The Western Division Champion Cedar Rapids Kernels, affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, advanced to the MWL Championship Series in four games, driving out the Quad Cities River Bandits and the Peoria Chiefs in quick succession.
Kernels pitchers allowed only four walks and five earned runs (nine runs total) in 38 innings, an ERA of 1.18. The starts were magnificent: Felix Jorge struck out seven batters while giving up just two runs in 7 1/3 innings; Sam Gibbons allowed one run in eight innings; Randy Rosario was reached for four unearned runs in six innings; and Keaton "Man of" Steele struck out nine in eight innings of two-hit, one-run baseball.
That didn't leave too much work required of the bullpen, but Yorman Landa (4.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K) and Nick Anderson (3 appearances, 3 saves) took care of most everything else. Game, set, match.
As for the offense, Twins #5 prospect Nick Gordon batted .412 (7-17); Chris Paul hit .400 (6-15), and the Kernels blasted 12 extra-base hits and drew 10 walks. (They also struck out 34 times, which, hey, it happens.)
In general, this Kernels team is ready to play -- and win -- low-scoring battles.
In the first round, the Eastern Division Champion West Michigan Whitecaps, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, shut down the favored, pitching-heavy Fort Wayne TinCaps thanks to their own amazing pitching, 5-2 and 2-1. In the second round, they took on a far better offensive team in the Lansing Lugnuts -- and, after losing the opener 5-4, advanced thanks to a barrage of hitting, 8-3 and 14-5 (with 22 hits in the finale).
Even better, as far as West Michigan is concerned, is that star starting pitchers Spencer Turnbull and A.J. Ladwig were allowed to rest during the division finals, letting them line up in Games 1 and 2 against Cedar Rapids.
The offense appeared top-heavy during the regular season, but now stalwarts Ross Kivett, Mike Gerber, Will Kengor and Joey Pankake are receiving terrific production from 2015 draftees A.J. Simcox, Christin Stewart and Kade Scivicque, not to mention a suddenly resurgent Francisco Contreras. The only hole in the West Michigan lineup is likely switch-hitting second baseman David Gonzalez, but he's in the lineup for his stellar defense more than anything else.
The Whitecaps host the first two games of the series at pitcher-friendly Fifth Third Ballpark, sending Tigers' #5 prospect Turnbull and dart-throwing Ladwig against Jorge and Gibbons.
To my mind, West Michigan has to fare well in these two games, because afterward their pitching effectiveness decreases as they head out to Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Lugnuts had slim pitching depth; the Kernels bring the opposite. The Man of Steele waits for the Whitecaps in Game 3, followed likely by Rosario.
(Should a Game 5 be in the offing, I'd expect West Michigan veteran Ross Seaton to pitch far better than his short-lived Game 3 outing against the Lugnuts on Tuesday night... but I'd be more comfortable with Turnbull on the mound.)
My bias naturally favors the Eastern Division's Whitecaps.
Hey, the division's due. The last team from the East to capture a Midwest League pennant was the 2010 Lake County Captains.
It all starts tonight at Fifth Third Ballpark.