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Orioles minor league postseason preview

Two Orioles affiliates are in the playoffs for their respective leagues. Let’s take a look at what to expect.

Grayson Rodriguez waves to the Camden Yards crowd
Grayson Rodriguez leads the 90-win Delmarva Shorebirds into the South Atlantic League semifinals.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The minor league regular season may be over, but two O’s affiliates still have games to play. Both the Double-A Bowie Baysox and Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds are headed to the postseason, with each starting their first series tonight.

Come with me, won’t you, and let’s take a sneak peek at the minor league playoffs.

Eastern League Division Series: Bowie Baysox vs. Harrisburg Senators (Nationals) — best of five

Game 1: Wednesday, 7:05 PM at Bowie
Game 2: Thursday, 7:05 PM at Bowie
Game 3: Friday, 7:00 PM at Harrisburg
Game 4 (if necessary): Saturday, 3:00 PM at Harrisburg
Game 5 (if necessary): Sunday, 1:30 PM at Harrisburg

The Baysox were one of the best comeback stories in the minors this year. They got off to a miserable start to the 2019 season, carrying an 8-24 record after the first week of May, before everything clicked. From that point on, they went 68-40, including 46-26 after the All-Star break to win the second-half championship. (Bowie actually tied with the Erie SeaWolves, but had a better head-to-head record, giving them the tiebreaker.)

The key to Bowie’s success was the pitching staff, which posted a 3.17 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, both tops in the Eastern League. Their rotation at one point consisted of five pitchers who finished with an ERA under 3.00: Michael Baumann (2.31), Zac Lowther (2.55), Bruce Zimmermann (2.58), Alex Wells (2.95), and Dean Kremer (2.98). Zimmermann and Kremer were eventually promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, but the other three are set to lead the Baysox starting staff in this series. The bullpen is headlined by closer Cristian Alvarado (2.66 ERA, 13 saves) and lefty Tyler Erwin (2.43, eight saves).

On the offensive end, the most high-profile name in the Bowie lineup is Orioles No. 5 prospect Yusniel Diaz, who hit .262 with an .807 OPS, 11 homers, and 53 RBIs. Former big league catcher Carlos Perez led the team with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs.

Bowie will face the first-half division champions, the Senators, who were sensational in the first half with a 42-28 record but a mediocre 34-35 in the second half. Harrisburg has only one player ranked among the Nationals’ top 15 prospects by MLB Pipeline (infielder Luis Garcia, ranked No. 2 for the Nats and No. 76 in baseball). What they do have is a suspicious number of players with major league experience, led by three-time All-Star closer Greg Holland, who signed a minor league deal with the Nationals on Aug. 12.

In addition to Holland, ex-big leaguers on Harrisburg’s season-ending roster included catcher Spencer Kieboom, outfielder Rafael Bautista, and right-handed pitchers Kevin McGowan, and Kyle McGowin (plus Aaron Barrett, but he has since been called up to the big club). Does it seem weird for a Double-A team to have so many former major leaguers? (Bowie has only three: Perez, Cedric Mullins, and Jesmuel Valentin.) I’m not saying the Nats are just stashing them there to help them win the Eastern League title, but I’m not not saying that.

The winner of this series will represent the Western division in the best-of-five Eastern League finals, which begin Sept. 10. They’ll face the winner of the Eastern semifinals between Trenton and Reading.

South Atlantic League Semifinals: Delmarva Shorebirds vs. Hickory Crawdads (Rangers) — best of three

Game 1: Wednesday, 7:00 PM at Hickory
Game 2: Friday, 7:05 PM at Delmarva
Game 3 (if necessary): Saturday, 7:05 PM at Delmarva

The Shorebirds (90-48) utterly annihilated their competition, becoming the first 90-win team in the South Atlantic League in 13 years. They punched their postseason ticket by winning the first half of the season, but for good measure, they also tied for the best record in the second half.

Anything can happen in a short series, especially a three-gamer, but Delmarva has to be considered the favorite going in. Their roster includes the Orioles’ two best prospects — and their two most recent first-round picks — Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez. While Rutschman’s bat hasn’t yet heated up in his 12 games at Delmarva, he presents a threat in the middle of the order. Fellow 2019 draftees Johnny Rizer and Toby Welk have helped boost a lineup that also includes shortstop Adam Hall, a speedster (33 steals) and on-base machine (.395 OBP).

The pitching, though, is the story. Just like the Baysox, the Shorebirds led their league in ERA (2.97) and WHIP (1.17). They also led in strikeouts (1,353), with the staff averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. They’re anchored by Rodriguez, who went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine. He’s one of four Shorebirds starters with a strikeout rate of 11.5 or better, along with rejuvenated righty Gray Fenter (11.7) and breakout lefty Drew Rom (11.5).

Meanwhile, the Crawdads (83-52), are the home of several of the Rangers’ best prospects, including third baseman Josh Jung, the eighth overall pick out of Texas Tech in the 2019 draft. He’s rated as the Rangers’ No. 1 prospect and No. 56 in MLB. Jung reported to Hickory in mid-July and batted .287 with a .752 OPS in 40 games.

Also on the Hickory roster are the Rangers’ top two pitching prospects, righty Hans Crouse (Rangers’ No. 3 prospect, No. 79 overall) and Cole Winn (Rangers’ No. 4). Crouse, a 2017 second-rounder, went 6-1 with a 4.41 ERA in 19 starts, but finished the season on the injured list. Winn, the 15th overall pick in 2018, was 4-4 with a 4.46 ERA in 18 starts.

Other Hickory players worth watching this series are slugging outfielder Pedro Gonzalez, who led the club in home runs (23) and RBIs (67), and reliever Kelvin Gonzalez, who posted a 1.99 ERA and and 58 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. It’s also worth watching infielder Jax Biggers, just because of his name.

If Delmarva advances past the semifinals, they’ll face the winner of the Southern division semifinals between Augusta and Lexington. The winner of that best-of-five series, which starts Sept. 9, will be South Atlantic League champions.