Pensacola is the only one of the four playoff teams from a year ago to make it back, winning both halves in the South Division. The Blue Wahoos will be matched against Wild Card entrant Mississippi in the other opening round best-of-5 series.
Biloxi almost added a postseason championship to the best regular-season record last year but lost the fifth game of the title series at Chattanooga. The championship by the Lookouts was just the second for a team from the North in 11 years.
Jackson Generals (84-55, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Montgomery Biscuits (76-64, North Division second-half champion)
Jackson won the season series, 16-4
Game 1 at Jackson, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Jackson, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Montgomery, Sept. 9 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Jackson became the first team since 1991 to sweep the Southern League's top three individual awards when outfielder Tyler O'Neill was named Most Valuable Player, left-hander Ryan Yarbrough was voted as Most Outstanding Pitcher and Daren Brown was selected as Manager of the Year.
The Generals, though, hope to add to the hardware.
"I want everyone to get an award at the end of the season," Brown said. "That would be a championship ring."
A team from Jackson has won just one Southern League title, in 2000. To add a second, the Generals will have to bounce back from their only rough stretch of the season.
Jackson, which had a 2-11 swoon, hadn't lost a home series or more than three games in a row until late August, well after they had finished going 16-4 against Montgomery. O'Neill, Seattle's No. 2 prospect, drove in 17 runs in the 17 games he played against the Biscuits while posting a .305/.421/.525 slash line, and No. 13-ranked Yarbrough went 3-0 with a 2.31 ERA in four starts.
Yarbrough, though, pitched just four innings over the last three weeks of the season, and even O'Neill wasn't immune from the team's late slump at the plate. The 21-year-old, ranked No. 64 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, led the league with a franchise-record 102 RBIs but fell short of taking the Triple Crown. He finished second with 24 homers and fifth with a .293 average.
"He put in the work and it paid off," Brown said. "He had a great season for someone his age in a league like this. He has a lot of talent and the worth ethic to match it. He's a competitor who comes to the park everyday ready to play."
Montgomery, just 34-36 in the first half compared to Jackson's 46-24 record, caught and passed the Generals for first place in the second half by winning 12 out of 14.
The Biscuits have Tampa Bay's top three prospects in shortstop Willy Adames , right-hander Brent Honeywell and first baseman-outfielder Jake Bauers . Adames is No. 21, Honeywell ranks No. 42 and Bauers is No. 80 on MLB.com's Top 100 list.
The Montgomery player who stood out against Jackson in the regular season was outfielder Cade Gotta , though. He had four homers and eight RBIs in nine second-half games after a promotion from the Class A Advanced Florida State League.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos (81-59, South Division first- and second-half champion) vs.
Mississippi Braves (73-65, South Division Wild Card)
Pensacola won the season series, 12-8
Game 1 at Pensacola, Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Pensacola, Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Mississippi, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Mississippi (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Pensacola (if necessary), Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Mississippi left-hander Sean Newcomb had almost as many lowlights as highlights through much of the season, not something you'd expect from someone rated so highly as a prospect. From the start of August on, though, Newcomb looked every bit like someone who should be Atlanta's No. 3 prospect and No. 50 on MLB.com's Top 100 list.
"I got more aggressive and started to challenge hitters more," said Newcomb, who limited Biloxi to one hit over seven scoreless innings in his final regular-season start. "I've learned a lot this year about myself and pitching."
Newcomb, acquired by Atlanta as part of the return for Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, had 58 walks in 104 1/3 innings through July but issued just 13 free passes in his last 34 2/3 innings. He finished 8-7 with a 3.96 ERA and led the Southern League with 152 strikeouts. The first-round choice of the Angels in the 2014 Draft struck out 10 in one of his four starts against Pensacola and finished 1-0 with a 2.78 ERA against the Blue Wahoos, fanning 29 in 22 2/3 innings.
Mississippi had a seven-game losing streak shortly after shortstop Dansby Swanson, ranked No. 4 among MLB prospects, was promoted to Atlanta on Aug. 17 but rallied afterward to hold on to a playoff spot.
Second baseman Ozzie Albies , No. 14 on the MLB.com list, hit well late despite the disappointment of not joining Swanson in Atlanta, and the M-Braves got a lift from rehabbing center fielder Mallex Smith , on the Atlanta disabled list since June with a broken left thumb.
Pensacola had a consistently strong season despite not having nearly the prospect star power of Mississippi. Right-hander Sal Romano , though, didn't get to share much in the Blue Wahoos' first-half success, going 1-7 despite the team's 41-29 record.
Things didn't turn around at first in the second half, his record falling to 1-10 after a ninth straight loss. But Cincinnati's No. 17 prospect started to finally get some better luck and won five of his last six decisions while finishing with a 3.52 ERA. Romano didn't have a decision in four starts against Mississippi, but the 22-year-old had a 1.37 ERA with 24 strikeouts to three walks in 26 1/3 innings.
"I don't need to try to strike everybody out -- strikeouts will come," Romano said. "I just need to pitch my game, mix all my pitches, be a pitcher and not a thrower. I think that's the biggest difference in the second half."
Working extra: Mississippi set a team record with 18 extra-inning games during the regular season, and seven came against Pensacola. One of the Braves' two 16-inning affairs was against the Blue Wahoos, and the teams also played games that lasted 14 and 13 innings. Pensacola won four of the extra-inning games, but the Braves took the 16-inning marathon, 2-1, on Aug. 20 at home. The game was scoreless until the final inning, the Braves capping a two-run bottom of the 16th with outfielder Dustin Peterson drawing a bases-loaded walk.
Not at his best: Montgomery right-hander Chih-Wei Hu led the Southern League with a 2.75 ERA, but it would have been even lower if he hadn't faced Mississippi. Tampa Bay's No. 6 prospect had a 9.64 ERA in two starts against the Braves, losing both games. The 22-year-old native of Taiwan finished 7-9 but was second in the league with a WHIP of 1.15 while being named to the All-Star team. He had 107 strikeouts to 36 walks in 142 2/3 innings.
Packing them in: Pensacola, which entered the Southern League in 2012, went over 300,000 in home attendance for the fifth straight year. The total was 302,340 this year for an average of 4,319 at Blue Wahoos Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 5,038. Pensacola ranked second in the league, behind Birmingham, which went over 400,000 for the third straight year, and just ahead of Tennessee, which set a team record by drawing 293,694.
Nobody's perfect: Pensacola closer Alejandro Chacin 's 30 saves led the Southern League, and three of them came against Mississippi. But he also had two blown saves and a loss against the Braves, posting a 5.23 ERA in nine appearances. Chacin blew just five total saves and had a 1.78 ERA to go with a 5-2 record. The 23-year-old native of Venezuela recorded 75 strikeouts to 26 walks in 60 2/3 innings over 52 appearances.
Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com.