Pelicans, P-Nats clash in Carolina Finals
Division champions preparing to battle for the Mills Cup
The last time Ross Detwiler started against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the southpaw was at the lowest point in his career. His ERA stood at 5.87 after Myrtle Beach beat him with four runs in six innings on July 3. The numbers would be disappointing for anyone ... but even more so for a first-round Draft pick.
This week, Detwiler will have the opportunity to avenge himself and put an exclamation point on a second half that has seen his re-emergence.
A year ago, Detwiler was in the Major Leagues, a September callup that Washington would ask to pitch an inning on Sept. 7. He wasn't far removed from signing with the Nationals for a $2.15 million bonus after a storied career at Missouri State University landed him in the Draft's top 10.
Somewhere in between then and now, Detwiler briefly fell apart. His command was first to go, as he allowed 39 walks in the first three months, spanning 63 innings. Soon it was all gone. On May 30, Detwiler didn't get out of the first innings. He allowed two walks and four hits before being taken out of the game, his ERA jumping nearly a point in the process.
"Randy Knorr, our manager, has taken me aside a few times and reiterated that the best way to learn is through failure," Detwiler told the Washington Post after his first playoff start. "About half of the season has been a real struggle for me."
The other half has been sheer brilliance. Since the last time Detwiler faced Myrtle Beach, he has made 11 starts, with a 4-3 record. He has a fantastic 3.28 ERA during that time and he seems to be saving his best for last. After winning his last regular-season start by allowing one run over six innings, Detwiler was even better in his first playoff start, tossing 5 1/3 shutout innings.
Washington had 2.15 million reasons not to give up on Ross Detwiler this season, and with the pressure of a fan base looking to the future, Detwiler has shown resilience, improvement and the ability to learn from failure. Next, he has to show Potomac its first franchise championship.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (88-51) vs. Potomac Nationals (78-61)
Best-of-5 series begins Monday, Sept. 8
Judging by overall record, this series doesn't look like it should be close. Think again. The Nationals dismantled Winston-Salem in the semifinal, finishing with a 0.79 ERA in the three-game sweep. Potomac enters the series red hot as they look to bring back the first Mills Cup in franchise history. Myrtle Beach is still the favorite, however, as the Pelicans bring the league's best record and the best offense to the table. The Pelicans hit more home runs in the semifinals than the other three teams in the playoffs combined and hit .318 as a team. Myrtle Beach is seeking their first championship since 2000.
Myrtle Beach had a winning record this season against six of the other seven teams in the Carolina League en route to 88 wins. The lone exception? Potomac, who edged out Myrtle Beach, 11-9, in their 20-game season series. However, the Pelicans had a significant 20-run edge in run differential, so neither was proven particularly better than the other. The two teams last met for a four-game series in mid-August, with each club winning a pair of games.
When Myrtle Beach won during the regular season, run prevention was the name of the game. The Pelicans staff held the Nationals to a .222 team average, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Scott Diamond. The Canadian lefty was 2-0 against Potomac in the regular season with a team-high 18 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings. Expect the Nationals to counter with Jeff Mandel, who allowed three earned runs in two starts against Myrtle Beach. He'll have to keep Tyler Flowers off the bases, however, as the Pelicans catcher had a .437 on-base percentage in 17 games against Potomac. Flowers will be tested behind the plate as Potomac ran wild in the regular season (32 attempts against Myrtle Beach) as well as the first round, when they stole eight bases in three games. Expect Potomac to look to continue the small-ball winning ways in the Mills Cup final.
Players to Watch
Myrtle Beach: For this Pelicans team, despite their spacious home stadium, success lies in how well they swing the bats. In the semifinals, they were exceptional, scoring 27 runs in four games with a team .868 OPS. Flowers led the way, with a .529 average and five extra-base hits in four games. The most impressive performance might be outfielder Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves' first selection in the 2007 Draft. Heyward spent the year playing for the Rome Braves was promoted late in August and then went on to reach base at a .526 clip in the semifinals. On the mound, keep an eye on Cole Rohrbough, another very talented starter that pitched six scoreless innings to earn a win over Winston-Salem. The team threw three southpaws at the Warthogs, including Diamond, who pitched seven innings with a team-high four strikeouts.
Potomac: If it takes small ball to win the Mills Cup, the Nationals can do it. The team stole eight bases in their three-game sweep of Wilmington, with six different players swiping a base. Second baseman Michael Martinez and outfielder Boomer Whiting each stole two bases. However, the strength of this team has become their pitching staff, especially the starting pitchers, who allowed two runs in 16 innings against the Blue Rocks. Luis Atilano pitched six innings without a run, while star prospect Ross Detwiler pitched 5 1/3 innings, battling command problems to earn the clinching win. The Nationals beat Wilmington twice in extra-inning games, proving just how deep their pitching staff goes. The best of the bunch in that series were Dan Leatherman and Josh Wilkie, the two of whom combined to allow two hits in 7 1/3 innings.
Bryan Smith is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.