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For BlueClaws, first-half division race coming down to the wire

Will Hibbs, image- Jay Floyd
LAKEWOOD, NJ-- The Class A South Atlantic League's Northern Division enters the final weekend of the season's first half with four teams within one game of each other chasing one playoff spot. The Lakewood BlueClaws are among three teams sitting one game behind the Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox affiliate) for a playoff berth.

In full-season A levels, leagues crown first-half and second-half division champions, with both clubs reaching the playoffs, following the conclusion of the regular season on Labor Day weekend.

Just a couple days ago, the Hagerstown Suns (Nationals affiliate) led the division, but they were swept in double headers on back-to-back days on Wednesday and Thursday, allowing the Intimidators to leapfrog the group and take charge in the chase for a postseason spot.

The BlueClaws put themselves behind the eight-ball, so to speak, with a recent road series in Hagerstown, with the visitors dropping three or four contests last weekend.

BlueClaws players are fully aware of what's on the line and are taking each day as a challenge, hoping to reach the playoffs for the second straight season.

"This is the most important part of our season right now, with four teams separated by a total of one or one-and-a-half games right now. These games are paramount," All-Star reliever Will Hibbs shared prior to the BlueClaws' third straight win on Thursday.

With the team steadily checking the league's scoreboard to see what the other title chasers are up to, the 23-year-old righty asserts that there's a great amount of excitement within the Lakewood locker room of late.

"There's nothing anybody wants more than to win the first half, because once you win the first half and secure that playoff spot, you can take a deep breath and go out with a relaxed focus in the second half and not feel like your back's against the wall, knowing you have a playoff spot at the end of the season," Hibbs added.

Marty Malloy, image- Jay Floyd
Lakewood skipper Marty Malloy feels the importance of taking the BlueClaws to the postseason.

"Obviously, we're here to develop these players, but at the same token, we're here to develop winning players.  So, I'm never going to look at one and say it's okay we lose a game. We're all about winning, while we're developing," Malloy stated.

"It's energy right now...guys understand it. They know what's at stake and the energy- they're upbeat. They know every night that we go out that there's something to play for."

Malloy is in his first year coaching in the Phillies organization after spending the previous three years in player development with the Astros. The 45-year-old reached the big leagues with the Braves and Marlins and was part of the 1998 Atlanta team that won the National League East and lost in the league championship series to the Padres.

With such focus on continuing to win, Malloy and the team seemed a bit superstitious this week when they opted to wear the team's current home white uniform instead of the pinstriped throwback duds they've been sporting for Throwback Thursdays this season.

With a three-game series at home against last place Hickory (Rangers affiliate) from Friday through Sunday this weekend at FirstEnergy Park, Lakewood will need to fully pass each of the other teams in the standings, with Greensboro (Marlins affiliate) also in the mix for the division race. Tie-breakers will not fall in the 'Claws' favor.

From the team, what the BlueClaws need: The BlueClaws cannot break a tie with any of the other contenders (Hagerstown has the head to head tiebreaker and Lakewood's head to head advantage over Greensboro and Kannapolis would be moot as those teams will play 68 games instead of 70 and would have a better winning percentage - for example, 39-29 defeats 40-30 on winning percentage)...Therefore, should the BlueClaws sweep Hickory, they would need two Kannapolis losses, one Greensboro loss, and one Hagerstown loss over the weekend...should the BlueClaws win two of three from Hickory, they would need three Kannapolis losses, two Greensboro losses, and two Hagerstown losses.

Last year's top overall draft selection outfielder Mickey Moniak, fresh off the first four-hit game of his professional career on Wednesday and adding two more safeties on Thursday, realizes that there's still hope even if this weekend doesn't work out for the local nine.

"All we can do right now is do what we're doing and focus on winning ball games and letting the rest play out and if it works out, great! If it doesn't, then we have another half to make a run for it," the 19-year-old said.

Tickets for the BlueClaws' weekend series are available at BlueClaws.com, at the BlueClaws box office or on the phone by calling 732-901-7000.

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