Johnson City hopes the toughest part was getting into the playoffs.
The Cardinals won 11 of 14 games during a late-season stretch to secure second place in the West Division and a spot in the postseason with only two games to spare.
Now, Johnson City will aim to win the league crown for the third year in a row. The only other team to win three consecutive Appy League championships was the Painesville Yankees from 1979-81.
The league adopted a two-round playoff format in 2010, when Johnson City took home its first title since 1976 after winning the West Division. The Cards topped the division again in 2011 en route to a repeat but this time will have to come from a second-place spot if they're going to win it all.
The first-place teams from each division match up against the second-place finisher from the other division in the best-of-3 semifinals. The finals are also best-of-3 with Game 1 taking place in the eastern-most city of the remaining teams.
Burlington Royals (41-25, East Division champion) vs.
Johnson City Cardinals (39-28, West Division runner-up)
Teams split six-game season series.
Game 1 at Johnson City, Aug. 29, 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Burlington, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Burlington (if necessary), Aug. 31, 7 p.m. ET
Infielder Bruce Caldwell of the Johnson City Cardinals feels right at home against the Burlington Royals. That's because he's comfortable in Burlington Athletic Stadium, where this semifinal series will conclude.
Caldwell went on a tear during the final weekend of the regular season, hitting two home runs and a double in one game at Burlington and following that with a two-run single in the first inning of the next game on his way to a two-hit performance.
"It's just something about the atmosphere and the field," said Caldwell, who played at the ballpark in the spring with Spartanburg Methodist during a junior college tournament.
Then the St. Louis Cardinals selected the 20-year-old native of South Carolina in the 15th round in June's Draft and assigned him to Johnson City, which eventually brought him back to Burlington -- again. A few years earlier, he visited to watch his brother, Allen, play as an outfielder for the Royals.
Caldwell's only multi-homer game as a professional added another fond memory of playing in Burlington, and he and his teammates hope to add to that during the playoffs.
"We've got a good group here," Johnson City catcher Adam Ehrlich said, pointing out there was a team meeting to address concerns after a game. "We all kind of decided what our goal was. We know there's limited time left in the season. We realized a couple of weeks ago how realistic [making the playoffs] was. It got our team focused."
As two-time defending champs, there's a target on the Cardinals.
"That kind of makes you the team to beat," Ehrlich said.
On the flip side, Burlington hasn't won a league title since 1993, when it was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians. This marks only the second time in six years as a Royals affiliate that Burlington has reached the postseason.
Manager Tommy Shields of the Royals said he's confident his team will break out of a late-season funk. Most of the shortcomings have come offensively.
He said winning at the end is important.
"No doubt about it, winning is part of development," he said of the mission for the playoffs.
The Royals, featuring the fifth overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Bubba Starling, don't want to rest on their regular-season success.
"We still have a higher goal," first baseman Mark Threlkeld said. "We want to finish first and win the playoffs."
Elizabethton Twins (43-22, West Division champion) vs.
Danville Braves (36-28, East Division runner-up)
Teams split season series, 2-2 (two games canceled)
Game 1 at Danville, Aug. 29, 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Elizabethton, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Elizabethton (if necessary), Aug. 31, 7 p.m. ET
These are the two most successful teams across the last decade -- Elizabethton has won four of the last nine championships, while Danville has taken two of the past six and was runner-up three times during that span.
Elizabethton sports both the league's best offense and top pitching. The league's Player of the Year is Twins outfielder Candido Pimentel, though teammates Adam Walker and Max Kepler have ranked as among the top power producers.
Veteran manager Ray Smith of the Twins said he had challenges early in the season juggling the pitching staff with some hurlers on strict innings limitations. But Hudson Boyd became one of the workhorses -- although with a 2-5 record, he suffered nearly one-fourth of the team's defeats.
Danville overcame an eight-game midseason losing streak to put pressure on Burlington atop the East Division standings. The Braves were undone by a five-game skid late in the year, but manager Jonathan Schuerholz said his team showed toughness at the right times.
Still, there's little margin for error with the Braves.
"It's going to hinge on one or two small things," Schuerholz said.
That's more like it: Bristol White Sox pitcher Jake Cose continued a late-season recovery by pitching seven strong innings in his final outing, notching 11 strikeouts against the Burlington Royals. Cose, who worked strictly out of the stretch, retired the last 11 batters he faced. "After those [early] starts were terrible, I had to do something different," Cose told the Bristol Herald Courier. "I dropped down a little bit [with the delivery] and got some two-seam action and it's been working."
Finishing strong: Outfielder Willie Argo of the Princeton Rays went on a late-season tear to raise his batting average above .300 with two games to play. That included a 4-for-4 outing against the Bristol White Sox and three two-hit outings during a 10-game span. The surge made him the team leader in hitting among regular players, while the rookie rates fourth in the league with 17 stolen bases.
Your turn: Burlington Royals third baseman Patrick Leonard has led the league in home runs most of the season, with Elizabethton's Adam Walker in a close competition. Then Leonard's teammate Fred Ford caught him by hitting his 13th. That didn't last long because Leonard retook the team lead in his next at-bat. "I'll hit one and we know by then Pat is due for another one," Ford said. "I'm just trying to help him out."