Can Pirates' High-A affiliate capture first-half North Division crown?

The Division wasn't decided two weeks ago. It will be in the next three games.
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When we last wrote about the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Pittsburgh Pirates' High-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, they were in first place, 1.5 games up on the Jersey Shore BlueClaws. 

But, alas, in a six-game showdown between the teams in the first week of June in Greensboro, the Blue Claws took four out of six from the Grasshoppers and moved ahead of them in the South Atlantic League standings by a half-game.

However, last week, the Grasshoppers moved back into first, after winning five of six games from the Winston Salem Dash on the road, while the Blue Claws took four out of six against the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Now, with just three games left in the first half, the stakes are high as the top squad will qualify for a playoff berth.

Each team has three games left in the first half. The Blue Claws travel on the road to play the fifth-place Brooklyn Cyclones. The Grasshoppers, meanwhile, are home against the third-place Hudson Valley Renegades, the New York Yankees' affiliate in the South Atlantic League. Hudson Valley is three games out of first and are not yet mathematically eliminated. However, the Renegades would need to win all three from the Grasshoppers and then hope for help from Brooklyn.

In winning five out of six last week against the Winston Salem Dash, Greensboro outscored the Dash 53 to 22, good for an average of 8.8 runs per game. So, offensively, they enter the final week of the season on a roll.

However, Hudson Valley will be a formidable test and could possibly play the spoiler role. Hudson Valley has one of the best pitching staffs in the South Atlantic League. Collectively, Hudson Valley pitchers have the second-lowest ERA and lowest batting average against in the league. Opposing hitters have batted only .211 against Hudson Valley pitchers this year.

So, if anything else, it will be an intriguing matchup as the Hudson Valley’s pitchers face off against a Greensboro lineup that leads the South Atlantic League in runs scored, home runs and OPS.

Hudson Valley is also competent offensively, as they rank third in the league in OPS and batting average, and fourth in runs scored. They will face a Greensboro pitching staff that ranks seventh in ERA and 8th in batting average against. Hudson Valley scored 41 runs last week, an average of 6.8 per game, so they aren't exactly slumping at the plate either as they enter this series.

So this is it. Greensboro controls its own destiny. If they win all three games, they are in the playoffs.  If they lose any of them, then they will have to hope for help from Brooklyn. The BlueClaws meanwhile, winners of eight of their last 10, including four in a row against Greensboro, must still hope for help from Hudson Valley if they are to win the first half. Both teams will no doubt be doing some scoreboard watching.

When Neal Huntington was the general manager of the Pirates, he often talked about how valuable playoff baseball experience was for prospects in the minor leagues. He felt it was the closest thing the minor leagues could offer to expose players to high-leverage situational baseball. 

While these final three games of the first half are not technically playoffs, they are pressure-filled games that will determine if Greensboro can win a first-half division title. Greensboro failed its first test this earlier this month when they lost four of six to Jersey Shore. If they just split the series, there would be room for error in these final three games.

But last week’s strong offensive performance against Winston Salem has given them a second chance to win the crown. This is the time to seize the opportunity.