Sep. 18—HIGH POINT — Rockers manager Jamie Keefe won't be surprised if his club's best-of-5 ALPB South division series against Gastonia turns into a dogfight that goes the distance, just as last season's did when High Point took the deciding game in dramatic fashion.
Postseason play begins tonight in Gastonia between the teams with the two best records in the league. Game 2 on Wednesday is also at CaroMont Health Park. The rest of the series is in High Point, with Game 3 on Friday and if needed, Game 4 on Saturday and Game 5 on Sunday.
The Rockers (78-46) qualified by winning the first-half pennant and took the second half by percentage points over their in-state rival after losing the regular-season finale to Long Island 13-2. In a reversal of last year, the Honey Hunters (79-47) are the team that made it in as a wild card.
The Rockers have held the upper hand in the later part of the season, winning three of the last four (in a series here two weeks ago) and five of the last six.
The two teams finished nearly identical in batting average and fielding percentage while the Rockers have the better team ERA (4.34-4.88). High Point's allowed fewer runs (599-638) while Gastonia allowed the few hits (1027-1079), had more strikeouts (1167-1039) and limited opponents to a lower batting average (.247-.257).
Head-to-head, the Rockers had six more runs and five more RBIs, drew 27 more walks, had two less strikeouts, stroked 16 less hits that included nine less home runs.
Ben Aklinski led the Rockers at the plate against Gastonia by hitting with 24 RBIs and six home runs. Ryan Grotjohn hit .375 with 16 RBIs, Zander Wil had 18 RBIs, Michael Martinez 14 and Brian Parreira 13.
Designated hitter Braxton Davidson helped lead Gastonia's hitting against the Rockers as he averaged .348 and drove in 18 runs. Jarrett, who bats third, finished at .274 with 13 RBIs and David Washington hit .281 with 12 RBIs.
"This series is going to go five games," Keefe said on Monday after enduring the overnight bus trip back from Long Island. "These are two great teams and so similar in so many different assets. They're going to have more home runs because of the ballpark they play in and we're going to have more doubles because of the ballpark we play in. Pitching stats are so similar and we know each other so well."
Brandon Leibrandt (4-3, 3.26 ERA) is expected to start Game 1 on the mound for the Rockers and Justin Nicolino (4-1, 4.56 ERA) is the expected starter for Game 2.
"Both guys have Major League experience and have been around for quite some time," Keefe said. "If they go over there and pitch down in the strike zone, I think we can play really good baseball over there."
Gunnar Kines, who was second in the league in the second half with a 2.45 ERA, is the projected Game 1 starter for the Honey Hunters. Zach Mort, who issued a league-leading 84 strikeouts in the second half, is expected as the Game 2 starter. Brett Daniels, who had the best second-half ERA at 2.18, will go against Rockers knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, the league leader in wins, in Game 3.
"Kines' change up is his best pitch and he goes out there to keep you off balance and he does a good job at it," Keefe said. "His strikeout-to-walk ratio is huge. If we can cut down on the strikeouts and put the ball in play, it's going to make our jobs a lot easier. If he goes fastball and then changeup and he's throwing strikes with the fastball, he's going to be a lot tougher to hit."
Keefe gave his team the day off on Monday following the long trip home from New York that brought an end to a 10-day road trip. None of the Rockers' primary position players are injured. Quincy Latimore, who is still slowed by knee surgery, will continue to serve primarily as the designated hitter.
"We've played well these last 10 days on the road," Keefe said. The No. 1 thing is if their guys are going to walk us — and Kines doesn't walk many — but if they give us the opportunity to take the free base, we need to take it."
The South division champ will advance to the championship series next week against the winner of the North series between Lancaster and Long Island.