Top-seeded Pilots face treacherous new playoff format

@PeninsulaPilots open @CPLBaseball playoffs Wednesday against Morehead City

HAMPTON — The Peninsula Pilots just authored the most productive regular season in Coastal Plain League history. Their reward is a playoff structure streamlined for convenience but fraught with peril.

To curb travel costs and return players to college earlier, the CPL trimmed the first two rounds of postseason from best-of-three to single-elimination. The championship series remains best-of-three.

Sure, Major League Baseball exposes its wild-card teams to one-game playoffs. But the CPL is exposing all eight of its postseason teams, leaving the top-seeded Pilots no margin for error.

Their league-best 38-17 regular season? Their CPL-record 7.5 runs per game and .303 batting average? Their league-leading 3.40 earned-run average?

Those numbers are admirable and indelible, but one early-round misstep will derail the franchise’s quest for a third championship in four years.

Peninsula’s mission begins Wednesday at War Memorial Stadium against the Morehead City Marlins. Win there, and the Pilots would remain at home Friday to face the winner of Wednesday’s game between the Wilson Tobs and Wilmington Sharks.

“We think we’re set up well for series play,” Pilots coach Hank Morgan said Tuesday, poring over stats in his office on his 19th wedding anniversary. “I think we’ve got the best depth … in the league. … (But) the rules are the rules. We’ve got to figure out a way to win within the constraints of what we’re dealing with.

“You bring up a good point that a one-game series gives anyone a puncher’s chance of taking a better team out. Depth is never a bad thing, either, so I think we’ll have more options in the bullpen.”

Peninsula was 3-1 against Morehead City during the regular season, but the teams haven’t met since a 4-3 Pilots home victory July 15. Morgan gave his players off Tuesday, allowing many to hit the golf course, and will assemble them earlier than usual Wednesday afternoon to work on some situational defense — Peninsula was 12th among 16 teams in fielding percentage during the regular season.

Chris Gau (Jacksonville University) and Devin Mahoney (Saint Louis) are expected to pitch Wednesday for the Pilots against John Luke Curtis (Lenoir-Rhyne). A left-handed power pitcher, Curtis will encounter a deep and versatile lineup that produced a team-record 39 home runs. 

Outfielder Will Shepherd (Liberty University) has been the league’s most dynamic hitter throughout the season. His .407 batting average was the CPL’s best since Peninsula’s Jimmy Gallagher hit .423 in 2006. Further, Shepherd ranked second in the league with 47 RBI and stole 16 bases.

Middle infielder Kyle McPherson (James Madison) tore through the second half of the regular season. A graduate of Chesapeake’s Western Branch High School, he hit .355 for the summer, drove in 44 runs in 38 games and has reached base in 16 consecutive games.

“He’s playing as well as he’s ever played in his life,” Morgan said of McPherson.

Morgan praised McPherson for keeping the offense percolating late in the regular season while Shepherd nursed a sore hamstring, and for protecting clean-up hitter Darian Carpenter (VCU).

“Every time they’ve (pitched around) Carpenter, McPherson’s made them pay for it,” Morgan said of opponents.

Postseason baseball often hinges on a reliable closer, and the Pilots appear to have that covered. Robbie Hiser (Norfolk State) saved eight games, struck out 27 and yielded only two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings.

A Grafton High graduate, Hiser hasn’t pitched since feeling a twinge in his right arm while saving Friday’s regular-season home finale against Edenton.

“The first time we put him in there and it’s a one-run game and you’re not real sure, that’s going to be nerve-racking,” Morgan said. “The good news is … the two pitches he threw after he said he felt it were 89 and 90 (mph) and strike two and strike three to end the game.”

The Pilots dropped their regular-season finale Monday, 5-4 at Petersburg, snapping a franchise-record 10-game winning streak. But that was a meaningless game with no bearing on playoff seeding.

Expecting his 30-man roster intact for as long as the postseason lasts, Morgan is bullish on Peninsula’s talent and chemistry.

“If we can get into a three-game series in the finals,” he said, “I like our chances.”

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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