until Sunday night, the penultimate game of the season. The Ports went ahead of San Jose at almost the exact moment that Visalia conceded the go-ahead run to Modesto, and the two games wrapped up within a minute of each other.
Just because it’s the minor leagues doesn’t mean there’s a lack of intensity. Footage of the clubhouse celebrations — which were captured on Instagram live videos — show the significance of these playoff berths to the players. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there’s no shortage of familiarity in the minors. Stockton and Modesto faced off 29 times this season, with the Ports winning 17 of those meetings.
There’s also no shortage of talent in the minors. Matt Chapman, Christian Arroyo and Cody Bellinger played in the league as recently as 2015. Ryon Healy, Matt Olson, Bruce Maxwell and Chad Pinder all suited up for Stockton in 2014.
Modesto’s roster is headlined by outfielder Kyle Lewis, who was named the top college player in the country in 2016 by winning the Golden Spikes Award. In 2015, he was named the Baseball America College Player of the Year. After suffering an ACL injury last summer, Lewis is fully healthy and has six home runs in just 38 games. Former UCLA star Eric Filia batted .326 this season for the Nuts with 28 doubles. Curaçao native Gianfranco Wawoe has been a valuable utility man, batting .263 with 17 steals.
Unlike most Cal League teams, Modesto’s pitching strength lies in the bullpen, headlined by Matt Festa. Festa has a 3.23 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 69.2 innings.
Seth Brown has been one of the hottest hitters in all of professional baseball in the last two weeks to lead Stockton to the postseason. Since Aug. 19, Brown has batted .455 with ten homers, including a grand slam off Johnny Cueto in a rehab assignment and a stretch of five home runs in five games. He has driven in 28 runs in that 15-game stretch and set an all-time club record with 109 RBI on the season.
Brett Siddall had an all-around stellar year for the Ports, batting .300 and slugging .495 with 21 home runs. After missing the first two months with injuries, first baseman Sandber Pimentel collected 14 homers and 36 walks.
The Stockton pitching staff lost the services of 2016 sixth overall pick A.J. Puk when he was promoted to Double-A Midland in June, but fellow Florida Gator Logan Shore, drafted one round behind Puk, headlines the staff. Shore finished the year with an ERA of 4.09 in a league that’s hostile to pitchers and walked just 16 batters in 72.2 innings. Shore has an ERA of just 2.49 over his last four starts. Stockton’s bullpen is anchored by lefty Andrew Tomasovich and sidearming righty Nolan Blackwood. Tomasovich struck out 55 batters in 43.1 innings and Blackwood has an ERA of 1.59 over his last 10 appearances. Joey Wagman, a Danville native who pitched for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, also provides relief for the Ports.
Even if you ascribe to all the cliches about throwing out the records for the postseason, both Stockton and Modesto’s rosters are filled with talent and should make for some exciting playoff baseball in a region that will otherwise be left out of the picture in 2017.california leagueMinor League BaseballMLBmodesto nutsOakland AthleticsSeattle Marinersstockton ports