Now that the Peninsula Oilers have made it to the big show, it’s time for them to shine.
The Oilers slipped into the Alaska Baseball League postseason as the fourth and final team, thanks to a favorable score Tuesday night between the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks and Mat-Su Miners, and will open their playoffs tonight with a Game 1 matchup at 7 p.m. against the top-seeded Anchorage Bucs at Mulcahy Stadium.
The winner of the best-of-three semifinal series will advance to the Top of the World Series against the winner of the other semifinal series, either the Miners or the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
Although the Oilers ended their regular season Sunday with a doubleheader split with the Bucs, the team clinched its playoff spot Tuesday night with help from the Chinooks, which had to win their last two regular-season games to have a shot at making the postseason. The Chinooks fell short Tuesday with a 4-1 loss to the Miners, eliminating them and pushing the Oilers in.
The Oilers and Bucs will play the entire playoff series in Anchorage, starting Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. If it goes to Game 3 then the winner-take-all game will be Saturday at 2 p.m.
Oilers head coach Kyle Brown said after bringing the squad together for a team meeting, the players are relaxed and ready to shine with everything on the line.
“The urgency starts from pitch one,” Brown said. “Personally, we don’t feel (the pressure) of the playoffs.”
Brown said the key to surviving and advancing in a short series is staying clean and mistake-free.
“Teams that make the least amount of mistakes are the ones that win a ballgame,” he said. “If we can limit mistakes, offensively or defensively, then we have a good chance of winning.”
The Oilers went 3-8 against the Bucs this year with a combined score of 71-53, but Brown sees the deeper issues that plagued the clubhouse through the month of July, especially a span of 10 days that saw eight Oilers players miss time with injuries.
With a full roster which Brown said is packed with more pitching arms than the Bucs, the Oilers may stack up more evenly than the stats appear to show.
“In the playoffs, you’re 0-0 and it’s a fresh start,” Brown said. “We don’t care about the past, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. It starts again tomorrow at 7.
“I still think we’re a very good team and our record isn’t reflective of that.”
The Bucs are likely to give Peninsula a tough test at the plate. The Bucs lead the league in hitting with a team average .257, while the Oilers rank third at .242. Anchorage features three guys in the top six in hitting with Chad Castillo, Cole Tate and Kaden Hopson. Castillo leads that group at .335
Then there’s Blake Paugh, the league home run leader with eight this year. Anchorage’s second-best slugger Ryan Sullivan has six, and is also tied for the league lead in RBIs with 31.
However, the Oilers have a penchant for getting on base as well, with three hitters ranked in the top seven in Bobby Goodloe, Travis Bohall and Camden Vasquez. Goodloe has hit .339, second in the league.
While the offense can move, the occasional issue for the Oilers in several games this summer has been bringing in runs in scoring position, but Brown is not about to be fooled by nit-picking analytics.
“For me, clutch is not a real stat,” he said. “You either hit or you don’t. Two-out singles don’t do me any good.”
The clear advantage the Oilers hold over the Bucs is pitching. The Oilers rank third in the league with a team ERA of 4.30, while the Bucs rank fourth with a 4.40 team ERA.
Connor McCord leads the team with a 2.54 ERA, fifth-best in the ABL, and has struck out 45 this year, third-best in the league.
However, Brown tabbed Jake Adams as the Game 1 starter, opting to withhold McCord for a possible Game 2 or 3 start. Adams, a Kansas University freshman right-hander, owns a 5.06 ERA this summer but has been better at Mulcahy against the Bucs. Adams tossed 2 2-3 scoreless innings against the Bucs on June 7, then gave up two runs in six innings on July 15, allowing three hits and whiffing five on that day.
“In any close series, good pitching beats good hitting,” Brown stressed. “We’ve got to be making sure our pitchers energy is there, the effectiveness of pitches are still there and the game play is there.
“If you look at what the Bucs do, they hit for power. They get extra-base hits, their slugging is high, so we’ve got to force them to weaker contact.”
Brown said that’s where a pitcher like Adams comes in handy. Brown said Adams looked crisp in a bullpen session Tuesday, and if Adams can walk off the mound with a lead, that will be huge, particularly with Anchorage’s big closer potentially looming in their bullpen.
Colton Rendon, a Winthrop University right-hander, has spun a sparkling 0.76 ERA this year in 23 2-3 innings of relief, giving up just two runs and earning a league-high nine saves on a 24-4 strikeout to walk ratio.
Brown said it is crucial to grab the lead before the Bucs decide to give Rendon the ball.
“If we’re up one run, we anticipate them bringing in Rendon to give their offense a chance,” he said.
The Oilers were swept in two games by the Bucs in last year’s Top of the World Series semifinals, and the last playoff game the Oilers won was the 2016 semifinals, where the team took a one-game weather-affected series over the Pilots. Brown said this week provides a perfect opportunity to snap that three-year drought.
“I hope they apply everything they’ve learned this summer with their mechanics and approach,” he said. “It’s time to shine.”