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Southern League playoff preview
Seeking third title in four years, BayBears open against red-hot Suns
09/03/2014 10:00 AM ET
Marlins prospect Justin Nicolino led the Southern League with a 2.85 ERA and 14 victories. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

Last year Mobile barely missed becoming only the second Southern League franchise to win three consecutive titles, falling to Birmingham in the deciding game.

The BayBears are back in the Southern League playoffs, though, and can at least claim three championships in four seasons, which Montgomery achieved while claiming five titles over a six-year period in the 1970s.

First-half winner Mobile will have to get past the hottest team in the league to make it through the best-of-5 South Division series, though. Jacksonville took the second half on the strength of a season-ending 10-game winning streak.

The North series will match second-half winner Chattanooga, which had a dramatic turnaround, against first-half champ Huntsville.

Mobile BayBears (79-58, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Jacksonville Suns (81-59, South Division second-half champion)

Jacksonville won the season series, 8-7

Game 1 at Mobile, Sept. 4 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Mobile, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Jacksonville, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Jacksonville (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Jacksonville (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

Jacksonville swept a five-game home series from Mobile to wrap up the second-half title on the final day, but the BayBears hope to cool off the Suns with their playoff series starting at Hank Aaron Stadium. The crowds haven't been big in Mobile in recent years, but the winning tradition remains.

The BayBears won titles in 2011 and 2012 under former manager Turner Ward, then just missed last year with Andy Green at the helm. Mobile also shared a title in 2004 and won outright in 1998.

"We tell guys that there are two guarantees in Mobile -- it's going to rain and you are going to win championships," said Green, who was named Southern League Manager of the Year for a second straight season.

It won't be easy to win it all this year with Jacksonville looming as the first obstacle.

Green, though, has three of the Arizona Diamondbacks' top four pitching prospects -- Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley and Aaron Blair -- lined up to face the Suns.

"I'll take my chances with those three any day," Green said.

Bradley, though, walked five and didn't make it out of the first inning against the Suns in his final regular-season start, adding to a disappointing season for the 22-year-old right-hander.

The No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 Draft was 12-5 with a 1.97 ERA for the BayBears last year and appeared on the fast track to Arizona. But he struggled in five starts for Triple-A Reno, was shut down for a while with a tender elbow and then went 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA in 12 up-and-down starts for Mobile.

"I'm sure he didn't expect to be pitching in the Double-A playoffs again," Green said. "It's been a tough year for him."

Meanwhile, it was a very good one for Jacksonville left-hander Justin Nicolino, the Miami Marlins' No. 4 prospect. The Southern League Pitcher of the Year was 14-4 with a 2.85 ERA and walked just 20 in 171 1/3 innings.

Mobile used nearly 60 players this season and third baseman Jake Lamb, the SL Player of the Year and batting champ, is now in the Majors. Brandon Drury, Arizona's No. 6 prospect, has taken over at third base, but slugger Peter O'Brien was lost when he fouled a ball off his shin shortly after joining the BayBears as part of the July 31 Martin Prado trade with the Yankees.

"It's hard just to flip a switch and turn things around, but I think we have the ingredients to win the championship," Green said. "With the BayBears, winning is considered a rite of passage."

Huntsville Stars (77-63, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Chattanooga Lookouts (61-77, North Division second-half champion)

Huntsville won the season series, 14-6

Game 1 at Huntsville, Sept. 4 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Huntsville, Sept. 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Chattanooga, Sept. 6 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Chattanooga (if necessary), Sept. 7 at 2:15 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Chattanooga (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:15 p.m. ET

Chattanooga finished last in the first half in the North Division with a 26-44 record and was 14-24 in the second half heading into August before making a complete turnaround.

"We went from finding ways to lose games to finding ways to win games," said outfielder Scott Schebler, who led the league with 28 homers and 14 triples while hitting .280.

The Lookouts had an 11-game winning streak and edged out Tennessee for the second-half title after taking four of five games in a closing series at Chattanooga.

Even with the turnaround, Chattanooga was just 35-33 in the second half, but that was good enough to make the postseason.

"I knew we had a good team -- it just took us a while to show it," said Schebler, the Los Angeles Dodgers' No. 9 prospect. "This is like last year."

Most of the Chattanooga players spent last season with Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga, which made the California League Playoffs after a rough first half.

Chattanooga got a boost when shortstop Corey Seager, the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect, joined the team in late July and hit .345 in 38 games. The Lookouts, though, mostly benefited from a relatively stable roster.

Third baseman Daniel Mayora hit .302 with 75 RBIs and Darnell Sweeney, who played second base, shortstop and center field, led the league with 88 runs scored while batting .288.

Pitching was an issue in the first half but stabilized in the second. Although right-hander Andres Santiago was just 6-8 with a 4.48 ERA, he was at his best when it mattered most -- no-hitting Tennessee in a 1-0 victory to the open the final series.

In brief

Not quite enough: Mississippi had the best overall record in the Southern League, but still didn't make the post-season. The Braves (83-56) finished three games behind the BayBears in the first half with a 39-30 record and ended up a game back of the Suns in the second half after going 44-26. Mississippi won 10 of its last 12, but Jacksonville swept a five-game series against Tennessee and Mobile to end the regular season. The Braves almost beat out Jacksonville despite losing speedy second baseman Jose Peraza, Atlanta's top prospect, to a groin strain for much of August.

Move facing delay: The Huntsville Stars franchise is scheduled to move to Biloxi next season, but majority owner Ken Young told Huntsville Times columnist Mark McCarter that he is "pondering" the possibility that the team would have to play at Joe W. Davis Stadium for at least the first half. Construction is barely under way for the new ballpark in Mississippi and the target date for completion is now midseason or later. "We'll have the decision in the next couple of weeks where we open the [2015] season," Young said. The team has another year on its lease in Huntsville.

Barons fall short: The Birmingham Barons bettered their first-year attendance at Regions Field by nearly 40,000, but fell about 30,000 short of setting an attendance record in the Southern League. The team drew 437,868 compared to the 467,668 that came out to suburban Hoover to see Michael Jordan play his one season of baseball in 1994. Tennessee was fourth in the league behind Birmingham, Pensacola and Jacksonville, but set a franchise attendance record of 283,038 this season.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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