Pitching often is the deciding factor in the playoffs, and 51s manager Wally Backman believes his surging squad has the edge in that area over the slumping Salt Lake Bees — Las Vegas’ opponent in the first round of the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
“One of the reasons we match up good against them is because they don’t hit left-handed pitching and my left-handers will be very well-rested when we go there,” he said of relievers Robert Carson, Sean Henn, Justin Hampson and Jack Leathersich.
Las Vegas (81-63) went 10-6 this season against the Bees (78-66) — who had the PCL’s highest ERA (5.37) — and took four of five from them two weeks ago in Salt Lake City, where they’ll meet again at 5:35 p.m. today and Thursday in the first two games of the best-of-5 Pacific Conference Championship Series.
Right-handers Matt Fox (8-4, 4.59 ERA) and Rafael Montero (5-4, 3.05) will start Games 1 and 2, respectively, for the 51s. Las Vegas will host Game 3 at 7:05 p.m. Friday and, if necessary, Games 4 and 5 at 12:05 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Cashman Field.
“With those two guys going, the worst-case scenario is we should come back with a split,” Backman said. “The best-case scenario is we come back ahead 2-0.”
The 51s, who won the Pacific South Division to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002, enter the playoffs on a roll, having won 21 of 31 while going 32-17 since the All-Star Break, 18-7 at home.
The Pacific North Division champion Bees — the Los Angeles Angels’ Triple-A affiliate — struggled down the stretch, losing their last four and 12 of 16, including seven straight at Spring Mobile Ballpark.
“They haven’t been playing well but you get re-energized when the playoffs start,” said Backman, a member of the New York Mets’ 1986 title team. “In the playoffs, you find out who can really step up, and I feel the guys we’ve got can all step up.
“After having them for the year, they’re pretty hungry for it, so it’s a good thing.”
Fox, who joined Las Vegas in May out of the independent Atlantic League, struggled in three starts this season against Salt Lake — allowing 16 runs in 14 2/3 innings — and is eager for his chance at redemption.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m kind of anxious to get back out there and try to get back at them.”
Fox fared well in his past two outings, both wins, giving up four runs in 13 2/3 innings, with 19 strikeouts and one walk.
“Fox mixes his pitches well, and he has a real good cutter that should be effective versus left-handed hitters,” Backman said. “The lineup doesn’t really matter with Montero because he keeps the ball down and hits 94 and 95 (mph).
“The way he’s pitched the last month to a (1.40) ERA, this guy is for real.”
Backman has won championships, either as a player or a manager, at every level of baseball — in independent ball, Single A, Double A, Triple A and the big leagues — and his confidence appears to have rubbed off on his players.
“We’re all excited to get in there and see what kind of damage we can do,” corner infielder/outfielder Eric Campbell said. “I think we match up well with anybody, to be honest. If we go out and play our game, we can play with anybody.”
Campbell is batting .314 with 66 RBIs, and catcher Juan Centeno is batting .305 and has thrown out 55 percent (30 of 54) of baserunners trying to steal.
Former UNLV standout Efren Navarro, an All-PCL selection — Las Vegas had none — is batting .326 with 81 RBIs for Salt Lake.
The winner will advance to the PCL Championship Series against the winner of the American Conference series between the Oklahoma City RedHawks (82-62) and Omaha Storm Chasers (70-74).
The PCL champion will take on the International League champ in the Triple-A title game, which is scheduled for Sept. 17 at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pa.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence, putting up runs and our pitchers are doing a good job of throwing strikes,” Campbell said. “We’re in a good position right now.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.