Valley Press Staff Writer
LANCASTER — So much for building momentum heading into the playoffs.
The JetHawks will open postseason play on Saturday riding a four-game losing streak after falling 10-3 to Inland Empire on Monday night, a sloppy regular season finale that saw Lancaster manage just three hits while giving up 18.
As players quickly ditched their uniforms for street clothes and prepared for two day off, there were jokes and laughs scattered throughout the clubhouse. But that doesn’t mean the JetHawks are pleased heading into the postseason?
“I think we can use this as a learning experience going into the playoffs,” said Lancaster outfielder Brett Phillips. “This feeling sucks and we know we need to take care of business when we get to the playoffs.
“We need to step it up because we don’t want to get embarrassed like that in the playoffs.”
Lancaster, which finished the regular season at 78-62, played through a tale of two seasons.
The JetHawks started the year with nine of the Astros’ top 20 prospects and promptly delivered amidst plenty of national hoopla, setting a franchise record for wins in the first half by going 44-26 and clinching a first-half South Division title.
The championship earned Lancaster a playoff berth, something that might not have been possible to attain in a second half that saw the JetHawks go 34-36 and lose most of their most prominent names.
But even Lancaster’s ace, right-hander Vince Velasquez, wasn’t immune to a bad stretch as the season came to a close.
Velasquez, who will start Game 1 of the South Division Finals, surrendered seven hits and four runs in just two innings Monday against the 66ers.
Although Velasquez finished with six strikeouts, he didn’t make it past the third inning for the second straight start.
“Hopefully it was just a divot in the road,” said JetHawks manager Rodney Linares.
Trailing 4-0 in the second, Lancaster cut the deficit in half when catcher Roberto Peña laced a two-run double to left.
But Pena’s two-bagger, Lancaster’s second hit of the night to that point, was the only knock the JetHawks would muster until the ninth inning.
Lancaster went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, bringing its four-game total against the red-hot 66ers to a dismal 9-for-49 clip.
“We didn’t have any competitive at-bats,” said Linares, who seemingly the phrase ‘hopeful’ in almost all of his answers with a reporter. “Hopefully we can get headed in the right direction … and hopefully this is all in the past.”
The JetHawks’ bullpen had its ups and downs as Evan Grills and Gonzalo Sanudo combined to give up six runs in three innings while relievers Daniel Minor and Tyler Brunnemann surrendered just one hit over three frames.
But an overall lackluster night on the mound highlighted a four-game series in which Inland Empire recorded a whopping 64 hits in 37 innings.
Even after ending the season on a disastrous note, Linares said he wasn’t overly concerned with a team that went 12-18 over the final 30 games of the season.
“We’re trying to get the kids to play up to this level,” Linares, who suffered his first losing month in three years in Lancaster, said about his team’s relative inexperience. “We’ll see what kind of character they have when they open up the playoffs.”
The JetHawks announced their playoff rotation Monday, as Kent Emanuel will follow Velasquez and start Game 2 of the South Division Finals.
Kyle Westwood, a California League All-Star, will get the ball in Game 3 before Brian Holmes and Lance McCullers will go in Games 4 and 5 if necessary.
Inland Empire, meanwhile, will meet Lake Elsinore in the three-game mini series starting Wednesday. If the 66ers prevail, you can bet the JetHawks would like a chance at revenge.
“They kicked our butts,” Phillips said. “But if we see them in the first round of the playoffs? Then we’re going to kick theirs.”