There will be a sense of déjà vu to the Pacific Coast League playoffs this season. Omaha, Reno and Sacramento all repeated as champions of their respective divisions, with only Albuquerque crashing the party.
The Storm Chasers are the reigning PCL champions and square off against the Isotopes, who went down to the wire before clinching the American Southern Division with a 6-5 win over Omaha on Sunday night.
In the Pacific Conference Finals, Reno will look for some payback against Sacramento. The Aces won the first two games of last year's series before the RiverCats rallied to win the last three.
This year's best-of-5 semifinal series open in Omaha and Sacramento on Wednesday.
Omaha Storm Chasers (83-61, American Northern Division champions) vs.
Albuquerque Isotopes (80-64, American Southern Division champions)
Omaha won the season series, 9-6
Game 1 at Omaha, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Omaha, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Albuquerque, Sept. 7 at 9:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Albuquerque (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 9:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Albuquerque (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 3:35 p.m. ET
If nothing else, the Isotopes and Storm Chasers will be awfully familiar with one another by the time their series kicks off Wednesday -- the two clubs just wrapped a four-game series in Albuquerque to finish the regular season.
The Isotopes had to fight to the end to clinch, while the Chasers wrapped up their division title weeks ago.
"Obviously we're playing against one of the better teams in the league," Albuquerque manager Lorenzo Bundy said. "They've been at the top of the standings all year."
Both teams have taken advantage of playing at home. The Storm Chasers are 44-28 at home, while the Isotopes are 47-24 in Albuquerque.
"They play really well at home," Bundy said. "They have that reputation. We have that reputation of not being so good on the road.
"We have to go to their house and compete. It's a short series -- anything's possible," he added. "But we've got to stay in the game. It's going to come down to pitching, obviously."
The Isotopes will send veteran Fernando Nieve (7-9, 5.96 ERA) to the mound in Game 1 against Royals No. 4 prospect Jake Odorizzi (11-3, 2.93). Stephen Fife (11-7, 4.66) will start Game 2 against lefty Ryan Verdugo (12-4, 3.75), who was on the PCL Postseason All-Star team.
Both teams will still have some potent bats in their lineups despite September call-ups around the Majors. Albuquerque boasts slugging first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands (.296, 26 HR, 107 RBIs), third baseman Alex Castellanos (.332, 17 HR, 52 RBIs), corner infielder Josh Fields (.322, 13 HR, 71 RBIs) and outfielders Trent Oeltjen (.297, 13 HR, 61 RBIs) and Scott Van Slyke (.328, 18 HR, 67 RBIs).
Omaha will counter with Royals' No. 2 prospect Wil Myers (.302, 24 HR, 79 RBIs), first baseman Clint Robinson (.292, 13 HR, 66 RBIs) and infielder Anthony Seratelli (.303, 17 HR, 66 RBIs), with the versatile Irving Falu (.329, 7 HR, 50 RBIs, 21 stolen bases) setting the table. Myers has posted a monster season at two levels and overall is batting .314 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs.
Bundy said he hopes the Isotopes' late charge to the postseason gives them some momentum going into a difficult environment.
"I look forward to them giving a good effort, getting after it," Bundy said.
Reno Aces (81-63, Pacific Northern Division champions) vs.
Sacramento RiverCats (86-58, Pacific Southern Division champions)
Sacramento won the season series, 10-6
Game 1 at Sacramento, Sept. 5 at 10 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Sacramento, Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Reno, Sept. 7 at 10 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Reno (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 10 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Reno (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 3 p.m. ET
The RiverCats are back in the playoffs for the 10th time in their 12 seasons of existence, seeking their seventh PCL championship. The Aces also return to the playoffs for the second time in their fourth season. The D-backs affiliate is seeking its first championship.
"I don't know about standing in our way," Reno manager Brett Butler said, "but it's nice to be able to at least go at it again after last year winning the first two and then them storming back to win the next three."
Last year, the Aces prevailed 7-4 and 4-2 at home before losing three straight in Sacramento, 5-2, 8-2 and 13-2. This time around, the series will open in Sacramento and finish in Reno, though Butler was not about to declare that an advantage for his club.
"I don't really know if it is," he said. "The one thing I know about the RiverCats, they're like the Yankees in the Minor Leagues for us. The A's always have the ability to replenish them."
Sacramento has plenty of talent, including outfielders Grant Green (.295, 15 HR, 74 RBIs) and Michael Taylor (.288, 12 HR, 66 RBIs), but Reno counters with PCL MVP Adam Eaton (.381, 118 runs, 38 stolen bases), plus third baseman Josh Bell (.312, 12 HR, 75 RBIs) and first baseman Mike Jacobs (.280, 18 HR, 60 RBIs).
The difference between this year's Aces and last year's squad is on the mound.
"They're starting to run some of the young arms through Reno instead of jumping us [from Double-A] and taking them straight to the big leagues," Butler said. "This way, they've had to learn in the PCL to keep the ball down and make some adjustments."
Leading the way is D-backs No. 1 prospect Trevor Bauer (5-1, 2.85 ERA), who will get the ball in Thursday's opener. He will be followed by veteran Daniel Cabrera (1-1, 3.00) in Game 2, No. 13 prospect Charles Brewer (11-7, 5.99) in Game 3 and veterans Joe Martinez (10-11, 5.58) and Brett Tomko (0-0, 5.40) in Games 4 and 5.
The RiverCats will counter with right-handers Bruce Billings (7-6, 3.98) in Game 1, Jesse Chavez (8-5, 3.77) in Game 2 and A's No. 9 prospect Dan Straily (6-3, 2.02) in Game 3. The starters for Games 4 and 5 have not been named.
Max effort: No player may have had a better season against a postseason opponent than Omaha designated hitter/catcher Max Ramirez did against Albuquerque. Through Sunday, Ramirez hit .375 (18-for-18) with seven of his 17 home runs and 23 of his 77 RBIs against the Isotopes. Scott Van Slyke has had the most success of any Albuquerque player against the Storm Chasers, batting .457 (21-for-46) with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 11 games.
All-Stars in short supply: Only four of the 12 PCL Postseason All-Stars will participate in the playoffs this season. There would have been more if Albuquerque's John Ely, the PCL Pitcher of the Year, and catcher Tim Federowicz had not been called up by the Dodgers on Saturday. In addition, Reno third baseman Ryan Wheeler and second baseman Jake Elmore went up to Arizona earlier in the season. Among those who remain, Eaton, Myers, Verdugo and Isotopes closer Josh Wall will compete for the league title. Bundy, the Manager of the Year, will be at the helm for Albuquerque.
Missing in action: The four playoff teams will not have all of their key players available due to big league call-ups on Saturday when rosters expanded. Albuquerque lost Ely and Federowicz to the Dodgers, the Royals promoted Omaha right fielder David Lough (.275, 10 HR, 69 RBIs, 26 stolen bases), while Reno lost catcher Konrad Schmidt (.277, 7 HR, 47 RBIs) to the Diamondbacks. Oakland recalled Sacramento shortstop Brandon Hicks (.244, 18 HR, 61 RBIs) and outfielder Collin Cowgill (.254, 4 HR, 37 RBIs).