Springfield Cardinals manager Mike Shildt wouldn't admit whether he believes his club might have an advantage heading into the Texas League Finals on Tuesday.
"I'm sure there's advantages both ways," he said of the series with Frisco that begins Tuesday at home. "They've had more time off, we had a day off, our guys were able to relax, so I don't think it's a tremendous factor either way."
And while Frisco swept Corpus Christi in three games to advance to the Finals, it would be impossible not to look past the losses the RoughRiders have endured late in this season: Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt, Frisco's top two players, are both currently up in the Majors.
Will that be enough to give Springfield an edge?
Springfield (North Division champions, 77-61) vs.
Frisco (first-half South Division champions, 80-60)
Frisco won the season series, 7-5
Game 1 at Springfield, Sept. 11, 8:08 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Springfield, Sept. 12, 8:08 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Frisco, Sept. 14, 8 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Frisco (if necessary), Sept. 15, 8 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Frisco (if necessary), Sept. 16, 7 p.m. ET
The Cardinals went the distance in the semifinals against Tulsa, taking the series 3-2 on the strength of Boone Whiting pitching St. Louis' Double-A affiliate into the championship in Game 5.
Watch all Texas League Finals games on MiLB.TV »
But Shildt knows the RoughRiders are still a potent team, with or without Profar and Olt in the lineup.
"We're going to take our best shot," he said. "[Profar and Olt] were two good players that have been their anchors, but they have some other players who are really good. They've been able to change their roster, so I expect it to be a hard-fought series. Our guys are certainly excited about it."
Engel Beltre and Chris McGuiness are two such players who have picked up where Profar and Olt left off. Since Aug. 1, McGuiness batted .317 with three homers, 21 RBIs and 11 extra-base hits in his final 29 regular season games. Third baseman Tommy Mendonca also had 20 RBIs in his last 28 games, and Beltre hit .280 with 14 RBIs and six steals in that stretch.
On the mound, Frisco will give the ball to second-round pick Cody Buckel in Game 1. The right-hander who went 10-8 with a 2.49 ERA in 26 games at two levels this season did not pitch in the semifinals round but ended the regular season on a roll, allowing just two runs over his final four games.
"We respect everyone in their lineup, they have a capable club, all the way through," Shildt said. "McGuiness has a presence with 23 homers, Beltre has stolen some bases atop their order, [Leury] Garcia had a solid year and can run, and they had a good series series against Corpus. You have a guy like Ryan Strausborger, who stole 25 bags without a caught stealing -- they have different components where they're strong, but we just have to execute on our side, execute what you can control."
And using that concept, Springfield's executioner, so to speak, has been Oscar Taveras. The 2012 Texas League MVP is the Cardinals' top offensive prospect and led the league with a .321 average, ranked second with 94 RBIs, fourth with 23 homers and second with 83 runs scored and 153 hits.
"He's been anchoring our lineup, hitting in the three-hole since April and has provided a lot of stability," said Shildt. "He's a real presence in the lineup."
Taveras had five hits and one RBI in the five-game series with Tulsa, so he'll aim to turn it up in the Finals. But beyond his bat, hitters like Chris Swauger and Xavier Scruggs stepped up to provide the offense against the Drillers -- Swauger hit three homers and knocked home five in the series, but was injured after he made a diving defensive play in the clincher to beat Tulsa.
"We have guys like Jamie Romak, who has been a nice addition to hit around, and Chris Swauger, who we lost to injury yesterday -- he has been impressive," Shildt said. "Scruggs, with 91 RBIs this year, and Oscar's been tremendous. He's a very talented guy, with his ability."
In Springfield's regular-season games against Frisco, Taveras hit .289 with two homers and 16 RBIs in 11 games. Shildt said he wasn't surprised the Cardinals kept Taveras in Texas for the whole season while fellow top prospects like Profar went straight to the Majors.
"He turned 20 this year it makes sense after having him skip a level, it's important to have continuity and put together a year which he did," said Shildt. "To have a chance to play and develop all parts of his game his talents. He's definitely impressive."
"We have a nice club, we have guys throughout the order who can contribute, so I have confidence in all our regulars," Shildt said. And our staff, Phillip Wellman and Bryan Eversgerd have been great, our bullpen has been very solid. But I want our guys to play to play to their capabilities and take our best shot with that."
Frisco's Buckel will be followed by followed by Nick Tepesch in Game 2.
"It's a tremendously strong group of guys," Shildt said. "We're talented, otherwise we wouldn't be this position. But we have high character guys and real professionals, it's a group I respect very much, our staff has done a great job with these guys. ... I couldn't be more excited for them. I'm looking forward to competing for the championship, and we have a great front office and fans in Springfield, so we'd like to win it for them as well."
Who has the momentum? Frisco took care of business quickly with a three-game sweep against the Hooks, while Springfield had to battle for five games. Whiting, the projected Game 5 starter again, threw seven one-hit innings to send Springfield to the Finals. "We were cheering because we knew we're going there but reserved because we still want to win the championship," Whiting said. "We feel like we have momentum on our side."
But for Frisco, Tepesch posted the same pitching line to send the Rangers affiliate forward. "We have a great team and a good chance of winning this thing," he said. "We'll try to go into the next series and get off to a hot start [again] and see what happens."
Third time's a charm: Shildt, who began his career as a scout, is looking for his third league championship in as many seasons after he managed the Cardinals' Rookie-level affiliate, Johnson City, to consecutive Appalachian League crowns from 2010-'11. It was the first time that Johnson City clinched two consecutive league championships since 1975-'76. Springfield has never won the Texas League crown, while Frisco took it once, in 2004.
Cards commemorate Sept. 11: With the series beginning Sept. 11, Springfield conduct a pregame 9/11 ceremony marking the date, plus patriotic fireworks afterward. At Game 2 on Wednesday, the Cardinals will give fans vouchers for free tickets in 2013.