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SERIES REUNITES FORMER AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOES

This week's Triple-A World Series at Cashman Field amounts to an American Association reunion in a Pacific Coast League ballpark.

The Buffalo Bisons and New Orleans Zephyrs spent many nights on the field together from 1985-97 (the Zephyrs were in Denver from 1985-92) before Triple-A realignment pulled them apart.

The Herd met the Houston affiliate 18 times last season, with Buffalo posting a 12-6 edge. Their similarities this year are eerie: Both both teams rallied from August deficits that were as high as seven games to win their divisions, and both needed five games to win their league championship.

Both teams led their leagues in hitting -- New Orleans at a .291 clip that was the best in all of minor-league baseball and the Bisons at .282 with an IL-best 206 homers. Both teams finished seventh in their leagues in pitching (Buffalo 4.51, New Orleans 4.70).

With that in mind, here's how the teams stack up:

Infield

Jeff Manto. Torey Lovullo. Jolbert Cabrera. Edge to Buffalo on the experience end for sure. Throw in the mighty power of Russell Branyan and the consistent threat of Bill Selby at third and the Bisons are sure to take advantage of take advantage of the thin air.

But the Zephyrs have plenty of pop as well. First baseman Daryle Ward, a 23-year-old Houston hotshot, hit .400 with four homers in the playoffs and third baseman Chris Truby is at .484.

New Orleans lost catcher Mitch Meluskey (.353) to Houston earlier this month, but veteran Mark Ronan hit .348 with three homers in the playoffs. Buffalo's Steven Soliz hit just .226 in the postseason but has saved many wild pitches from an erratic pitching staff. Edge: Even.

Outfield

The Bisons will really miss Alex Ramirez's thump in the middle of the lineup, forcing Jacob Cruz to carry more of the RBI load. Las Vegas officials say Cruz killed the Stars when he played in this park the last two years for Phoenix and Fresno. David Miller and James Betzsold have been two of Buffalo's best clutch hitters in the playoffs.

The Zephyrs got 23 homers this season from major league veteran Pete Incaviglia before he returned to Houston. They're also getting thin in the outfield. Center fielder Casey Candaele, one of Buffalo's keys the last three years, is a great leader and Ken Ramos is a solid veteran, but he's hitting just .111 in the playoffs. Edge: Bisons.

Starting pitching

The Bisons' hopes will rest with Jason Rakers, and that's not a bad bet. The right-hander made just one Triple-A appearance last year but has looked major league ready the last month. After that, lefty Mike Matthews will go in Game Two with Travis Driskill in line to start as well.

An unknown is 20-year-old Willie Martinez, Cleveland's No. 1 pitching prospect. He was a 13-game winner this year at Akron and is in town for the series although currently inactive. But would Cleveland send him here if he wasn't going to pitch?

The Zephyrs have a solid ace in lefty John Halama, who was 13-3 for them last year and 12-3 this year. He also went 2-0 in the playoffs. Major league veterans Bob Milacki, the PCL strikeout leader, and Bob Scanlan are also in the rotation. Scanlan has given up just one earned run in 18 playoff innings. Edge: Zephyrs.

Bullpen

It all depends on what day you look at it. The Herd's relief corps had been terrific until its Game Four blowup at Durham. It remains to be seen if Jason Grimsley's confidence has been shattered by that game or if Jeff Sexton's has blossomed after his Game Five save.

The Zephyrs, however, have struggled to find any sort of consistency from their pen much of the year. Reggie Harris has three playoff saves, but no one else has had many distinguished outings. Edge: Bisons.

Outlook

After 149 games, it's hard to go against Buffalo now even with the loss of Jacome and Ramirez. Jacome would have only pitched once in the series anyway. The rest and travel situation is a key intangible. The Bisons won their title Friday night, got settled into town Saturday, had a leisurely workout Sunday and are acclimated to the time change.

The Z's had brutal travel in the final, taking an all-night charter from Calgary to New Orleans, and didn't wrap up the series until late Saturday afternoon. They didn't arrive until Sunday night, and it's questionable how ready they'll be tonight.

Look for Rakers to give the Herd the quick jump and for the bats to provide enough power to take Buffalo to the top of the minor-league charts. Prediction: Bisons strike it rich and claim the Triple-A jackpot in four games.

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