SAL Championship Preview: Game 1 Asheville at Hickory

(My apologies for grammatical or spelling errors, I was in a hurry– Mark)

Game 1: Asheville Tourists (72-67, Southern Division Champions) at Hickory Crawdads (81-57, Northern Division Champions)

Site/ Time: L.P. Frans Stadium, Hickory, N.C.

Affiliations: Asheville (Colorado Rockies)/ Hickory (Texas Rangers)

How Asheville Got Here: With the Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats winning both half-season titles, the Tourists needed to claim the second overall best record in the Southern Division. They did so on the final day of the season last Monday when the Greenville (S.C.) Drive fell to Savannah. The Tourists defeated the Sand Gnats at home in game one, then after dropping game two at Savannah they rebounded to capture the series with a 2-1 win on Luis Jean’s two-run homer in the eighth.

Asheville playoff history: The Tourists are the defending South Atlantic League (SAL) and are looking for their third title four seasons. Since rejoining the SAL in 1980, Asheville has three league championships altogether (1984, 2012, 2014). The Tourists have made eight trips to the SAL playoffs and have lost in the champion series twice (1986, 1987).

How Hickory Got Here: The Crawdads won the first-half Northern Division title to clinch a playoff spot. In the Northern Division series, Hickory dropped game one on the road to West Virginia, then returned home take two straight from the Power to claim the series.

Hickory playoff history: The Crawdads are making their third appearance in the SAL Championship Series, having claimed titles in 2002 and 2004. This is the 10th playoff run in the team’s 23rd season.

Season series: Hickory went 7-2 this season vs. the Tourists, with a 1-1 mark at L.P. Frans in early April.

Probables: ASH: Helmis Rodriguez (LH, 9-8, 3.36) vs. HKY: Pedro Payano (RH, 3-1, 1.10)

Lineup: ASH: Wes Rogers-8, Forrest Wall-4, Shane Hoelscher-D, Dom Nunez-2, Roberto Ramos-3, Max White-7, Josh Fuentes-5, Yonathan Daza-7, Luis Jean-6.

HKY: Jose Cardona-8, Dylan Moore-4, Jose Trevino-2, Luke Tendler-D, Edwin Garcia-6, Jairo Beras-9, Eduard Pinto-7, Juremi Profar-5, Carlos Arroyo-3.

Rodriguez vs. Hickory: Rodriguez faced the Crawdads just one time in a home start on July 23. In that game, the Crawdads took advantage of Rodriguez’s wildness as they received five walks to go with three hits and a hit batsman in 1.2 innings. Hickory scored six runs against Rodriguez and went onto an 8-6 win. Jose Trevino tagged him for a two-run single in the first inning of that game and Jairo Beras followed with a singled. Eduard Pinto ripped a three-run double in the second to chase Rodriguez.

The No. 27 prospect (mlb.com) in the Rockies has walked as many as five in four of his 27 starts this season, including seven twice. However, he walked just two overall in his last two starts covering 14 innings, though he did hit three batters. Rodriguez has issued 63 walks this season in 147.1 innings, third in the SAL. He relies on getting groundball outs (1.61 GO/AO) and has done a remarkable job keeping the ball in the yard given the hitters-paradise of his home ballpark at McCormick Field. All nine home runs allowed by Rodriguez have occurred at home.

Rodriguez, 21, has posted a 2.42 ERA on the road (4.52 at home), but has given up 32 walks and hit 11 batters in 81.2 innings. He has gotten stronger over the last month of the season, posting a 1.98 ERA since August 4, which included a no-hit bid that lasted into the eighth inning at Rome on August 20. Rodriguez has the ability to go deep into games as he has pitched seven or more innings seven times, six or more 15 times.  He is a pitcher that opponents have to get early as his ERA in the first is 5.67 with19 walks in 27 innings. After the third, his ERA drops under 2.00 with 22 walks in 69 innings.

The native of Coloncito, Venezuela offers a high-80s fastball, but his change is his best pitch according to several scouting reports. Rodriguez also throws a curve and has added a slider.

Payano vs. Asheville: The native of San Francisco de Macoris, D.R. has made only six starts since joining the Crawdads on August 4, none of those against Asheville. His last start came against Rome at home on September 6 when he allowed one run on five hits and struck out a season high of nine. In 32.2 innings, Payano, 20, has struck out 31 and walked ten.

In his two home starts, Payano has allowed two runs on 11 hits and struck out 15.

He’s had some minor trouble facing hitters the second time through the order as his ERA is 3.60 in the third inning.

Payano features a mid-90s fastball that has some run into right-handed hitters. He also throws a change and a sweeping curve that he uses for strikeouts.

Tourists hitters vs. Hickory: Despite playing seven of the nine games at hitter-friendly McCormick Field this season, the Tourists batted only .244 against the Crawdads this season with five homers among 24 extra-base hits.

Yonathan Daza led the team at .346 (9-for-26) vs. Hickory. SAL All-star Omar Carrizales hit .333 (4-for-12) and his all-star teammate Shane Hoelscher was 3-for-10. SAL No. 4 second base prospect Forrest Wall was 5-for-15, which included a grand slam at L.P. Frans. Daza also had four RBI to lead the team.

Crawdads hitters vs. Asheville: Jose Trevino has five home runs and 12 RBI in eight games to go with a .313 (10-for-32) average in eight games this season. Eduard Pinto had 17 hits (.532) and eight RBI. Luke Tendler struggled against the Asheville staff with 11Ks in 37 plate appearances.

What to watch for: With 246 steals the Tourists run and run often and do so throughout the lineup with six players totally double-digit steal totals. The ability of Payano to keep runners off the base as much as possible, and then to maintain composure as an untried pitcher in a big-game atmosphere could be a key. Four of the five baserunners attempting to steal against Payano have done so successfully. Catcher Jose Trevino has thrown out 33.7% of the runners trying to steal.

Conversely, though Hickory has run very little – only Jose Cardona has 10+ steals (30) – they may take shots against catcher Dom Nunez, who has caught a league worst 21.2% of runners trying to steal.

The opposites on the defensive sheet could not be more different as Hickory led the league in defense (121 errors) with Asheville committing the most (206).

The Crawdads will not likely have Scott Williams available after closing out back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday. Hickory will probably turn to Adam Dian to close out a late-game situation. Dillon Tate and Luis Ortiz will likely not pitch and so with Payano probably going 5-6 innings, middle relievers Joe Filomeno and Shane McCain will probably get looks to bridge the game to Dian.

The Crawdads have done well in tight games, posting a SAL-best 27-16 mark in one-run games. Asheville was last at 14-22. They’ve also done poorly in the middle innings of tight games. When tied after the fifth, the Tourists are 10-14 (Hickory 14-7). Tied after the sixth, they are 9-12 (Hickory 6-7) and after the seventh they are 7-9 (Hickory 8-0).

The Tourists look to SAL all-star close Josh Michalec, who led the league with 30 saves.

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