With less than a week left in the regular season, Peninsula Oilers head coach Kyle Brown made it clear who he wanted to see in the Alaska Baseball League playoffs.
“We want the (Mat-Su) Miners,” he stated following a win.
Brown didn’t get his wish, and there was a reason he preferred the top-seeded team in the league over the second seed.
On paper, the Anchorage Bucs look pretty daunting. The have the Alaska Baseball League ERA leader, the hitting leader and the hottest team in the league as the playoffs open.
But a closer look reveals that the Peninsula Oilers can match them.
“We expect some low-scoring games,” Brown said. “We’re going to need some opportunistic scoring. It’s about those little details.”
The Oilers and Bucs prepare to clash in the ABL playoffs, which begin with a best-of-three game series starting tonight at 7 p.m. at Mulcahy Stadium. All games are scheduled for 7 p.m. this week. The Miners and Chugiak Chinooks will face off in the other playoff semifinal, with the two series winners meeting for the Top of the World Series.
The Oilers and Bucs waged a war in the ABL standings down the stretch of the regular season, with the Bucs riding a seven-game win streak to the second seed. The hot finishing kick almost helped the Bucs take the top seed from the Miners, but a Sunday loss to Mat-Su clinched it for the Miners.
Brown said he is keeping his staff loose and relaxed as they prepare to chase down the Oilers’ first Top of the World Series appearance since 2011.
“We’re just enjoying the moment and getting the most out of the players,” he said. “For them, coming up to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Right now it’s about controlling the nerves because it’s still just a game, but everything is amplified.
“When we get strike one, we want to erupt as a dugout. When we get a hit, we erupt as a dugout. Everything needs to be ten-fold in energy.”
The Oilers began the summer taking four out of six games from the Bucs in a lengthy home series, helping them to an 11-4 start and an early lead atop the ABL, but the team faded and eventually finished 5-6 against the Bucs in the overall season series.
The Oilers were 1-4 against the Bucs at Mulcahy this summer, which is where the Oilers will need to play their best.
It’s no secret that the Bucs pitching has carried the team on a late season run to second place in the standings. In their two most recent meetings with the Bucs, the Oilers scored one run on six hits over 18 innings of play.
Anchorage finished on a 13-4 run, starting July 7, including a seven-game win streak, and seven of those 13 wins were shutout performances by the Anchorage pitching staff.
Taking a closer look, five of the seven pitchers that have multiple starts on the team sport an ERA below 3.00, led by Bucs lefty Adam Seminaris. The Long Beach State freshman leads the league in ERA with a stingy 0.38, with only two earned runs in 47 innings.
Luckily, one of those runs came courtesy of the Oilers, but that was back on June 7.
Brown believes the Bucs avoided a closer matchup by securing home field advantage. Mulcahy is artificial turf while the Oilers’ home park, Coral Seymour Memorial Park, is natural grass.
“The Bucs aren’t going to be scared of us,” he said. “I think if we’re down in Kenai, they’d be a lot more scared. I don’t think they play very well on natural turf, the astro turf they know is going to have true hops on the ball.”
Four of the top 11 pitchers in the league by ERA (with a minimum of 20 innings) are Bucs pitchers. Brown said the Bucs pitching is tough because they’re smart, working counts to their favor, and said his hitters will need to be on the lookout for fastballs once the count goes deep.
The Bucs also have hitting. Gonzaga senior Jake Vieth leads the ABL in batting with a .364 average and is second with six home runs and 33 RBIs. Four of Vieth’s six homers have come against the Oilers this summer, and he is batting .444 against them.
“He’s hit two opposite (field) and two pole side on us,” Brown said. “Our strategy is don’t let Vieth beat us.”
Brown said in order to avoid Vieth’s power, the Oilers staff will work hard to create the most ideal situational pitching they can.
“It’s not about beating the hitter, it’s about beating a lineup,” Brown explained. “We may intentionally walk him, we’re noticing tendencies as well … it may not seem like the proper thing to do, but at the same time, we’ve been burned by him.”
However, the Oilers have the power to match Vieth.
Oilers catcher and Cal State Bakersfield junior Ryan Koch led the team with a power surge this summer, topping the ABL with seven homers while batting a sporty .265, best on the team.
Koch highlighted his summer by winning the ABL Home Run Derby in mid-July. Brown said Koch is built into a stealthy lineup that supports each other.
“When Koch goes, we go,” Brown said. “He’s a crucial part of the lineup, but we don’t need him to go up and hit a home run, we just need him to hit a line drive.”
The team offense has also been supported by a stout Oilers pitching staff this summer, one that started hot and cooled a bit, but is picking up steam at the right time.
Cal State San Marcos junior righty Mike Lopez dominated the regular season for the Oilers, twirling a sparkling 0.81 ERA that ranks second in the league among qualified pitchers, only to the Bucs’ Seminaris.
Behind him, Rutgers lefty Tevin Murray is another deadly fire thrower who has been heating up lately. Murray has a 4.01 ERA but is third in the league in strikeouts with 46 in 33 2/3 innings. His last start saw him whiff seven and give up one run over six strong innings against the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
Brown said he expects Murray will start game one tonight, while Lopez will get the nod for game two on Thursday.
“(Lopez) is just a quiet leader that leads by example, he’s not vocal like most, but we don’t need that out of our ace,” Brown said. “Tevin usually 88 to 91 (mph) and his strikeouts are there. He has the ability to shut down a lineup.”
Brown said with a short two- or three-game series, the sense of urgency is there, but if there is any team that can handle it, it’s his Oilers.
“You can’t get too worked up about it, it’s not game seven of the World Series,” he said. “But we’re just learning the playoff atmosphere, and we’re learning to keep the heart rate down through different techniques.”