STOCKTON – Ten years after their last California League championship, the Stockton Ports begin their quest tonight for their 12th league title since 1946 by hosting the Visalia Rawhide at Stockton Ballpark.
The Ports and Rawhide have practically been neighbors over the past month as the teams have met 14 times over their past 29 games, including 11 matchups since Aug. 17. The Rawhide won the overall season series 15-12, including 3 of 4 in Stockton to end the regular season Monday.
The best-of-five series begins at 7:10 p.m. with the first two games tonight and Thursday in Stockton. Game 5, if necessary, would return to Stockton on Sunday.
Stockton’s Rick Magnante, the 2018 Cal League Manager of the Year, said there are no secrets left to uncover regarding each other’s players.
“We’re familiar with them and they’re certainly familiar with us,” Magnante said. “Every game can be a close, hotly-contested event. So, I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to take advantage of them other than the familiarity that comes from playing a team over and over again.
“I just tip my hat to them because they’re a very good ballclub. “They pitch well, they defend, they hit, they show power and they have a very good bullpen. I think we’re two very evenly-matched clubs as our season record shows. I think it comes down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes and plays the best ballgame where talent really will win out on either side of the line.”
Visalia manager Joe Mather said his club, which ranked first in team pitching with a 3.73 ERA, clinched a berth for the fifth time over the past six years.
“You play all year to win the last game in the championship,” Mather said. “You don’t have the luxury of kind of cruising in (to the playoffs) if you don’t win the first half like Stockton did, so it was exciting and nerve-wracking up until when we clinched.
“(Stockton) has a lot of options in their bullpen. “(Angel) Duno’s been here all year and done a great job closing for them. They have a pretty mature lineup, especially with (Viosergy) Rosa in there to really lengthen their lineup out. There’s a reason that they won the first half.”
Magnante will give the ball to Matt Milburn (9-5, 3.49 ERA) tonight to face Visalia’s Riley Smith (8-6, 3.57). Riley leads the league with strikeouts (148) and opponent batting average (.249). Milburn and Riley are tied in WHIP (1.25) but Milburn has thrown two complete-game shutouts.
Milburn was near-perfect on Aug. 23 when he retired 27 of 28 batters against Modesto, and was honored as the team’s Pitcher of the Year on Monday.
“It’s always exciting to be named a Game 1 starter,” Milburn said. “You always want the ball, especially to get your team off to a good start at home. It’s nice after a long season to be able to go out there and pitch for this team. I know there’s a lot on the line, but you have to take it as just another game.
“Pitching is always big, but timely hitting is the most important thing,” he added. “Everyone’s good in the playoffs. They wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they weren’t good. It’s just a matter of the team stringing hits together at the right time, then having the pitchers shut it down.”
Offensively, the Rawhide have out-hit the Ports in home runs (118-102) and doubles (279-248) but Stockton has more triples (48-29). The Ports have 515 walks compared to 443 by the Rawhide, but the Rawhide lead in steals 112-82.
The last time the Ports won the title was in 2008 when Stockton defeated Lancaster. Chris Carter hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and collected five RBIs. That team also featured Sean Doolittle, Josh Donaldson, Trever Cahill and Brett Anderson.
Stockton advanced to the 2017 playoffs after winning the second half but were swept by Modesto, which won the league championship.