(Game date: Sep. 15, 2018) — The St. Petersburg Admirals and Denver Danger will face off for the AEL Championships after an exciting roller-coaster Elimination Round that saw an upset exit for the Nevada Speeders, and hard-fought Admirals battle over the Seattle Salts.
The Speeders had sailed into the playoffs after an absence of six seasons looking like the favorite to move on to a Bull Cup, but found themselves quickly in a quagmire with solid Denver pitching from Rich Ojeda, and Game #4 star Willie Morales. The Danger bats tallied up hits and kept the first two games close, earning a series split as they won Game #1, 4-3, then dropped Game #2, 2-0.
But the Danger offense broke open in Game #3 as the series moved home to the home run friendly Highlander Dome. Peyton May and Nobuhiro Sagawa crushed two homeruns, for Sags it was a pinch hit appearance in the 8th that added salt in the wound, to make it 11-4 for Denver. Danny Bucio had two bombs, in the 1st and 2nd innings, getting the lead started early. The first a leadoff solo shot to set the tone against Speeders’ right-hander Troy Catley, the second a 1-out solo to left the started a 4-run rally.
Nevada failed to get on the scoreboard until the 5th inning, and by then the life had been drained right out of them. Jim Lahey and Chitoji Yamada were silenced completely, both players rendered hitless over a combined 8 at bats, and leaving a total of 7 players stranded.
With the Denver on the high ground, figuratively and literally, Game #4 in the Highlander Dome was the final blow, as the Danger broke a 3-3 tie in the 5th inning when shortstop Adam Barton hit a 2-RBI double off Swiss-American righty Jim Koch, who in hindsight could have been the worst choice for such a critical game.
Danger left fielder Glen Reese was awarded the series MVP after batting .400, including a home run, a double, 2 RBIs and 3 walks. Still, Nevada had produced an impressive season overall, and fought until the end. The Speeders look assured of a playoff return in 2019, whereas the Danger face an uncertain future with the bulk of the current roster facing free agency or expensive arbitration awards, and a budget for extensions that is deeply in the red.
Over in the other AEL series, the Seattle Salts made an effort to take down the dominant St. Petersburg Admirals, but it was to no avail. Even a combined 10 home runs and 19 run scored in total were not enough to assure victory, as Admirals pitching — sans two of their biggest stars, Jose Soto and Chris Zerkle — managed to weather the rough seas produced by the Salts batting.
The Admirals stuck to a time-tested strategy of getting hits, pushing players around the bases, and driving them home. Second baseman Section Attack, who won series MVP honors, hit an impressive 9-for-16 pace (.563), leading the series in hits, and scoring twice. Noted 5-tools outfielder Katai Kitigawa was solid, contributing 7 hits of his own. The Admirals did also have well-timed home runs, including three (in just four hits total) from Takeo Otomo, who had set a new Bull League single-season HR record this year.
Admirals back of the rotation arms Dusty Hertz and Jerry Long teamed up for 21.0 innings, striking out 25 batters and only allowing 5 walks in total. Those innings eaten up were important in getting to the key bullpen arms, like Cyril Lefevre and closer Ryu Saito, who combined for a 2-1 record in relief, and 11 K’s in just 7.2 innings.
In the end the Salts season of injuries was just too much to get through the playoffs. The inexperienced pitching could not contend with the Admirals patience at the plate. In 4 games, the Salts only struck out 27 Admirals batters, while Admirals arms whiffed 39 Salts hitters. St. Pete’s allowed 14 walks and 32 hits to the Salts, while Seattle issued 16 free passes and 38 hits.
ADMIRALS IN COMMAND OF AELCS
Despite the Denver Danger taking out the AEL’s top team in the first round, they do not appear prepared to face the full broadside of the Admirals in the upcoming AELCS.
The Admirals were the AEL’s premier hit factory, scoring 580 runs, hitting 176 home runs, and batting at a .291 clip. Their starters were among the best, and even with Zerkle and Soto out, they can expect Harry Ferguson and his 11 wins back by game 3 of the series. Ryu Saito is as shutdown as a shutdown closer can get, and he is well into the conversation for AEL Woodchuck Trophy as the top reliever.
At every position in the field and every slot in the batting order, the Admirals appear to be a Bull Cup contending team. Brandon Popper, club GM, has crafted a winning lineup this season and it is tough to see them faltering.
The Denver Danger may have surprised the Nevada Speeders, and fought St. Pete’s to a 7-7 record during the regular season, but they suffer from weaker pitching aside from Rich Ojeda. Most of their top arms are on the DL, and St. Pete’s has more hitting depth than Nevada had. If the Danger’s big bats, like Peyton May and Glen Reese, are neutralized they will find it difficult to outscore the incredible Admirals offense.
AELCS PREDICTION: ST. PETE’S ADMIRALS IN 4 (3-1)