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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Savannah Weise from Whittier Elementary cheers for the Bees. Salt Lake will be at home Friday for Game 3 of its PCL Pacific Conference series vs. Sacramento.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Since going old school and becoming the Bees again in 2006, Salt Lake's Triple-A baseball franchise has won three consecutive division championships and, consequently, qualified for the Pacific Coast League playoffs each season.

But the Bees have yet to win a playoff series. They'll get another crack at it beginning tonight against the Sacramento River Cats in a best-of-5 Pacific Conference championship series.

Successful regular seasons followed by postseason failure have been a trend for the franchise dating back to the return of Triple-A baseball to Utah 15 years ago. In a league where only four of 16 teams qualify for the playoffs, the Buzz/Stingers/Bees are now heading to the postseason for the ninth time in 15 years, an amazing accomplishment.

Yet, Salt Lake hasn't won a PCL title since the 1979 Gulls did it. In a league where you need only win two series to earn the championship, Salt Lake has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round five times and in the finals in its other three postseason appearances since 1994.

That could change in the next two weeks, however, as the Bees enter the playoffs on their best roll since the first month of the season.

After a record-breaking start that saw the Bees go 22-1 to open the year, Salt Lake played right around .500 baseball the rest of the way. But down the stretch, with the Tacoma Rainiers breathing down their necks, the Bees went 11-4 over the final two weeks of the regular season. Salt Lake finished with an 84-60 mark and with the most wins in the PCL.

"The players really stepped up nicely — especially the pitchers — at the end of the season," said Bees manager Bobby Mitchell. "We did a good job of holding off Tacoma because they were hot. It shows the character of this team. The character is really good and we go into this series with Sacramento with some momentum."

The Bees and River Cats had a memorable five-game series last season in the playoffs, when Salt Lake opened with a pair of dramatic wins in Salt Lake, only to get swept in the final three games at Raley Field in Sacramento. The River Cats then went on to win the PCL championship.

Sacramento finished this season one game behind the Bees, at 83-61, but clearly had the Bees' number in the head-to-head battles. The River Cats won 11 of the 16 games between the two clubs.

"Sacramento has a good team, no doubt about it," said Mitchell. "We have our work cut out for us. They have good pitching and their hitting is efficient with a good combination of lefties and righties both hitting and with their pitching staff."

One major difference favoring the Bees this season as opposed to last is that they get the home-field advantage this time. The first game will be played tonight in California's capital city and Game 2 will also be at Raley Field on Thursday night. But the final three games — assuming the fourth and fifth games are necessary — will be in the friendly confines of Franklin Covey Field over the weekend.

"If we can take at least one in Sacramento then we'll have a huge advantage," said Mitchell. "Then we'd have a best-of-3 series at home, and it's always nice to play at home."

The Bees have lost three of their four infield starters from the beginning of the year — second baseman Sean Rodriguez, shortstop Brandon Wood and first baseman Kendry Morales — to call-ups by the parent Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Still, Mitchell thinks Salt Lake has enough firepower to be successful in the playoffs.

"We have a lot of depth on the team and in the organization," said Mitchell. "We had a lot of moves and injuries during the season, and so it meant a lot of guys that started out as backups saw a lot of playing time and they came in and did a good job and gained experience."

Major League active rosters can expand to 40 players in September, but the Bees don't expect any additional players to be called up by the Angels until after the playoffs are over.

"There is a feeling at the major league level that they want some of these guys to experience the (PCL) playoffs," said Mitchell. "It's only going to help them in the long run. I don't expect any more call-ups by the Angels until the playoffs are over unless there is an injury or something."

Bees infielder Freddy Sandoval (.335 batting average, 88 RBIs) has been among the top PCL hitters all season long, while Triple-A All-Star Matt Brown (.320, 67 RBIs) has also had a big year for the Bees despite missing a month while playing for the U.S. Olympic Team in Beijing. Salt Lake has also been bolstered in recent weeks by the return of outfielders Brad Coon and Terry Evans, who missed time in the middle of the season with injuries.

The Bees' starting rotation for the playoffs will be Nick Green (8-8, 5.32 ERA), Anthony Ortega (5-0, 2.52), Giancarlo Alvarado (7-5, 4.27) and Nick Adenhart (9-13, 5.76). The relief corps has been a big plus for the Bees this season, led by Jason Bulger (0.63 ERA, 16 saves), Matt Wilhite (7-0 record) and U.S. Olympian Kevin Jepsen (2.35 ERA).

"I like how the team has been playing lately," said Mitchell. "Now we'll just have to see what happens."

Salt Lake playoff history

1994 — Lost North Division championship series to Vancouver, 3-2

1995 — Won North Division championship series vs. Vancouver, 3-1; lost PCL finals to Colorado Springs, 3-2

1996 — Lost North Division championship series to Edmonton, 3-1

1999 — Lost Pacific Conference championship series to Vancouver, 3-2

2000 — Won Pacific Conference championship series vs. Sacramento, 3-2; lost PCL finals to Memphis, 3-1

2002 — Won American Conference championship series vs. Oklahoma, 3-0; lost PCL finals to Edmonton, 3-1

2006 — Lost Pacific Conference championship series to Tucson, 3-1

2007 — Lost Pacific Conference championship series to Sacramento, 3-2

2008 — begins tonight vs. Sacramento

Franchise won-loss playoff record: 21-27 (3-8 in series)

Pacific Conference Championship Series

Salt Lake Bees (84-60) vs. Sacramento River Cats (83-61)

Game 1: Today in Sacramento, 8 p.m.

Game 2: Thursday in Sacramento, 8 p.m.

Game 3: Friday at Franklin Covey Field, 7 p.m.

Game 4: Saturday at Franklin Covey Field, 7 p.m.*

Game 5: Sunday at Franklin Covey Field, 2 p.m.*

*if necessary


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com