The Southern League had two teams sweep division titles for the first time since 1992 with Tennessee winning both halves in the North and Jacksonville in the South. But, before the Smokies and Suns can advance to the Championship series for the second year in a row, they have to get past Wild Card teams West Tenn and Mobile, respectively.
It won't be easy for either West Tenn or Mobile to advance, though. Tennessee and Jacksonville get to host all but the middle game should the opening series goes the full five games.
Jacksonville took the title in four games over Tennessee last year, when both teams were second-half winners.
Tennessee (North Division champions, both halves; 86-53)
vs. West Tenn (North Division Wild Card; 73-66)
Tennessee won the season series, 11-8
Game 1 at Tennessee, Sept. 9 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Tennessee, Sept. 10 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 3 at West Tenn, Sept. 11 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Tennessee (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Tennessee (if necessary), Sept. 13 at 7:15 p.m. ET
After hitting just .190 following a midseason promotion last year, Tennessee outfielder Brandon Guyer was hardly a key going into the 2009 playoffs. He did get a pinch-hit in the finals against Jacksonville but finished the postseason just 2-for-9.
It will be different this year, though. Guyer goes into the playoffs as the Smokies' leading offensive threat and the Southern League's hottest hitter.
"As far as I was concerned, he was the most valuable player in the league," Tennessee manager Bill Dancy said. "He's had an amazing couple of months."
Guyer hit .424 after the All-Star break and won the batting title with a .344 average. Carolina's Dave Sappelt had a .361 average but didn't have enough plate appearances before being promoted to Triple-A.
Guyer, 24, was as hot as the weather as the season progressed. After spending time on the disabled list in the first half with a shoulder injury, he batted .415 in July, .402 in August and .500 in September. He packed plenty of punch, too.
A fifth-round Draft choice out of the University of Virginia in 2008, he led the league with a slugging mark of .588 thanks to 39 doubles, six triples and 13 homers. He drove in 58 runs, struck out just 51 times in 368 at-bats and stole 29 bases in 32 attempts.
Guyer's second taste of Double-A was completely different than his first. Promoted after hitting .347 in 73 games with Daytona in the Florida State League, the right-handed batter struggled mightily in 57 games with the Smokies.
Despite having shortstop Starlin Castro called up by the Cubs in late May and losing catcher Robinson Chirinos to Triple-A Iowa at the end of July, the Smokies still led the league with a team average of .285 and 120 homers.
"We lost a couple of very good players, but we still have a very good lineup," Dancy said. "It's a real good blend with speed at the top and then good power down the line."
Jacksonville (South Division champions, both halves; 81-59) vs. Mobile (South Division Wild Card; 75-62)
Mobile won the season series, 9-7
Game 1 at Jacksonville, Sept. 9 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Jacksonville, Sept. 10 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Mobile, Sept. 11 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Jacksonville (if necessary), Sept. 12 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Jacksonville (if necessary), Sept. 13 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Although a late-season skid ended Mobile's chances of winning a second-half title, the BayBears enter the playoffs with confidence despite having to play all but one game against the mighty Suns on the road.
"We would like to have more home games, but Jacksonville has a beautiful ballpark with a great atmosphere," Mobile outfielder Collin Cowgill said. "We're excited to play there or anywhere."
The BayBears went 5-3 in Jacksonville this season in taking the season series, 9-7. One run decided six of the games between the teams, and three went to extra innings.
"I think we are very similar teams," Mobile manager Rico Brogna said. "Both of us rely on good pitching, timely hitting and defense. Almost all of our games this season have been close."
Cowgill, who batted .285 while leading Mobile in runs (89), hits (143), doubles (34), homers (16) and RBIs (83), was at his best against the Suns. He hit .362 and drove home 17 runs in 15 games. He had five doubles and three homers.
The key for Cowgill this season has been staying healthy. He missed a year at Kentucky because of hamate surgery and had the second half of last year at Visalia wiped out by a hamstring injury.
In addition to his work at the plate, Cowgill also excelled defensively. He led the league in outfield assists with 21.
"He had a great all-round season," Brogna said.
After Mike Stanton was promoted to the Majors, Jacksonville relied even more on the league's top one-two pitching combination. Tom Koehler led the league with a 16-2 record, and Elih Villanueva had a league-best 2.26 ERA to go with a 14-4 record.
Kohler, who had a 2.61 ERA, had a chance to break the Suns record for victories but got no-decisions in his final two starts. In a playoff tuneup Sunday, he allowed just one hit over six scoreless innings against Montgomery.
Villanueva, who will start the playoff opener against Mobile, won the deciding game of last year's Championship series against Tennessee after joining the Suns late in the season. He showed off his bat as well as his arm in that contest, clubbing a three-run homer in the 7-3 victory.
Under new management: Each of the four playoff managers is in the first season with his team, although only Mobile's Brogna is a first-time skipper. Tennessee's Dancy, in his first year with the Cubs organization, has the most managerial experience by far. He reached 1,600 career wins this season. Jacksonville's Tim Leiper is in his 11th season of managing and is second in the Marlins organization. West Tenn's Tim Laker joined the Mariners this season after working in the Indians organization.
Archer doesn't miss: Chris Archer, who will start the playoff opener for Tennessee, won a 15 games this year between Class A and Double-A. The right-hander was 7-1 with a 2.86 ERA in 15 games with Daytona of the Florida State League and 8-2 with a 1.80 ERA for Tennessee. Opponents hit .200 against the 21-year-old, who had 149 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings. He was a fifth-round Draft choice of the Indians in 2006.
Suns shortstop shines bright: Osvaldo Martinez hit .406 with 13 runs scored, five doubles, a homer and seven RBIs in 15 games against Mobile this season. The Suns shortstop finished the year at .302 and had 37 extra-base hits, 54 RBIs and a league-high-tying 90 runs scored. Martinez had a career season despite being the victim of a mistaken-identity shooting in his native Puerto Rico last fall.