The Lancaster JetHawks have been the best team in the California League for the whole season. Starting tonight in Lancaster, they get to try to bring home a trophy to show for it.
The JetHawks, who won the South Division playoffs against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, will host the first two games of a best-of-five series against the North Division champion Modesto Nuts. Yes, the very same Modesto Nuts who were the Rockies California League affiliate from 2005 to 2016 and who are now the affiliate of (and partially owned by) the Seattle Mariners.
How they got here
After starting the season 11-13, Lancaster went 27-19 the rest of the way to win the South Division first half. Despite losing top prospect Brendan Rodgers (no. 1 PuRP) for the second half, the JetHawks were the best team in the league, going 41-29 to win the second half division crown, edging the Quakes by one game. Overall, their 79-61 record was the best overall in the league by three games. After splitting their two home games against Rancho Cucamonga in the South Division Series, the JetHawks won the final two games by a combined score of 20-8 to earn a spot in the championship series.
Modesto won first half title in the North Division with a league best record of 39-31. They were decidedly less stellar in the second half, going just 35-35, but they still tied the Stockton Ports for the second half crown. The two teams faced off in the North Division Series and the Nuts won the first two games at home and then game three in Stockton to earn the series sweep. For those efforts, rookie manager Mitch Canham won the California League manager of the year.
The JetHawks have been bashing their way through the California League all season. The led the league in runs per game (6.12), doubles (296), triples (61), stolen bases (313), average (.308), and OPS (.823). In fact, they scored 135 more runs than the next best team, and they stole more than twice as many bases as the next best team. Obviously these numbers are helped by their extreme home park, but the gap between them and the next best teams suggests that there is more than park factor shenanigans happening.
Rodgers hit .400/.419/.700 before being promoted to Double-A Hartford, where he hit .263/.323/.413 in 150 at bats. He’s back with Lancaster now, and he went 5-for-17 with a home run and four RBI in the series against Rancho Cucamonga.
He’s not the only offensive juggernaut on the squad, though. The JetHawks had a league-high three batters named to the Postseason All-Star team: second baseman Garrett Hampson (no. 13 PuRP) (.326/.387/.462 with eight home runs and 51 stolen bases in 533 at bats), and outfielders Yonathan Daza (who won the batting title with a .341 average) and Wes Rodgers (who stole a league-high 70 bases in 123 games, more than two whole teams in the league) anchor the lineup. Don’t forget about Sam Hilliard (no. 26 PuRP), who hit 21 home runs, fourth highest total in the league.
Modesto, meanwhile, has about a league average offense. They’ve scored 4.82 runs per game in 2017 and boast a .262 batting average and a .731 OPS, both middle of the pack. Their .391 slugging percentage is second-worst in the league.
Eric Filla was named to the postseason All-Star team on the strength of his .326/.407./434 batting line, but otherwise there aren’t a lot of standouts. Joey Curletta leads the team with 15 home runs and has a .256/.343/.441 batting line.
On the face of it, the Nuts have the clear advantage on the pitching side. Modesto finished with a 4.14 ERA as a team, fourth best in the league, and a 1.31 WHIP, tied for best in the league. Meanwhile, Lancaster was last in both categories (5.18 ERA, 1.50 WHIP) and Modesto allowed fewer runs per game by a significant margin: 4.66 to 5.64.
Modesto also has some solid talent on their side as well. Right-handed pitcher Nick Neidert was recently named the Cal League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.76 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP (both league highs) over 1041⁄3 innings pitched before being promoted to Double-A. Unlike Rodgers for the JetHawks, Neidert did not return for the California League playoffs. They do have Spencer Herrmann, who struck out 103 batters in 1041⁄3 innings and has a 3.53 ERA. Reggie McClain has been the workhorse, throwing 1531⁄3 innings this season while posting a 4.75 ERA and striking out 7.4 batters per nine innings. Finally, right-hander Matthew Festa has been lights out in the bullpen, striking out 99 over 692⁄3 innings.
Despite the raw numbers, Lancaster does have some talent on their staff. Peter Lambert (no. 5 PuRP) has a good-for-the-environment 4.17 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 1421⁄3 innings. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the staff is Ty Culbreth, 2016 draftee from Texas, who posted a 3.13 ERA in 69 innings. His 51:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio is good-not-great, but he’s done enough to be successful. Jesus Tinoco, who flirted with perfection at one point this season, has had an up-and-down 4.67 ERA in 24 starts. Alexander Guillen has been recording the saves as of late for the JetHawks; his 6.26 ERA is a little alarming (almost as much as his 1.81 WHIP), but he also has 72 strikeouts in 542⁄3 innings.
Home field advantage in the California League Championship series alternates from year to year between the North and South Division champion. Despite having the best overall record in the league, the JetHawks will cede home field advantage to the Nuts for the series.
Tuesday, September 12: Modesto at Lancaster, 7:35 pm MT
Wednesday, September 13: Modesto at Lancaster, 7:35 pm MT
Friday, September 15: Lancaster at Modesto, 8:05 pm MT
Game 4 (if necessary)
Saturday, September 16: Lancaster at Modesto, 8:05 pm MT
Game 5 (if necessary)
Sunday, September 17: Lancaster at Modesto, 7:05 pm MT