Omaha will try to extend its improbable September run to a potential second Pacific Coast League title in three seasons against Salt Lake.
The Bees beat Las Vegas 4-3 Saturday to clinch the Pacific Conference title and will come to Omaha for Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-5 PCL championship series at Werner Park. Game times are 7:05 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Salt Lake was 78-66 during the regular season to win the Pacific North Division title, and then beat Las Vegas, which had the better regular-season record, 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
Omaha pulled off an even bigger playoff stunner, sweeping Oklahoma City — which at 82-62 had the PCL’s best record, one game better than Las Vegas — in three games in the American Conference playoffs.
The Storm Chasers, at one time 35-47, got to the playoffs with a 70-74 record after winning the American North title on the final day of the season.
“These guys are just confident right now, and they feel like as long as we’re within striking distance that we’re going to win games,” Omaha manager Mike Jirschele said. “That’s a great feeling to have going into the championship series.”
Salt Lake is led by All-PCL first baseman Efren Navarro, who hit .326 and had 81 RBIs during the regular season, but hit just .188 (3 for 16) when Omaha and the Bees split a four-game series in Salt Lake City from Aug. 3 through 6.
Navarro was 7 for 11 in the series against Las Vegas.
Omaha has had a number of key figures step forward in the playoffs, particularly Gorkys Hernandez — whose eighth-inning three-run homer provided the winning runs in Friday’s series-clinching victory — and Class AA callups Rey Navarro and Lane Adams, who have sparked the postseason offense.
Christian Colon and Paulo Orlando fueled Omaha’s offense late in the season.
“We’re not just dependent on one guy to win games for us,” Jirschele said. “Different guys are doing it every night.”
Friday’s win wasn’t a thing of beauty — Omaha was outhit 15-7, but it drew nine walks and eventually cashed two of them in on the homer by Hernandez.
“We played hard and we played together,” Hernandez said. “We tried to get on base and score runs for the team. That’s what we did and we’re going to the final.”
The four-game series in Salt Lake was in some ways a turning point in Omaha’s strong second half of the season.
The Chasers won the first two games to run a winning streak to six, capping a stretch in which they were 24-10 to surge two games over .500 at 59-57. Then the Chasers lost the final two games of the series, starting a streak in which they lost five of six as well as a season-ending 11-17 slump.
Omaha still managed to build a five-game lead with 15 left in the regular season, but had lost the lead — and the tiebreaker advantage — with two days left. Forced to win twice and hope Memphis lost twice (which it did, with walk-off defeats), things went Omaha’s way just to make the playoffs.
Jirschele’s team has played with its collective back to the wall for the past six weeks, but he doesn’t want to overemphasize it as a reason for its stunning postseason win over the RedHawks.
“We tried to not even think about that,” Jirschele said. “We try to take each day as it comes, go out and play the game that we should play — and I think that’s one reason these guys don’t panic.”