By Andrew Johnson
Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday in South Bend. Game 3, if necessary, will be Friday in South Bend.
The playoff matchup was determined at the end of the first half of the season, when South Bend won the Eastern Division championship and the Whitecaps won a wild card playoff spot.
The series promises to be competitive, since the Whitecaps and Cubs each won seven of the 14 games they played against each other in the regular season.
But the Whitecaps have had a more recent edge, winning four of the seven games between the two t3eams in the final two weeks of the season.
“It’s been some good baseball between the two teams,” Whitecaps Manager Andrew Graham told LocalSportsJournal.com. “We just need to play hard and the team that executes the most will win.”
Last year the playoffs turned out to be a magical run for the Whitecaps, who defeated the Cedar Rapids Kernels in the league championship series. West Michigan has had a lot of postseason success in general, winning prior Midwest League titles in 1996, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
Graham says this year’s team is different than last year’s championship squad, and will face different challenges in the playoffs.
One big difference has been a lack of power at the plate. The Whitecaps only hit 25 home runs during the 130-game regular season. That’s the lowest total for any full-season minor league team since the 1989 Sarasota White Sox hit 24.
“We really don’t have too many guys back (from last year) if you look at the starting lineup,” Graham said. “It’s only (shortstop) David Gonzalez and (catcher) Arvicent Perez, who didn’t catch any playoff games last year.
“Last year we had guys who could leave the yard and hit for more power, along with a pretty dominant bullpen. This year is a completely different team and I need to manage to the way this team is.”
One key asset the Whitecaps will be missing is star outfielder Derek Hill, a former Detroit Tigers first-round draft pick who is a defensive specialist and a speedster on the bases. His season ended when he had Tommy John surgery in August.
Hill, a second-year Whitecap, also missed the 2015 playoffs with an injury.
“Having him in the leadoff spot was key, he was just coming around with his bat and getting on base,” Graham said. “He’s a great guy to have with his energy and great defense. We miss him, but the guys filling in are doing a good job.”
The Whitecaps will try to regain some of the momentum they had in the first half of the season, when they clinched the playoff spot with a strong 39-28 record. In the second half standings West Michigan posted a sleepy 32-37 record, good for only fifth place in the Eastern Division, 14 ½ games out of first.
South Bend finished second in the division in the second half with a 43-27 record.
“The second half has been one of those things,” Graham said. “Two years ago we clinched in the first half and it was tough to get the guys motivated to play. This year these guys have turned off their mental switch a bit, but we’ve got them back to where they need to be.”
The team’s recent performance was the topic of a recent clubhouse meeting, according to Graham.
“We had a nice meeting about a week ago and I told them it’s not just about making the playoffs and playing hard only in the playoffs,” Graham said. “I told them this is your career and it’s not about how you start but how you finish. These guys need to play hard every day and realize the great opportunity in from of them, playing professional baseball.”