Mississippi Braves manager Phillip Wellman became a YouTube sensation last June after he engaged in a dirt-kicking, rosin bag-throwing tantrum against the umpires during a game in Chattanooga. But those antics may soon be overshadowed by a far more remarkable resume entry.
After sweeping Birmingham in the South Division playoff series, Wellman's club is now just three victories from winning the first championship in the four-year history of the M-Braves. Standing in their way are the Carolina Mudcats, who had the best record in the Southern League this season.
If the Braves are able to defeat the Mudcats, it would cap a truly remarkable season in which the club went from first-half doormats to second-half champions. The Braves lost 15 of their first 17 games en route to a 30-40 record in the first half, but then went 43-26 in the second.
After Mississippi clinched the second-half title on Aug. 27, Wellman unleashed a torrent of effusive praise upon his players.
"I'm awfully proud of them because they never quit," he told MiLB.com. "For that, I will be forever grateful to these kids. They've been resilient. They came together, kept competing, kept battling like you expect true professionals to do.
"This isn't my accomplishment, this is their accomplishment," he continued. "These guys did it and made me and Bo [pitching coach Derek Botelho] and [hitting coach] Franklin Stubbs look good. That's why I'm so happy for them. It's a true testament to what happens when you keep your nose to the grindstone and come to work every day. This is not a prospect-laden team. It's a bunch of blue-collar workers."
Starting Monday evening, the blue-collar Braves will take on a formidable foe in the form of the Mudcats. The series will almost certainly be devoid of comical managerial antics, and that's a good thing. The real entertainment will arise from watching Mississippi and Carolina engage in a heated battle for Southern League supremacy.
Carolina Mudcats (80-60) vs. Mississippi Braves (73-66)
Best-of-5 series begins Monday, Sept. 8
Something's got to give, as both the Mudcats and the Braves swept their opponents in the first round of the playoffs. Carolina dismantled West Tenn by hitting .303 in the three-game series, while their pitchers held the Diamond Jaxx to a .194 average. The Braves swept Birmingham largely on the strength of their pitching staff, which compiled a sparkling 0.62 ERA.
The Braves have not won a title since relocating from Greenville following the 2004 campaign. The Mudcats, meanwhile, have won two league championships in their 18-year history (most recently in 2003). The club's last playoff appearance came in 2005, when it fell to the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx in the first round. That defeat has now been avenged.
The two clubs split their 10 games against each another in the regular season. Carolina won three of five on the road in mid-July, and Mississippi returned the favor the following month.
2B Chris Coghlan hit .276 over 10 games against the Braves, but got on base at a .488 clip thanks to 10 walks and two hit batsmen. 1B Gaby Sanchez hit .429 with a team-high three home runs and nine RBIs. SS Manuel Mayorson appeared in nine games and batted .378 with a home run and four RBIs, but was caught stealing in each of his four attempts. RHP Brent Sinkbeil was the only Mudcats pitcher to start more than one game against the Braves. The 23-year-old went 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA in 10 2/3 innings. RHP Todd Doolittle in fact did a lot, appearing in a team-high four games and allowing just two runs over seven innings.
CF Jordan Schafer led the Braves with three home runs and seven RBIs against the Mudcats, but hit just .229 in 35 at-bats. LF Matt Young batted .350 over 10 games, accumulating 14 hits and six walks. RF Reid Gorecki scored nine runs in eight ballgames, with four of his nine hits going for extra bases. RHP Kris Medlen went 1-2 in three starts despite compiling a 2.38 ERA and striking out 15 in 11 1/3 innings. RHP Luis Valdez compiled a 2.84 ERA in four appearances but was successful in just two of his four save opportunities.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carolina: SS Chris De La Cruz hit .360 in 26 games for the Mudcats in the regular season and took that hot bat right into the playoffs. The 26-year-old has collected six hits in 11 at-bats while driving in six runs and scoring two. C Brad Davis also drove in six runs, but did so on just three hits. Coghlan has yet to get it going in the postseason -- the 23-year-old sparkplug collected one hit in 12 at-bats against West Tenn. ... The Mudcats' bullpen has yet to allow a run in the postseason, as seven pitchers combined to toss 12 scoreless innings against the Diamond Jaxx. RHP Ryan Tucker led the way with four shutout frames in two appearances. RHP William Glen is slated to start Game 1 of the Championship Series on Monday. The 30-year-old veteran picked up a win in his first playoff start, allowing a run on three hits over five innings while striking out seven.
Mississippi: The Braves swept the Barons in the first round of the playoffs despite a dearth of strong offensive performances. 3B Van Pope hit three doubles in 10 at-bats and was the only M-Brave to collect more than one RBI (he had two). Young managed just one hit in 11 at-bats, while 1B Greg Creek struck out seven times in 12 at-bats. ... RHP Deunte Heath will start Game One of the finals. The 23-year-old has not yet appeared in the postseason, but combined to go 13-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 27 appearances (25 starts) during the regular season. Medlen was masterful in Saturday's series-clinching win against the Barons, striking out a career-high 12 batters as part of his first-ever complete-game shutout. Valdez earned a save in each of the first two games of the series.