When the Appalachian League playoffs conclude, there will be celebrations in a city that hasn't won a title in quite some time.
The Greeneville Astros are in the postseason for the first time since 2004, when they secured the championship in their inaugural season in the league. Of the four teams in the playoffs, that's the most recent title.
Bluefield last took home the crown in 2001 as an Orioles affiliate before becoming a member of the Blue Jays system in 2011. The Kingsport Mets haven't won since 1995, while Pulaski's previous title came in 1991 when it was part of the Braves system, the longest drought among existing franchises in the league.
While Bluefield and Pulaski surged ahead in the East Division standings to qualify for the playoffs early, four West teams entered their final regular-season series still in contention. Late charges weren't enough for Elizabethton and Johnson City, however, which have combined to win the last three league championships. In fact, the defending champion E-Twins missed the postseason for the first time since 2004.
The playoff format has changed for the first time since going to a four-team setup in 2010. Though both rounds remain best-of-3, this year's semifinals match teams within the same division rather than crossing over (first-place team from one division vs. second-place team from the other) as had been used the past three years.
Bluefield Blue Jays (East Division runner-up, 40-27)
vs. Pulaski Mariners (East Division champions, 41-27)
Pulaski won the season series, 5-4
Game 1 at Bluefield, Aug. 31 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Pulaski, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Pulaski (if necessary), Sept. 2, at 7 p.m. ET
These teams were in a race for first place the past few weeks. They'll decide it once and for all in the playoffs after the regular-season crown remained in limbo going to the last night of the regular season.
"Over the last six, seven days, we've been jockeying for first and second," Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said.
The Blue Jays took a five-game losing skid into the season finale (all against the West Division playoff teams), but Holmberg said there's no reason to panic.
"When you've clinched early like that -- for us, nine or 10 days ago -- for both teams we've had a chance to do some things with our lineup," Holmberg said. "You sometimes try to give a guy a blow. Now we're trying to get our lineup back. We're happy with what we've lined up [on the mound]."
The Blue Jays will go with Jairo Labourt (2-2, 1.92 ERA) in the first game and Alberto Tirado (3-0, 1.68 ERA) in the second. Chase DeJong (2-3, 3.05 ERA), a 2012 second-round pick, is available for a potential third game.
Bluefield also boasts surging first baseman Matt Dean, who had a 16-game hitting streak snapped on the final night of the season. His batting average has soared to a league-best .338, and that goes well with third baseman Mitch Nay, who tops the league with 42 RBIs.
"Matt has had an incredible turnaround from last year," Holmberg said, noting a position change to first base from third. "He can concentrate more on hitting. Now he has a pleasant memory to take with him as he moves through his career."
Pulaski has the next three RBI producers after Dean in Kristian Brito, Jesus Ugueto and Jeff Zimmerman. Outfielder Wilton Martinez led the league with 12 homers. But the Mariners have been the top offensive team in large part because of shortstop Tyler Smith, a first-year player out of Oregon State who was named Appy League Player of the Year.
Pulaski also features Pitcher of the Year Edwin Diaz, a right-hander who'll take his league-best 1.43 ERA into the playoff opener. Relief ace Emilio Pagan, who didn't allow an earned run while racking up 12 saves in 15 appearances, has moved on to the Northwest League
Bluefield has adjusted since shortstop Dawel Lugo was promoted to Vancouver as 17-year-old Venezuelan Franklin Barreto continues to settle in. The Jays also should have second baseman Tim Locastro, who's working his way back from an aggravated leg injury, at or near full strength.
Kingsport Mets (West Division champions, 40-27) vs.
Greeneville Astros (West Division runners-up, 38-30)
Greeneville won the season series, 6-5
Game 1 at Greeneville, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Kingsport, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Kingsport (if necessary), Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Kingsport didn't secure its first regular-season division title since 1996 until the penultimate night of the season, and a four-team race put a playoff-like approach in place for the final couple of weeks.
The Mets have right-hander Chris Flexen available to start the playoff opener. He led the league with eight wins, including four in August. They also have hot-hitting shortstop Jeff McNeil, who went 6-for-11 across a two-game stretch earlier this week and finished second in batting.
Greeneville's Josh Bonifay, who in his first season as a skipper at any level was named Appy Manager of the Year, said the Astros have flourished with some spectacular defense recently. He said his team deserves a playoff spot even though it lost a game on the night it clinched a postseason bid.
"It's awesome to be a part of and I'm thrilled for our guys," Bonifay said.
Greeneville will go with left-hander Chris Lee (2-2, 3.10 ERA) in Game 1.
Unlike the Mets, the Astros have been a light-hitting club for most of the season, sporting one of the lower team batting averages in the circuit. In fact, Greeneville did not score more than four runs over the final seven games of the campaign.
Players accounting for 10 of Greeneville's 35 homers have moved on to other teams in the organization. Still, the presence of catcher Brian Holberton, who joined the squad late after playing for North Carolina in the College World Series, has given the Astros a boost with five homers and 16 RBIs in 37 games.
"It's one of those things in Minor League Baseball -- you get a thrill from guys playing real good and getting callups," Bonifay said. "As your roster changes, you have to make changes with it. As of late, we've had to play some small ball."
Making his pitch: Johnson City Cardinals reliever Zach Loraine came off a busy 2013 college season for NCAA Division II World Series participant Coker (S.C.) College and rarely missed a beat in his first full year as a pitcher after converting from catcher. He had a late-season stretch of nine outings -- four of which were for at least two innings -- in which he allowed a total of two earned runs. "It's a whole new game to me," said Loraine, a native of Lake St. Louis, Mo., who was thrilled to be drafted by his home state organization. "It kind of helps me [no longer batting] because I can sit back and watch from a pitcher's perspective."
Heavy duty: Reliever Joe Lovecchio had a team-leading four wins for Bluefield after picking up a victory on Aug. 3. But after the first-year pro out of the University of South Florida notched four decisions in a five-outing span out of the bullpen, he was sidelined for nearly two weeks and has been slow to regain a groove.
Nosed out: Burlington Royals outfielder Tyler Chism was contending for the league batting title but fell short of the minimum plate appearances to qualify. His pursuit ended when he suffered a broken nose and missed the last four games, finishing with a .333 average.