The Portland Rain are showing signs of the same October magic that they have shown in the last 3 seasons. In the series opener in El Paso, the Portland Rain, hungry for the title, showed why they hold a 2 game lead in the NL North over season-long rivals St. Louis and Columbus. The Rain thundered to a decisive 11-3 rout behind future Hall of Famer Sean Donovan. Donovan, in his first season away from Louisville, has been re-energized after what started off in the Louisville bullpen, going 12-3 with a 3.18 ERA for Portland. Donovan, a 4 time Cy Young winner and 7 time all star, has been the veteran leader that Portland needed amongst many new (and mostly younger) faces in the everyday starting lineup.
Donovan is not the exception to a new cast of players that has been thrown into the same recipe of success in Portland. Several youngsters have taken the place of the solid veterans who carried Portland to a World Series title a mere 2 seasons ago. Rookie of the Year candidate Art Sweeney has brought his gold-glove worthy defensive skills in replacing Julian Henley in LF, and Harry Encarnacion took the spot vacated when 3B Victor Rodriguez was packaged in the deal that brought Donovan to Portland. The team struggled early on as the newcomers slowly learned to play as a team, and the Rain have been building significant momentum since the all star break to take over first place in the NL north.
The rhythm of this season's offense has been paced by #2 hitter and MVP candidate Robb Gant and power hitting Catcher Herm Grey. Leadoff man Alex Gonzalez is having a down year but is still nagging opponents and scoring runs with his combination of power and speed. Pitching has been very anchored by Sean Donovan and young workhorse and Cy Young candidate Bip Bartee (15-7) both maintaining a sub-3 ERA throughout the season. Starting pitcher Vasco Picasso has shown maturity and resilience far beyond what his age suggests (23) and has been outstanding in the #3 slot, while southpaw Jose Piedra (12-8) has been reliable all season long. Closer Stephen Welch is a leading candidate for NL Fireman of the Year, with 35 saves in 42 opportunities, but he has been inconsistent at times, with a career high 10 losses.
Continued success and the ability to secure a spot in the postseason hinge largely on the durability of key position players who are showing some wear and tear the season rolls on. Inconsistent play from the two rookies and by the bullpen, has seen some leads dissipate in a hurry and an inability to come from behind to win. The team can compensate, based on the unique combination of speed and power at its offensive core. Eight players have hit double figures in HRs and 8 players have stolen 10 or more bases. Three players (Gant, Gonzalez and Encarnacion) have already reached the 20HR-20SB landmark. Even castoff Willie "$18.8 million dollar" Vazquez, whose acquisition (and most importantly, that of his salary) was mocked by other team owners, has produced consistently throughout the season while playing gold-glove caliber defense as a 1B.
Coming up is a key 3 game series against the St. Louis Kamikazes, who they have battled all season to reign supreme in the NL North. St. Louis will also be facing off against the third horse in this race, the Columbus Flatlanders. Portland fans, who still cherish the fresh memories of the magical Season 9 World Series title, are extremely confident that their team is for real. If Portland enters the post-season, watch out: this team is relentless and hungry to have their Word series trophy back!
Thanks to hiloboy21 for contributing this story