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Playoff Preview: First-Round In-State Showdown

Playoff Preview: First-Round In-State Showdown
Naturals, Travs meet in postseason for first time since 2008

SPRINGDALE, AR – After more than five months and a rain-shortened 137-game schedule, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Arkansas Travelers prepare to open the Texas League Division Series on Wednesday night at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. The teams will meet in the postseason for the second time – and first in three years – after a hotly-contested season series between the two teams.

Dickey Stephens Park

For the first time in their four-year existence, the Naturals lost the season series to their in-state foe, as the Travelers emerged with a 15-14 record in the clubs’ matchups. But after winning just five of 13 first-half meetings, the Naturals went 9-7 against the Travelers in the second half, including a mid-July sweep in North Little Rock and a 3-1 mark in the crucial final home series at Arvest Ballpark. Having won five of their last six games to clinch their fourth consecutive second-half division title, the Naturals enter the postseason in much the same way that they did in 2008.

In that year, Naturals ripped off an eight-game winning streak in late August to hold off the Springfield Cardinals. That season, the Travelers had won the first-half title courtesy of a tiebreaker before falling off to the tune of a 26-44 record in the second half. This season, the Travelers edged the Naturals by a game in the first half and again finished the second half under .500. The Naturals hope that the parallels between the two seasons stop there, as in 2008, the Travelers blew Northwest Arkansas out of the playoffs with a clean sweep.

As is expected in minor league baseball, the two teams have nearly entirely different compositions from when they met three years ago. But one player who spans the two seasons happens to be one of the Naturals’ hottest bats. Mario Lisson ended the regular season on an eight-game hitting streak that included five doubles and a pair of home runs. That impressive finish allowed him to share the final Texas League Player of the Week award with teammate Tim Smith, who has provided pop since returning from the disabled list. Hitting the shelf with a back injury right around the All-Star Break, Smith is 15-37 (.405) with three doubles and a pair of homers since returning from the disabled list. Smith and Lisson have helped to anchor a lineup that is without a true weak spot, from Derrick Robinson’s league-leading 55 steals to Jamie Romak’s 23 home runs and Wil Myers’ solid finish (.267, eight doubles, five home runs after Aug. 1).

Meanwhile, the Travelers in the post-season will lack their offensive ignitor, Mike Trout, who was promoted to Anaheim. One of the consensus top prospects in baseball, Trout earlier today was named by Baseball America as the 2011 Minor League Player of the Year. They’ve also lost one of the top starters in the league in right-hander Garrett Richards, who is also now with the big club as well as their regular closer for the first three months of the season, Ryan Brasier, who left for Triple-A. Without those cornerstone players, the Travelers struggled offensively and sometimes even on the pitching side in the season’s second half.

The Naturals aren’t unscathed, either as they’ll be without their Pitcher of the Year. After leading the league with 161 1/3 innings pitched, Will Smith has reached his organization-prescribed limit. Still, each of the Naturals’ top three starters enter the postseason with individual momentum. Chris Dwyer pitched into the seventh inning against the Travelers on Sep. 1, allowing just a run on three hits. One day later, Jake Odorizzi held Arkansas hitless until the seventh, yielding a lone base hit in seven scoreless frames. Finally, Mario Santiago battled through six innings of one-run ball – with eight strikeouts – in the Naturals’ division-clinching game at Tulsa on Sep. 3. Supporting these starters is a bullpen led by Blaine Hardy, who has been nothing but dominant since returning to Double-A. In 19 appearances with the Naturals this season, Hardy has a 1.59 ERA and is holding opponents to a .194 batting average. In addition, the southpaw has worked multiple innings in 12 of those 19 games.

The rest of the Naturals’ pitching staff is somewhat in flux, as the club will call on a pair of left-handers who spent the entirety of the season with Advanced-A Wilmington. Justin Marks and Ryan Dennick joined the team in advance of Wednesday’s roster deadline and will provide a pair of fresh arms, replacing Elisaul Pimentel and Kevin Chapman, each of whom left their last outing due to injury. Marks spent most of the year in Wilmington’s rotation, and the 23-year-old is a candidate to start either Game 4 or Game 5. Dennick struck out 51 batters in 53 2/3 innings out of the Blue Rock bullpen.

To this point, the Naturals only announced a starting pitcher for the first three games of the series. Dwyer (8-10, 5.60) takes the mound in Wednesday’s series opener against Texas League Pitcher of the Year Matt Shoemaker (12-5, 2.48). Thursday’s second game features Odorizzi (5-3, 4.72) against Chris Scholl (4-3, 2.32).

The series moves to Arvest Ballpark on Friday, as Santiago (5-1, 2.23) will match up against Traveler right-hander Orangel Arenas (9-10, 4.48). Friday’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. Should they become necessary, Game 4 is slated for 1:00 p.m. Saturday with a decisive fifth game on tap for Sunday at 6:00 p.m.

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and play at state-of-the-art Arvest Ballpark, located in Springdale. Visit our website, nwanaturals.com, for information on season tickets and ticket plans.

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