Montgomery and Biloxi won both halves of the 2019 Southern League season. The Biscuits, Tampa Bay's Double-A affiliate, are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the postseason, while the Shuckers are in it for the second consecutive year and third time in the five-season history of the franchise. They played for the title in 2015 and last season, falling short both times.
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The Blue Wahoos, the Twins' Double-A affiliate, are the only other team in the league to have a playoff streak of five consecutive seasons. The current stretch includes their co-championship season of 2017 when the threat of a hurricane forced the cancellation of the Finals. Pensacola, which shared that title with Chattanooga, is the last South Division team to win at least a share of the crown.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been one of the more dominant forces in the league as of late, winning titles in 2016 in addition to last season. The Generals, a D-backs affiliate, have lost just one game in the last two championship series they've played and hope to add another trophy to their collection this year. They'll have to get past Montgomery again to do it just as they did the previous two times they made a run.
Biloxi Shuckers (82-57, Southern Division champion) vs.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos (76-63, Southern Division runner-up)
Biloxi won the season series, 11-9
Game 1 at Biloxi, Sep. 4 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Biloxi, Sep. 5 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Pensacola, Sep. 6 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Biloxi, Sep. 7 (if necessary), 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Biloxi, Sep. 8 (if necessary), 5:05 p.m. ET
Cooper Hummel has been swinging the bat well lately for the Shuckers. Coming into Monday's season finale, he owned a nine-game hitting streak, including six multi-hit games during the stretch, an encouraging sign for the Shuckers heading into their South Division playoff series against the Blue Wahoos.
And what's been the key to his success?
"Understanding less is more a lot of times and just simplifying the game," Hummel said. "I was hitting below .200 at one point. I know what I'm looking for now and when I get that pitch, I try not to do too much with it."
Hummell is now batting .246 in his first season at the Double-A level and has played a pivotal role in leading Biloxi back to the postseason. The 18th-round Draft pick in 2016 is part of a lineup that features some of the top hitters in the league, including Patrick Leonard, who is batting .301, the second-best average in the league. Biloxi is hitting .243 as a team, good enough for fourth.
"One through nine, everyone in this lineup can hit," Hummel said. "We have a bunch of guys who come out every day and smash balls around the yard. We call ourselves 'the misfits' because we have a lot of free agents and not a lot of top prospects, but we are having fun. It's a great clubhouse."
Hummel is the perfect definition of that group. He was selected by the Brewers in 2016 out of Portland and has produced 80-plus hits for the second-consecutive season. He's crushed 17 homers and, for a while, was caught up in a home run chase with teammate Weston Wilson, who has 19.
"Weston and I were going back and forth with the home run race and I'd tell him I'm going off here in this at-bat," Hummel said. "But in all honesty, when you are hitting well, it's really just focusing on the next at-bat, doing whatever you can to help your team in a given situation, and as a team we are going to do whatever it takes to get the wins in the playoffs."
Pensacola hasn't played Biloxi since late June. Four games were decided by a run, and Biloxi shut the Blue Wahoos out twice this season. But Pensacola is no pushover. It features a pitching staff that has produced a league-leading 1,250 strikeouts.
"We haven't played them in a long time, but we are excited about the opportunity," Hummel said. "We know they are a tough team. They have great hitting and pitching. We have to be at our best."
Montgomery Biscuits (88-50, North Division champion) vs.
Jackson Generals (78-57, North Division runner-up)
Montgomery and Jackson tied the season series, 9-9
Game 1 at Montgomery, Sep. 4 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Montgomery, Sep. 5 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Jackson, Sep. 6 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sep. 7 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sep. 8 at 3:05 p.m. ET
No team goes into the playoffs facing more adversity than the Biscuits. Pitcher Blake Bivens suffered an unimaginable tragedy last Tuesday when his wife, son and mother-in-law were all murdered in Virginia, allegedly by the brother of his wife. The team attended the funeral Saturday and came back Sunday to defeat the Blue Wahoos, 11-7, and clinch their 20th series win of the season.
The Biscuits secured the second-half North Division crown Thursday, just two days after the Bivens tragedy. It was the seventh second-half division crown in franchise history, and the win was their 86th, tying a city record set by the Montgomery Rebels in 1955 and 1977. This could very well be a team of destiny after coming so close in the past to winning it all.
Over in Jackson, the Generals are back in a familiar spot and hoping to repeat as champs. Drew Ellis, a postseason All-Star at third base, could be key to the Generals making a run at the title. Ellis had a fielding percentage of .960 and knocked in 63 runs during the regular season.
"The main thing is just being as consistent as possible, showing up to the field ready to work," Ellis said. "That's been a big part of my success."
Ellis also credits his teammates for driving him to be the best he can be. Though he's been up and down at the plate this season, batting .235, he prides himself on the way he plays defense.
"I want to be the best I can be out there," Ellis said. "You hear about a lot of guys who can hit but can't field their position. I know even when my bat isn't going well -- and I've struggled a bit -- I can always go out and play D."
Ellis wrote the words "Just Compete" on the inside of his helmet earlier this season, and that's the mind-set he and his teammates will carry into the playoffs.
"All the guys have bought in," Ellis said. "We really want to win a championship. You go into our locker room and everyone is talking about championships and winning rings. It's a cool atmosphere and cool vibe."
Moving on up: Mario Feliciano earned a promotion to Biloxi after winning Carolina League MVP honors on Aug. 22. Feliciano played in 116 games with the Carolina Mudcats, hitting .273 and crushing 19 homers. He drove in 81 runs and led the league in slugging percentage (.477). The native of Puerto Rico was the 75th overall pick by the Brewers in 2016 and is ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the organization, according to MLB.com. He cranked out 120 hits while in Carolina and tallied a hit in each of his first two games with Biloxi.
Going, going, gone: In a year in which home runs seem to be the norm rather than the exception, the Southern League has seen 30 of its players hit at least 10 this season. Ibandel Isabel of Chattanooga leads the way with 26 entering the last day of the season, while Ryan Casteel of Mississippi and Jazz Chisholm of Jacksonville have both belted out 21. Four hitters in the postseason have tallied at least 17 home runs, including Biloxi's Wilson, who's racked up 19, and Hummel, who has 17. Pensacola's Travis Blankenhorn (18), Montgomery's Josh Lowe (18) and Tristan Gray (17) and Jackson's Daulton Varsho (18) are all in the top 10 in homers as well.
Rolling up the wins: Three players in the Southern League won 11 games this season, and two of them pitched for the Biscuits. Josh Fleming has since moved up to Triple-A Durham, but Kenny Rosenberg of Montgomery is still with the team and sports an 11-4 record. Trey Supak of Biloxi also won 11 games. He is now in Triple-A San Antonio but went 11-4 while with the Shuckers.
Bringing in the runs: Gavin Sheets of Birmingham led the Southern League in RBIs this season, knocking in 83. He did it on the strength of 124 hits, including 35 for extra bases. That total features 16 homers. The top team in terms of runs batted in this season is Jackson, which had 560. The number is hardly a surprise when you consider the Generals led the league in homers with 127. A total of six teams finished with at least 500 RBIs, and each of those teams racked up 100 or more homers.