09/11/2006 9:22 AM ET
Southern League Championship Series Preview
Montgomery Biscuits vs. Huntsville Stars
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
Montgomery Biscuits vs. Huntsville Stars
Game 1: Tue., Sept. 12 -- Montgomery at Huntsville, 7:05 p.m. ET (Jeff Niemann vs. Tim Dillard)
Game 2: Wed., Sept. 13 -- Montgomery at Huntsville, 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3: Thu., Sept. 14 -- Huntsville at Montgomery, 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4: Fri., Sept. 15 -- Huntsville at Montgomery, 8:05 p.m. ET (if necessary)
Game 5: Sat., Sept. 16 -- Huntsville at Montgomery 8:05 p.m. ET (if necessary)
Season series: Montgomery, 5-4.
Due to the odd and unbalanced schedule in the 10-team Southern League, you can pretty much throw out the results since all nine of the teams' head-to-head games (there was a rainout that was never made up) were played by May 11. Many of the top stars on both teams were not involved in any of those contests, among them Montgomery's Game 1 starter Jeff Niemann, pitcher Mitch Talbot who was brilliant in Game 3, infielders Reid Brignac and Evan Longoria, and red-hot hitters Johnny Raburn and Justin Ruggiano, as well as Huntsville's three young starters Yovani Gallardo, Steve Hammond and Manny Parra, slugging third baseman Ryan Braun, and first baseman Brad Nelson, who was the Stars' top hitter in the semifinals.
The Biscuits batted .247 against the Stars in their nine games and posted a 2.77 ERA. OF Jeremy Owens had the most success of any hitter on either team in head-to-head competition, batting .321. 2B Elliot Johnson hit .281 with a pair of homers. DH Michael Coleman hit .273. The only two members of the Montgomery rotation to face Huntsville were ace Andrew Sonnanstine (0-2, 3.95 in two starters) and starter/reliever Tony Peguero (2.70 in two starts).
Given the fact that Huntsville was 24-45 in the first half, it's not surprising that the Stars hit just .202 against Montgomery, though they could boast a 2.34 ERA. RHP Tim Dillard, who did not pitch in the semifinals but is slated to start the opener of the finals, had a 2.38 ERA in two starts, while veteran Corey Thurman had an 0-2 record but a 3.00 ERA in two starts. Among the hitters who are still there, 2B Callix Crabbe batted .200, OF Steve Moss hit .154, C Lou Palmisano batted .063 and OF Ron Acuna batted .188. Only SS Ozzie Chavez had any success with a .290 average.
Who's Hot, Who's Not?
Ruggiano, who had missed the last several days of the regular season with strep throat, returned to face his former team, Jacksonville, and hit a semifinal series-best .417 with three RBIs in three games. Sonnanstine tossed seven shutout innings in his semifinal outing, walking one and striking out nine. Longoria delivered a two-run walk-off homer in the clincher and hit .308 in the semifinals. Talbot, acquired from Houston in the midseason trade for Aubrey Huff, fanned 14 without walking a batter in the clincher, sparkling with a complete game five-hit shutout. Johnson hit .308 in the semifinals while Owens and Raburn both hit .400. Brignac went 0-for-11 in the semifinal series, while Coleman hit just .125 though he did add a homer.
The Stars had brilliant starting pitching in their three-game sweep of Chattanooga. Thurman got things started in the opener with seven innings of two-hit shutout ball. Gallardo went six innings in his start, striking out 10 and giving up one run on four hits in his eighth double-digit strikeout game of the summer. In the clincher, Parra allowed two runs over five innings, fanning eight. Acuna and Nelson each hit .333 in the semifinals, while SS Brendan Katin batted .300 and Crabbe and Palmisano hit .273 apiece. Braun batted just .231 in the three-game set, while Moss hit just .214.
On the mound
Niemann, the announced starter for Game 1, was the Devil Rays' first pick in 2004 out of Rice. Joining the club in late May as he came off of injury rehab, he was 5-5 with a 2.68 ERA in 77 1/3 innings. The Biscuits have not announced the rest of the rotation, but if it follows suit with the semifinal plan, you would see Sonnanstine in Game 2, Talbot in Game 3, LHP Jason Cromer in Game 4 and Peguero in Game 5. Sonnanstine, a Southern League All-Star, was 15-8 with a 2.67 ERA during the regular season. Talbot posted a 1.90 ERA in his time with the Biscuits post-trade, leading all Southern League pitchers with 47 strikeouts in August. Cromer tossed five shutout innings in his last regular-season start to lower his ERA to 2.58. Peguero posted a 2.97 ERA on the season, seeing time in both relief and the rotation.
Gallardo is one of the leading contenders for Minor League Pitcher of the Year with a 1.86 ERA and a Minor League-best 188 strikeouts in 155 innings between Advanced-A Brevard County and Huntsville. However due to his innings total, he may not pitch again this series. The pre-playoff word had been that he would pitch one more game in the playoffs, so his masterful six innings in Game 2 may have been Gallardo's last game. Similarly, Hammond (2.93) was in the same situation, but due to the three-game sweep he did not pitch in the semifinals so would still be available to the Stars when called upon. Thurman was seventh in the league with a 2.96 ERA, as he returned from shoulder surgery which had wiped out virtually all of 2005. Dillard was fourth in the league with 10 wins and had a 3.15 ERA. Parra posted a 2.96 ERA at Brevard before joining the Stars in August and a 2.87 ERA in six starts after that.
At the plate
Brignac was the California League MVP before joining Montgomery, hitting .326 with 21 homers and 83 RBIs there. Combined between the two stops he's ranked among the Minor League leaders in hits (sixth), runs (ninth) and total bases (sixth). Longoria was the club's top pick this past June out of Long Beach State, and he hit six home runs and had 19 RBIs after joining the Biscuits in August. Ruggiano ranked among the Southern League leaders in doubles, on-base average and slugging as well as runs scored between Jacksonville and Montgomery. Raburn, a utility infielder who has been a sparkplug everywhere, hit .290 with 20 steals. Veteran Coleman led the team with 17 home runs. Johnson has power for the middle infield and hit .281 with 15 homers, 50 RBIs and 20 steals.
Crabbe is a force at the top of the lineup with 32 steals, fourth in the Southern League. He hit .361 with 17 of his steals in August alone. Braun, the Brewers' first pick in 2005, joined the team after the All-Star break and hit .309 with 15 home runs and 40 RBIs. Nelson was hot down the stretch with a .333 average, four home runs and 16 RBIs in August.
Points of Interest
Both teams in the all-Alabama championship series were second-half division champions who won their first two semifinal games on the road and came home to complete the three-game sweeps. As a result, even with bumping up the starting date for the best-of-5 finals from Wednesday, Sept. 13, to Tuesday, Sept. 12, both teams will be able to adjust their pitching rotations to their best advantage. ... Huntsville has got three Southern League titles under its belt, most recently in 2001 when the Stars were named co-champions with Jacksonville, as the series was canceled due to 9/11. This is their 11th postseason appearance. ... The Stars got their nickname because of nearby NASA operations.
Series Could Turn On
These two teams are evenly matched and both came into the postseason riding hot streaks. With time to set their rotations to maximum advantage, but with little relevant head-to-head results to go on, this becomes an even harder one to call because of the wild-card status of two of Huntsville's young pitchers, Steven Hammond and Yovani Gallardo. Montgomery, however, is in good shape with five strong starters ready to roll in whatever order the Biscuits see fit to use them, and that's why we're going with this pick.
Our prediction: Montgomery.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.