A year later, the RailRiders are back in a familiar position.
The Yankees’ top affiliate claimed the International League’s North Division again this summer before advancing Sunday to the Governors’ Cup Finals, where they’ll meet the Durham Bulls. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is not only the defending IL champs — it’s also the reigning Triple-A champion.
“Hopefully we can repeat,” said RailRiders manager Al Pedrique. “Our main goal right now is to be able to compete and win the Governors’ Cup; that would be the first step, and then the final game for the National Championship again.”
The ‘Riders are indeed in a unique spot — if they can fend off the Bulls, they’ll have a serious home field advantage in this year’s Triple-A National Championship as their stadium is slated to host the annual one-game event on Sept. 19.
“We won last year in Memphis, [and]now the game will be played here in our home, so definitely, that’s our goal, to win the Governors’ Cup and be able to go to the final game here at home,” said Pedrique. “I’m sure the fans will enjoy it more, and as a team, we’ll get the fan support.”
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (85-55, North Division champion) vs.
Durham Bulls (86-56, South Division champion)
Durham won the season series, 4-3
Game 1 at Durham, Sep. 12 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Durham, Sep. 13, 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 14, 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 15, TBD
Game 5 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (if necessary), Sept. 16, TBD
The RailRiders led the IL in most offensive categories during the regular season, including team batting average (.272), runs scored (664), hits (1,290), home runs (153), RBIs (629) and OBP (.334). Durham’s pitchers led the circuit in strikeouts (1,421), WHIP (1.19) and innings pitched (1,270). The only staff that allowed fewer hits this season than the Durham’s? Yep — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, with 1,079 compared to 1,099.
Statistically, the teams enter the best-of-5 series fairly even and with almost identical records, although the names and players have changed throughout the year. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s lineup still includes some key bats, including leadoff man Mason Williams, second baseman Donovan Solano, No. 25 prospect Billy McKinney and SWB’s cleanup man, third baseman Miguel Andujar.
Andujar, the Bombers’ No. 6 prospect who batted .314 with 16 homers and 82 RBIs across two levels this season, hit .294 in the semifinal series against Lehigh Valley, while Williams batted .313. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre also has sluggers in first baseman Mike Ford and center fielder Jake Cave, both of whom hit 20 homers this year. Cave, the Yankees’ No. 19 prospect, batted .305 with 56 RBIs, while Ford, 25, finished the regular season at .270 with 86 RBIs and hit the decisive home run in a 1-0 Game 5 win over Lehigh Valley in the IL semis.
“Overall we had a great year, lots of players moved on and lots of players came in and contributed and felt part of the team,” Pedrique said. “It was a great team effort with everything we had to go through to keep winning, keep working as a team and picking each other up. That was fun to watch.”
The RailRiders got a clutch start from Nestor Cortes in their clinching win over the IronPigs on Sunday as the 22-year-old left-hander struck out eight over seven scoreless frames. He may be counted on in a big spot once again against Durham — he’s the scheduled Game 5 starter — along with Ronald Herrera (Game 1), Domingo German (Game 2), Chance Adams (Game 3) and Brady Lail (Game 4). Adams, 23, is a big name to watch — the 2015 fifth-round pick is New York’s No. 3 prospect and top-ranked arm after going 15-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings this season between SWB and Double-A Trenton. He earned the win in Game 2 against Lehigh Valley, allowing two runs over five innings.
“I feel lucky and proud of the players, coaching staff,” Pedrique said. “Everybody on the team did a great job. We are very excited about going to the Finals for the second [straight]year. It says a lot about the organization and the talent that we have in the system.”
Pedrique said the local fans appreciate what’s happened in recent years. The consecutive trips to the Finals come five years after Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was forced to play the entire 2012 season on the road while its ballpark was renovated. The fans remained loyal and now have a winner in town.
“It means a lot because it will be great for the local fans — they’ve been great last year and this year supporting us,” Pedrique said. “Hopefully everything will work out where we can go all the way to the Finals and hopefully do it at home. I’m sure it would mean a lot to the city, ownership and front-office people as well as the whole team to repeat while we’re home.”
Pedrique said pitching will be biggest factor against the Bulls’ lineup this week.
“I think the key is going to be our pitching and defense,” he said. “Offensively we still have a good lineup from top to bottom, we have the desire to go out and compete and do the best we can to win the championship. Our offense and the pitching department throughout the year were very consistent, hitting coach P.J. Pilittere and pitching coach Tommy Phelps did a great job, and that’s why I keep saying it was a great team effort — from the coaches to the players. Our job is to make sure we stay focused and execute the little things and give ourselves the chance to win games.”
As for Durham, the Bulls return to the Governors’ Cup Finals for the first time since they lost in five games to Pawtucket in 2014. The Rays’ top affiliate cruised through Indianapolis, winning its seminal series 3-1 on Saturday behind Rays top prospect Brent Honeywell and a clutch hit from Justin O’Conner.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “We had a great season and want to bring back a winning tradition to Durham. Grinding this one out through some adversity there, we’re going into the Finals on a pretty high note.”
The Bulls’ lineup includes a solid combo of shortstop Willy Adames, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, and first baseman Jake Bauers, who bats behind Adames and is Tampa Bay’s No. 5 prospect. Adames, 22, hit .277 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs this year, his first at Triple-A, while Bauers clubbed 13 homers and drove in 63 runs while batting .263.
Third baseman/outfielder Patrick Leonard hit .268 with a dozen homers and 70 RBIs this season, while infielder Daniel Robertson saw time in 66 Major League games this season.
Honeywell, a 22-year-old right-hander who is slated to start Game 3, went 13-9 with a 3.49 ERA in 26 games this year, mostly with Durham. The 2014 compensation-round pick struck out 172 and walked 35 in 136 2/3 innings. He held RailRiders batters to a .195 average this year, allowing four runs in two starts on Aug 13 and 19.
Ryan Yarbrough, who went six strong innings to win Game 1 of the semis, gets the ball in tonight’s opener. No. 19 Rays prospect Yonny Chirinos, who pitched seven scoreless frames to beat Indianapolis in the first round, is scheduled to start Game 2.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.