Both International League semifinal series went four games, and both were won by the underdog. South Division champion Charlotte, in the postseason for the first time since 2006, topped West Division leader Indianapolis, which owned the top regular-season record in Triple-A. Though wild card Pawtucket finished five games behind Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the North Division, the PawSox rolled over the Yankees to earn their first postseason series victory since 2003.
The Knights' pitching staff allowed the fewest earned runs in the IL this season, boasting an impressive team ERA of 3.15, but faltered against Indianapolis, posting a 6.25 ERA and allowing 26 runs in the four games. Pawtucket, which ranked fourth in team ERA (3.43) during the regular season, surrendered just 11 runs to the Yankees in the first round.
"We haven't seen a lot of each other this year, but they won a lot of games and have one of the best pitching staffs in the league," said Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler of the Knights. "I was surprised to see how many runs were scored in their series [against Indianapolis]. Our guys have pitched really well in the playoffs so far, so it should be a great matchup."
Charlotte won the season series, 5-3.
Game 1 at Pawtucket, Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Pawtucket, Sept. 12 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Charlotte, Sept. 13 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Charlotte (if necessary), Sept. 14 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Charlotte (if necessary), Sept. 15 at 7:15 p.m. ET
After serving as Oakland's bench coach in 2011, manager Joel Skinner returned to the Minors to guide the Knights to the second-highest win total in the franchise's 25-year history. Charlotte was one of two IL teams to finish over .500 in each month of the season.
Several key contributors to the Knights' success this season have been summoned to Chicago to help the White Sox in their playoff chase, leaving Charlotte to rely on new faces from lower levels.
Among the missing are slugger Dan Johnson, who led the circuit with 28 home runs during the regular season, and catcher Hector Gimenez, who was second on the club with 14 blasts. That leaves 21-year-old Trayce Thompson as the club's top power threat. A second-round pick in 2009, Thompson hit 25 longballs in Class A Advanced and Double-A this season, but is 4-for-32 in 10 career Triple-A games including the playoffs.
First baseman Seth Loman is also new to the club. He hit 16 homers for Double-A Birmingham before making his Triple-A debut with the Knights on Aug. 31. The 26-year-old went 6-for-12 with a homer and six RBIs against Indianapolis in the first round.
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Catcher Josh Phegley has also come up big for the Knights both late in the season and in the playoffs. After hitting just one homer in the first four months of the season, Phegley went deep five times in August and twice in the Indianapolis series, in which he was 6-for-14 with six RBIs.
Charlotte will rely on staff ace Charles Leesman, who gets the nod in Game 1 at Pawtucket. The 25-year-old southpaw was second in the IL with a 2.47 ERA in the regular season and held Indianapolis to one run on six hits over eight frames in the opening game of their semifinal series. Leesman posted a 2.10 ERA on the road this year.
Charles Shirek went 11-5 and led the Knights in strikeouts in the regular season, but was ripped by the Indians for eight runs on 11 hits in just 4 2/3 innings in Game 2. Veteran Matt Zaleski, now in his ninth season in the White Sox organization, not only won his lone playoff start against Indianapolis, but was 2-0 against the PawSox in the regular season, yielding one run on eight hits over 13 innings.
Pawtucket is also missing some of its best players, including International League MVP Mauro Gomez (who hit .310/.371/.589 with 24 homers in 100 games) and shortstop Pedro Ciriaco, both of whom are in Boston. The PawSox feature just seven players remaining from their Opening Day roster.
"I didn't know it was that many," laughed Beyeler. "There's been a lot of turnover, but that's Triple-A baseball -- our entire [Opening Day] starting rotation is gone. Some are in Japan, some are on other teams, and one is on our big league team.
"We've been real fortunate to have guys step up when we needed them and we've gotten some great players from lower levels in the system. Whenever we've had a hole, someone has filled it."
Beyeler, in his second season with Pawtucket after four years with Boston's Double-A affiliate in Portland, is the third manager in team history to lead the Sox to consecutive playoff appearances.
The Sox did get a key replacement with the promotion of the organization's top prospect, Bryce Brentz, to Triple-A at the end of August. The Tennessee native, a first-round pick in 2010, was 6-for-14 with two homers, two doubles and five RBIs in Pawtucket's first-round series.
Pawtucket enjoyed outstanding starting pitching in its win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Billy Buckner held the Yankees to one hit over six shutout frames in Game 3 before veteran Nelson Figueroa went eight innings in the decisive fourth game, allowing one run on a pair of hits. In his last 23 1/3 innings, Figueroa has surrendered two runs on nine hits while striking out 18. Buckner has won each of his last five starts and Figueroa was the final IL Pitcher of the Week of the regular season.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright, whom the Red Sox acquired from Cleveland at the Trade Deadline, did not pitch in the first round, but compiled a 10-7 record and 2.54 ERA during the regular season.
Long time coming: Both teams have captured the Governors' Cup twice, but it has been a while. Charlotte won in 1993 and 1999 while the Red Sox were champions in 1973 and 1984. Current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was at the helm as the Knights took the title in 1993, their first season in the IL.
New digs: The Governors' Cup will be presented at Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C. following either Game 3, 4 or 5. On Friday, Sept. 14 -- the day of Game 4, if necessary -- an official groundbreaking will open construction of BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte. The Knights' new stadium is scheduled to open in 2014.
Junior Circuit dominance: Six of the IL's 14 teams are affiliated to National League clubs, but they have tasted little success in the last decade. Since 2002, the 2007 Richmond Braves are the only NL-affiliated club to claim the crown. This year's Finals between affiliates of the White Sox and Red Sox extends the National League's drought.