Portland closing in on 4th consecutive post season appearance

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

New Chicago Franchise has city dreaming Goats in October

Management challenges and ownership jockeying in the offseason resulted in the switching of franchises, with last year's St. Louis AL franchise landing in Chicago and the Chicago NL franchise landing in Saint Louis. And while nobody expected much from either franchise, both teams have outperformed expectations and many are thinking post-season for both teams.

Coming off of a disappointing 68-94 season in their last year in St. Louis, low expectations surrounded the newcomers' debut to the windy city. As of Sunday's play, the Billy Goats are already carrying a franchise high of 85 wins and are in a tie for one of two wild card spots. The Chicago faithful are dreaming of a world series.

While the current series between San Antonio and Trenton may ultimately determine the playoff picture for the Billy Goats, it is by no lack of hustle or competitive play on their part.

All Star Ricky Gibbs (48 HR, 117 RBIs) leads a powerful offensive lineup rounded by Ted Harper (.303 AVG, .407 OBP, 1.002 OPS, 36 HR, 90 RBIs) and Brooks Bonilla (.322 AVG, 1.024 OPS, 38 HR, 98 RBIs), while workhorses Banana Hawkins (12-10, 4.98 ERA) and Lariel Sanchez (12-6, 4.00 ERA) lead a starting rotation without a defacto pitching ace. At 5-9 and 211 lbs, 22yr old sophomore starter Brooks Reames (11-7, 3.93 ERA) has pitched well, surprising the skeptics who were discouraged by a disappointing rookie season (4-11, 5.45 ERA in 29 starts) and attributed his lack of success to poor offseason training habits. The relief corps (Jerome Conway, Sam Kerr, Deivi Velazquez and Don Bunch) have been average but consistent, while sophomore closer and Japanese import John Shin, has excelled, nailing down 30 of 37 save opportunities.

A defense that ranks among the worse in the AL has been the team's biggest weakness, but it is clear that the offense provided in return has made up for their fielding woes. Offseason free agent acquisition Jimmie Henley has been the exception. Despite struggling offensively to a .257 AVG, Henley has provided stellar defense in split time between CF and 2B, and leads the majors in CF range factor. In addition, the apparently shaky defense seen in statistics alone does not accurately represent the team's current starters. Henley's partner in the Iowa City to Chicago offseason migration, lefthanded throwing outfielder Joe Eyre, started 90 games at 3B earlier in the season, a position the veteran had never played in his entire career. Eyre's willingness to play 3B allowed Chicago's manager to insert his .317 AVG and 13 triples into the lineup to make up by the poor fielding that came with the learning curve. (Eyre's leading nomination as the AL 3B Silver Slugger has been controversial).

This team has brought much excitement to the city of Chicago, and as a real wild card contender, management may be looking at the franchise's best historical team and second post-season appearance. The combination of young talent and key veteran acquisitions presents a solid team for a fan base that wants to see them face their former team (now the St. Louis Kamikazes) in a World Series matchup. As the Goats raise the bar to enhanced expectations in a serious race to the playoffs, Chicago is excited about its team, but the young core gives them much to be hopeful for years to come.

Thanks to jpelot for contributing to this story.