09/04/2007 9:23 PM ET
SL North Division playoff preview
Smokies return to postseason against last year's runner-up Stars
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Tennessee vs. Huntsville
Smokies (73-65) vs. Stars (75-62)
(Best-of-5 series begins Thursday, Sept. 6)
Tennessee, in its first year as a Cubs affiliate,
returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Smokies made it to the championship series that
year, only to have it wiped out by a hurricane.
They're looking to finish the job this time around. Huntsville has been a bridesmaid twice in the past four seasons and hope to get back to the finals again for the second year in a row. Having won both the first- and second-half titles, the Stars will try to use a big-time home-field advantage to get past the first round.
The Stars won the season series, 12-6. Huntsville went
4-5 in Tennessee, but dominated at home, taking eight of nine, including the last seven contests between these two teams. That could be important in this series since Huntsville will host four of the five games should the series go that far.
Tennessee: The Smokies hit .239 in the season series, with most of the hitters who had any success against Hunstville no longer with the team. Jorge Cortes is still around and he hit .300 in eight games. Gary Cates played in 12 games and hit .375. Issmael Salas hit .333 in 14 games, driving in seven runs. Left-handed hitters Tyler Colvin and Sam Fuld hit just .174 and .162 against Smokies pitching ... Tennessee's pitchers posted a 4.18 ERA against the Stars. Mark Holliman went 1-2, but with a respectable 3.60 ERA in three starts. The one win was a
complete-game shutout. Justin Berg and Donnie Veal, the Game 2 and 4 starters, went a combined 0-8 in eight starts against Huntsville.
Huntsville: Huntsville hit just .242 over the
18 games with Tennessee. Adam Heether hit .327 in 17 games with seven RBIs. Lou Palmisano had a pair of homers and 10 RBIs, but hit just .239 in 14 games of action. Hernan Iribarren and Steve Moss each scored 10 runs, but hit only in the .230s. ... The Stars' success against the Smokies clearly came on the mound, with a 2.23 ERA. Steve Hammond went 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in four appearances. Sam Narron went 2-1 with a 1.61 ERA in four starts. Lindsay Gulin went 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in two starts of his own. It should be noted that all three are left-handed hurlers.
Game 1: Tennessee at Huntsville
Mark Holliman (10-11, 3.57 ERA) vs. Sam Narron (7-9, 4.21)
Game 2: Tennessee at Huntsville
Justin Berg (7-7, 4.95) vs. Corey Thurman (5-8, 4.36)
Game 3: Huntsville at Tennessee
TBD vs. Jeff Samardzija (3-3, 3.41)
Game 4: Tennessee at Huntsville, if necessary
Donnie Veal (8-10, 4.97) vs. TBD
Game 5: Tennessee at Huntsville, if necessary
TBD vs. TBD
ON THE MOUND
RHP Mark Holliman may have gone 10-11, but his 3.57 ERA was good for eighth in the Southern League ... RHP Jeff Samardzija was an underwhelming 3-8 with a 4.95 ERA in Class A Advanced Daytona, but has gotten better since being challenged with a promotion. He's got a 3.41 ERA in six starts, though his overall K rate of 65 in 141 2/3 innings is a bit concerning ... LHP Donnie Veal and RHP Justin Berg don't have the best year-long numbers, both with ERAs very close to 5.00. But both might have gotten hot at the right time. In his last four starts, Veal has a 1.93 ERA with 26 K over 23 1/3 IP. He finished fifth overall in the league with 131 strikeouts. Berg has a 3.57 ERA in 10 appearances since the All-Star break and finished off his regular season with a strong performance against Carolina.
LHP Lindsay Gulin was tied for second in the league with 12 wins, sixth with a 3.29 ERA and ninth with 117 K's ... LHP Sam Narron lowered his ERA over a run and a half -- from 4.86 to 3.20 -- in the second half of the season ... RHP Corey Thurman had a 4.36 ERA splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. He actually had much better numbers as a reliever, but was tougher, oddly, on left-handed hitters all year, holding them to a .208 batting average ... After posting a 5.36 ERA in the first half of the season, LHP Steve Hammond had a 3.62 mark after the break.
AT THE PLATE
The Smokies have lost a number of their bigger guns to
promotion. 2B Nate Spears, the one-time Orioles
prospect, has done a nice job since joining the club, hitting .298 in 38 games. ... Cubs' 2006 first-round pick OF Tyler Colvin has hit .291 with nine homers and seven steals over 62 games. In his first full overall season, Colvin hit .299 with 16 homers and 17 steals ... OF Sam Fuld hit .290 in 90 games with a .372 OBP and 10 steals ... OF Jorge Cortes hit .293 and finished seventh in the league with a .394 OBP.
2B Hernan Iribarren finished fifth in the Southern League with his .307 batting average. He led the circuit with 12 tripled and he also stole 18 bases, though he was caught 16 times ... 3B Adam Heether was a solid performer all year, hitting .299 and posting a .818 OPS, both just outside of the top 10 in the league. OF Brendan Katin may have led the league with 163 strikeouts, but he was also No. 1 with 24 homers and 94 RBIs.
Since the club became the Tennessee Smokies in 2000, it has been to the playoffs twice. The Smokies were the co-champions with Mobile in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan forced a cancellation of the finals. The Knoxville Sox, a White Sox affiliate, won titles in 1974 and 1978. Huntsville joined the league in 1985 when the Double-A club from Nashville moved there. As an A's affiliate, the Stars won a title in their inaugural 1985 season, then again in 1994. The team became part of the Brewers organization in 1999 and shared the title in 2001 with Jacksonville. They've twice been to the finals with the Brewers, losing last year and in 2003.
SERIES COULD TURN ON
The Smokies' ability to figure out Huntsville's left-handers. Tennessee didn't fare that badly against lefties overall in 2007, so it's not an endemic problem, but they sure had a hard time figuring out the southpaws Huntsville figures to throw at them. Both teams have been hurt by promotions, most recently with the Cubs calling up pitcher Kevin Hart and the Brewers' need for the speed of outfielder Mel Stocker.
The Smokies will miss Hart, who had success against Huntsville, more than the Stars will miss Stocker. Even though Tennessee's starters have pitched better of late, the track record of Huntsville against Tennessee this year, combined with the heavy-duty home field advantage the Stars have by virtue of winning both halves of the season, make this one a relatively easy one to call. Huntsville in four.
Jonathan Mayo 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.