What started out as a geographical rivalry is becoming something much more this summer.
When Scranton/Wilkes-Barre hosts Lehigh Valley for a three-game series starting on Tuesday night at PNC Field, the teams that are separated by just 75 miles will square off as the top two teams in the International League North Division.
Heck, not only are the clubs the two best in the division, they have the two top records in the entire league — and all of Triple-A baseball.
The RailRiders (72-43) and IronPigs (70-45) have been so dominant that the closest team in the highest level of minor league baseball comes from the Pacific Coast League and is still three games behind the IronPigs for second-best record.
Both teams enjoyed a day off on Monday to get rested for the series. Neither club has another day off until the regular season ends on Sept. 5.
“I’ve said it before, we take it one day at a time,” RailRiders manager Al Pedrique said. “(Monday) is our last day off of the season. We got a long stretch. It’s going to be hard because it’s warm and some of the guys are probably getting tired, which is normal for this time of year.
“I’m going to pick the right time to give some of the regulars some days off to keep them fresh.”
When it comes to the rivalry between the two teams, they have always been far apart in the standings. The IronPigs’ lone playoff appearance came in 2011 — one of just three seasons since 2007 that the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise did not qualify for the postseason.
If the playoffs were to start this week, not only would both teams make the playoffs together for the first time, but they would square off in the first round as the division champion and wild card winner.
With just 29 games remaining on each team’s slate, the RailRiders and IronPigs both start a historic quest in terms of franchise records for wins.
Lehigh Valley needs just 11 more victories in 2016 to set a new record for wins in a season. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which has won nine straight at home, needs to finish 16-13 down the stretch to tie the most wins as a Yankees affiliate, which was set in 2008.
If the RailRiders keep playing as well as they have been — winning at a 6o percent clip — they could break the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise record for wins in a season of 91 set by the 2002 Red Barons.
“You can tell they’re having fun right now. Everything is going our way,” Pedrique said. “We cannot take it for granted. We have to keep going out there and prepare ourselves for each game. From now on, every series is huge.”
In the stats department, the ‘Pigs and ‘Riders are also close in several categories. In pitching, the RailRiders and the IronPigs are in the top three in the I.L. in ERA, shutouts, saves, fewest hits allowed and WHIP.
Offensively, they are both ranked in the top three in the league in runs, hits, RBI, slugging percentage, batting average and OPS, while being in the top four in home runs.
The RailRiders hold a slight edge in the season series with seven wins to Lehigh Valley’s six. The teams met last week and split a four-game series in Allentown, with SWB winning the last two. The RailRiders haven’t lost since snapping a five-game skid in game three of that series.
“The guys went to Lehigh Valley knowing we had to win the series or tie it, and that’s what they did,” Pedrique said. “Winning the last two was a confidence-builder coming back home. They have a good team.”
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