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Smokies return to Championship Series09/10/2011 11:44 PM ET
By Guy Curtright / Special to MLB.com
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Smokies have reached the Southern League Championship Series for the third straight year. This time, they hope there's one more celebration to come.
"The veterans have made it clear that just making it back isn't enough," Smokies cleanup hitter Rebel Ridling said. "They expect to win it and they've made that very clear."
Ridling drove in four runs and the Cubs' Double-A affiliate got another stellar effort from the bullpen in a 7-2 victory over the Chattanooga Lookouts that completed a three-game sweep of the North Division finals.
The relievers backed Trey McNutt (1-0) with four scoreless innings in the clincher and allowed just one run over 16 1/3 innings in the series.
"Our bullpen was unbelievable," Smokies first-year manager Brian Harper said.
The offense and defense did their parts as well as the first-half division champions outscored the second-half winners, 26-12.
"This team has a bunch of winners," Ridling said. "We're always picking each other up. It's been a great season and there is more to come."
This is Ridling's first season with the Smokies, but more than half the team has Southern League playoff experience. That means they suffered the disappointment of reaching the Championship Series before and falling short.
Tennessee lost to Jacksonville each of the past two years, with the best-of-5 series going four games both times.
"We talk about that," catcher Steve Clevenger said. "We want the ring this time and this team definitely can do it."
Despite the usual roster turnover during the season, the Smokies have never lost focus. The veterans have seen to that.
"The camaraderie on this team is like nothing I've ever seen," Harper said. "It's a great group of guys, just a bunch of real professionals."
Tennessee had to rally from early four-run deficits in the first two games but jumped on top in the opening inning this time and never trailed.
The Smokies scored three runs -- one earned -- on one hit in the first against Allen Webster. Following a walk and a throwing error by shortstop Jake Lemmerman, Ridling bounced a triple that rattled around the left-field corner. Josh Vitters plated Ridling with a sacrifice fly.
The Lookouts got a run back in the bottom of the first on Alfredo Silverio's leadoff homer. But Tennessee took advantage of another error to go up 5-1 in the third. After a pair of singles, second baseman Elian Herrera dropped a forceout throw to allow a run to score and Clevenger followed with an RBI single.
Blake Lalli was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Ridling spoiled the strategy by smashing a two-run single that chased Webster and gave the Smokies a six-run lead.
Webster, the Dodgers' No. 3 prospect, was the Lookouts' third straight starter who failed to make it through four innings. Only three of the seven runs against the right-hander were earned, though, as he gave up six hits while walking three and striking out six.
McNutt yielded a run on three hits in the fourth and left for a pinch-hitter after five innings. He allowed seven hits, walked two and struck out three. The Cubs' No. 4 prospect spent two stints on the disabled list while going 5-6 with a 4.66 ERA. But he was 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in August.
Hung-Wen Chen, Jeff Stevens, Jeff Beliveau and Rafael Dolis each pitched a scoreless inning, allowing a hit and a walk while combining for four strikeouts.
Center fielder Jae-Hoon Ha came to the aid of both McNutt and the bullpen, running down three potential hits and turning one into a double play.
"He's amazing," Harper said. "He's one of the best center fielders that I've ever seen."
Chattanooga won the regular-season series, 13-11, and went 6-3 in the second half. But the Lookouts were no match for Tennessee in the postseason.
"Now we're one step closer to our goal," Ridling said. "We're not done yet."
In other Southern League playoff action:
Ollie Linton led off the 11th inning with a single and scored on a throwing error by reliever Johnnie Lowe as Mobile took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 South Division finals. BayBears starter Tyler Skaggs struck out nine over seven innings and allowed a run on six hits, while Birmingham counterpart Charlie Leesman fanned nine and gave up an unearned run on three hits in 7 2/3 frames. Gameday box score