BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Theo Epstein made a trip to Birmingham to check out some of the Chicago Cubs' top prospects, but it was a pair of Chicago White Sox hopefuls who stood out Friday night.
Trayce Thompson continued his turnaround at the plate and Chris Beck tossed five scoreless innings as Birmingham forced Tennessee to the brink of elimination in the Southern League playoffs with a 7-1 victory at Regions Field.
The Barons have taken the first two games of the Northern Division best-of-5 series, meaning that Tennessee has to win three straight games at home -- beginning Saturday night -- to advance to the Championship Series.
Thompson, the White Sox No. 4 prospect, was 3-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs as he continued to put behind him a regular season in which he hit .229.
"The playoffs are a fresh start," said the 2009 second-round Draft pick.
The 22-year-old outfielder struggled mightily in the second half, hitting .157 in July and .185 in August. But he smacked two homers in the next-to-last game of the season and was 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs in a series-opening 3-1 victory on Thursday.
"Trayce has been more patient at the plate," Barons manager Julio Vinas said. "His plate discipline has really improved. He's trying to stay through the ball and hit it up the middle, and he's been able to do that."
"I had a rough couple of months, but I've felt a lot better the last few days," Thompson said. "You have to remember that every at-bat is a new opportunity. I was told you can't chase your batting average. It's evil."
Tennessee led the league in homers, slugging and batting average, but the Smokies have only two runs and nine hits in two games as Beck -- the White Sox fifth-ranked prospect, followed up a strong start by Chris Bassitt with one of his own.
Beck, like Bassitt promoted from Class A Advanced Winston-Salem late in the second half, allowed three singles and four walks while striking out five.
"He threw his breaking ball over for strikes and he was pretty much pinpoint with his fastball in and out. It was nice. He kept them off-balance," Vinas said. "He did a good job of varying his pitches."
It was a continuation of Beck's last two regular-season outings for the Barons. After going 11-8 with a 2.90 ERA in the Carolina League, the 2012 second-round pick allowed seven hits and one run over those 15 innings.
Smokies starter Dae-Eun Rhee was 5-1 during the regular season and won both starts against Birmingham, giving up five hits over 13 1/3 innings. But the native of South Korea had no luck against the Barons this time.
Rhee was charged with five runs -- two earned -- on seven hits and four walks in 4 1/3 innings.
Dan Blanke homered to spark the Barons' four-run second, and that turned out to be the only earned run as the Smokies committed two errors. Shortstop Javier Baez's throwing error kept the inning going and Thompson delivered a two-run double.
The Smokies loaded the bases in the fifth on two walks and an infield hit by Cubs No. 9 prospect Matt Szczur. But Beck struck out Arismendy Alcantara on a 2-2 breaking ball to end the threat.
Birmingham broke the game open with a run in the bottom of the inning and two more in the sixth, one on Thompson's second double.
Nestor Molina, the White Sox No. 18 prospect, allowed just a walk while striking out five over three innings of relief as Tennessee was blanked until John Andreoli hit an RBI double in the ninth off David Cales.
Dan Black, Dan Wagner and Blanke each had two hits and an RBI for Birmingham.
The crowd of 5,767 pushed the Barons past 400,000 in their first season at Regions Field in downtown Birmingham. Counting the annual game Rickwood Classic at Rickwood Field, the team drew 396,820 during the regular season -- the fourth-best attendance in Southern League history.
But the Barons won't play another home game in this series.
"It's exciting to be up, 2-0, but Tennessee is a tough team that can really hit," Thompson said.
The Smokies haven't done it so far and they're running out of time. And they didn't give Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, much to see in Birmingham.
In other action:
Mississippi 4, Mobile 3
Omar Luna and Robby Hefflinger hit back-to-back homers in the sixth inning and Mississippi held off a BayBears rally in the ninth to even the South Division Finals at one win apiece.
The series moves to Mississippi on Saturday night, with the rest of series to be played back in Mobile because the BayBears finished first in both halves.
Nick Evans hit a two-run homer and Mobile scored three times in the ninth before the Braves locked down the victory. Mississippi starter Ian Thomas worked 5 2/3 innings, allowing four hits and walking five while striking out four.
The loser was David Holmberg, who gave up a run in the first on a double by Tommy La Stella and the consecutive blasts by Luna and Hefflinger in his final inning. The D-backs' No. 5 prospect allowed five hits and three walks while striking six. Gameday box score »
Cuy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com.