PAWTUCKET — Only a few players remained in the Pawtucket Red Sox clubhouse following a short practice at McCoy Stadium at mid-morning Tuesday, and one happened to be catcher Mike Rivera, who sat alone at his locker playing a video game.
While most teammates already had exited to enjoy an afternoon off prior to the wild card-winning PawSox’ best-of-five playoff series against the International League’s North Division champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Rivera admitted he’s excited to pursue the Governors’ Cup title.
Pawtucket will host the Yankees in the first two tilts at McCoy Stadium tonight and Thursday night (both at 7:05) before the set shifts to Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y. for the final three (the last two “if-necessary games”).
It should be noted Scranton/Wilkes-Barre played most of their “home” contests in Rochester this season, as its own PNC Stadium has been undergoing massive renovations.
“It’s great to be on a roll (entering the playoffs),” Rivera noted of the Sox’ 8-2 finish to the regular season (79-65, five games behind the Yanks) and earn the wild-card berth. “It’s a result of all the hard work we put in throughout the year.
“It’s also a tribute to (skipper) Arnie (Beyeler), who kept us together, in shape and sharp all season long,” he added. “This (marks) back-to-back years in the playoffs for him, and this shows he knows how to keep us working hard and winning ball games.”
Rivera claimed it’s been “hard” to keep up with the dozens of call-ups to Boston and from Portland during this campaign.
“You miss key players not being in the lineup day-in and day-out, but – when we lose good players to Boston – we’re getting good players back in here,” he stated. “They’ve helped us to stay on the right path. They’ve helped us remain steady.”
This marks the second straight year Pawtucket has clinched a post-season bid; last season, it captured its first IL-North crown, but was swept in a Governors’ Cup semifinal series by Lehigh Valley.
It’s also just the fifth time in franchise history the PawSox have snatched back-to-back bids, the others in 1977-78, 1986-87, 1991-92 and 1996-97. Likewise, Beyeler is only the third manager in club history to lead the Sox to the playoffs in consecutive campaigns, joining Joe Morgan (1977-78) and Ed Nottle (1986-87).
One of the keys for this squad’s success has been the starting pitching down the stretch. Zach Stewart (3-5, 3.94 ERA) will face fellow righthander John Maine (8-5, 4.97) in tonight’s opener, while a still-unknown hurler will take on righty Ramon Ortiz (13-6, 3.45) on Thursday night.
Billy Buckner, another righthander who has won his last four starts to finish the year at 8-6 with a 3.91 ERA, will battle southpaw Michael O’Connor (3-6, 3.73) at Frontier Field on Friday at 7:05 p.m.
Actually, in his final three, he has posted a stellar 1.80 ERA.
“I think I’ve just been more consistent pitching down in the zone,” said Buckner, who had his right shoulder wrapped up in ice on Tuesday morning. “When you’re ahead on the batters, a pitcher has got a major advantage. He can pitch down in the zone and get him to swing at pitches (in which) he’s uncomfortable.
“This is good, getting ready for the playoffs; it’s a totally different atmosphere from the regular season,” he added. “I think the staff has the opportunity to coach a little differently, and play the players who will give you the best opportunity to win.
“I know we’re playing well right now, and I think the other guys understand that. I think momentum is something you need to keep. It can be so easy to lose, and it’s tough to get it back. We have to go pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning, and just keep working at it.”
Stated Rivera: “Billy’s been more consistent with all of his pitches. When he first started, he was falling behind the hitters, but over the past month or so, he’s been more aggressive. He’s been great for us, and one of our top pitchers over the past couple of months.
“I think Billy overall has been throwing his pitches for strikes, and has just been more consistent. It’s not one of his pitches, but all of them. Like I said, he’s been down in the zone and working ahead.”
“Zach’s been good, too,” he continued. “I know he had a rough outing in the big leagues when he was called up, but, hopefully, he’ll get back to pitching the way he did when he was here.”
Pitching coach Rich Sauveur indicated his entire staff has been better over the final 10 games, and he has a reason for it.
“It’s just been the ability to throw strikes and get ahead of the hitters,” he said. “When you do that, you’re going to get positive results. We haven’t had to say anything to them, and we won’t (before the series against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre begins). This is just another game, and we’re playing the same team we just got through playing.”
Pawtucket closed the 16-game series with the Yankees this year at 9-7, and snatched three of four in the season-ending set. J.C. Linares ripped a dramatic, “walkoff” two-run blast in the bottom of the 12th inning to seal a 6-4 triumph on Monday.
Still, history is not on the PawSox’ side. This will be the third time the two rivals have squared off in the playoffs, and Pawtucket dropped the two previous clashes – both by three games to one counts – in 1992 and 2008.
In fact, Friday night will mark the fourth anniversary of that last semifinal loss to the Yanks, which took place Sept. 7. Shelley Duncan walloped a walkoff, two-run homer off of PawSox reliever Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 10th to clinch a 2-0 victory.
EXTRA BASES: Tickets for the first two games with the Yankees are currently on sale at the PawSox Box Office or by calling (401) 724-7300. Fans may purchase ducats with any major credit card, and may do so by visiting www.pawsox.com .
Should the PawSox advance to the Cup finals, it would face the victor of the series between IL-South Division champion Charlotte and IL-West Division titlist Indianapolis. That set would begin with the initial pair of games at McCoy Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 11-12 (both at 7:05 p.m.).
And, if Pawtucket snags its third-ever Governors’ Cup (the previous two in 1973 and 1984), it would travel to Reno, Nev. to face the Pacific Coast champion in the Triple-A National Championship game; that would be contested on Tuesday, Sept. 18, and will be televised live on the NBS Sports Network … The PawSox haven’t won a playoff series since its 3-2 Cup semifinal triumph over the Maine Guides in 2003 … If Pawtucket gets to the final two tilts against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, righthander Nelson Figueroa (12-5, 3.89 ERA) will take on a pitcher still to be determined in Game No. 4 on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. (Figueroa was named the IL Pitcher of the Week at season’s end).
In the finale, fellow righty Steven Wright (0-1, 3.15) would face another unknown Yankee hurler.