According to Mississippi Braves right-hander Kris Medlen, the 2008 campaign started out as a "debacle."
"The beginning of the season was just horrible," he said, recalling the Braves' 2-15 start. "When it was happening, I don't think any of us were looking forward to the next game. We were miserable."
The M-Braves' ignominious start sealed their fate as first-half also-rans. They went on to post a 30-40 record, finishing just one game out of the cellar in the Southern League's South Division.
The second half of the season was an entirely different story, however. The club finished with a league-best 43-26 record, 7 1/2 games ahead of second-place Montgomery.
"This whole turnaround has been baseball at its finest," said Medlen. "That may sound like a cliche, but it's true. Our starting pitching has been huge for us, and our offense has improved as well. And so much of it came down to execution and doing the little things right. Baseball is a weird sport like that. Once we started executing, we started to get some breaks, and things just kept rolling from there."
The M-Braves' second-half hot streak culminated in a division-clinching win over Mobile on Aug. 27. In that game, Medlen earned the victory after allowing one run over six innings while striking out eight. Not bad for a guy who didn't make his first start until June 1 after beginning his career with 77 relief appearances spread out over four seasons.
"Instantly, starting felt like a big change for me, but you just have to take things one pitch at a time and move from hitter to hitter and then inning to inning," said the 22-year-old right-hander. "Once you can slow the game down, you can start hitting your spots."
Medlen went 6-5 with an impressive 3.11 ERA over 17 starts and in the process became a key piece of a starting rotation that also includes Todd Redmond (13-5, 3.52 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (8-4, 3.03 ERA).
Now, as unlikely as it may have seemed in April, the Braves are moving on to the playoffs. Medlen, for one, likes the team's chances.
"This team has a lot of chemistry," he said. "And a big part of that is that a lot of us have come up through the system together. There are five or six of us here now who won the [Appalachian League] championship with Danville in 2004. Guys like Tommy [Hanson], [right fielder] Willie [Cabrera] and [second baseman Paul] Bennett, we've been in a lot of tight spots together.
"Now, the goal is to get a ring. We're all trying to develop as players here, and a big part of that is to develop winning ways."
Mississippi Braves (73-66) vs. Birmingham Barons (74-63)
Best-of-5 series begins Thursday, Sept. 4
In 2007, the M-Braves were beaten in the first round of the playoffs by the Montgomery Biscuits. To avoid this fate in 2008, they'll have to defeat a Barons team that limped to a third-place finish in the second half after cruising to the playoffs with a 40-30 record in the first. The Braves have not won a title since relocating from Greenville after the 2004 campaign. The Barons, meanwhile, are one of the most esteemed franchises in Southern League history. The club's current incarnation has won five championships, the most recent of which came in 2002.
The Barons won the season series, 11-10, but that hardly tells the whole story. Birmingham won eight straight against the Braves to start the season, but then dropped 10 of the final 13.
1B Brandon Allen hit the Braves well in the five games he played against them, compiling a .313 average and .750 slugging percentage. Third baseman Javier Castillo collected 11 RBIs over 52 at-bats, while 2B Victor Mercedes knocked in 10 over 72. Right-hander Justin Cassell went 3-1 with a 3.10 ERA in a team-leading 29 innings, while closer Jon Link notched seven saves in eight opportunities. ... CF Jordan Schafer has been a one-man wrecking crew against the Barons, hitting .404 with 13 RBIs over just 52 at-bats. 3B Van Pope has been no slouch either, accumulating 11 RBIs in 51 at-bats while hitting .373. Ace right-hander Todd Redmond faced off against the Barons five times and went 1-2 with a mediocre 5.34 ERA. Luis Valdez converted four saves in as many attempts.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Birmingham: Allen has been a key offensive contributor since arriving from Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, as the 22-year-old Texan has slugged .614 over 153 at-bats. CF Miguel Negron leads all current Barons in runs (72), hits (143), walks (63) and stolen bases (25). ... Cassell's 3.11 ERA is the Southern League's best, as are Link's 35 saves. Right-hander Kanekoa Texeira and lefty Joseph Torres have been effective out of the bullpen, accumulating ERAs of 2.01 and 2.68, respectively.
Mississippi: Kala Ka'aihue leads all current Braves in doubles (23), home runs (14) and RBIs (61), while Matt Young paces the club in games played (135), runs scored (74) and total bases (189). Schafer has driven in 51 runs over just 297 at-bats. ... Redmond leads the Southern League with 13 wins, while his 3.52 ERA is tied for fifth with teammate Kris Medlen. RHP Tommy Hanson has gone 8-4 with a 3.03 ERA over 18 starts with the Braves and has struck out 114 batters in just 98 innings.
Carolina Mudcats (79-60) vs. West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (70-68)
Best-of-5 series begins Wednesday, Sept. 3
The Mudcats have won two league championships in their 18-year history, the most recent of which came in 2003. The club's most recent playoff appearance came in 2005, when they lost in the first round to these very same West Tenn Diamond Jaxx. The Diamond Jaxx were defeated in that year's league championships by the Jacksonville Suns and did not return to the playoffs in either of the next two seasons. The club won its lone championship in 2000.
West Tenn took six of the 10 games that the two clubs played against one another this season. The first meeting took place in Carolina, where the Diamond Jaxx won four of five. The Mudcats returned the favor in August by taking three of five in West Tenn.
SS Manuel Mayorson hit .406 and slugged .531 over nine games vs. West Tenn, while LF John Raynor hit .320 and was successful in all five of his stolen base attempts. RHP William Glen went 1-1 over two starts despite compiling a microscopic 0.93 ERA and striking out 11 batters in 9 1/3 innings. RHP Chris Mobley struck out 11 over 6 2/3 scoreless innings and converted all three of his save opportunities. ... RF Michael Wilson hit .353 against the Mudcats and slugged .735 in just 34 at-bats. C Adam Moore compiled a 1.006 OPS over eight ballgames. RHP Tracy Thorpe faced the Mudcats on Aug. 13 and allowed just one hit in six shutout innings. RHP Roman Martinez made two relief appearances and yielded five runs over 2 1/3 innings.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carolina: CF Cameron Maybin remains one of the most highly touted prospects in the Minors. The 21-year-old hit .277 with 13 home runs, 49 RBIs and 21 stolen bases. 1B Gaby Sanchez put together a stellar season, finishing third in the league in RBIs (91) and ninth in average (.316). ... Glen emerged as a staff ace as the 30-year-old went 9-4 with a 2.01 ERA over 24 appearances (17 starts). Mobley ranked third in the league in saves after converting 27 of 34 opportunities.
West Tenn: With a .319 average, 14 homers and 71 RBIs, Moore has established himself has one of the best-hitting backstops in the Minors. Wilson bashed a league-leading 27 home runs this season, and his 84 RBIs ranked fourth. ... LHP Ryan Ketchner has more wins than any player on the roster. The 26-year-old is 7-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 25 appearances (20 starts). RHP Shawn Kelley has emerged as a reliable option in the bullpen. The Kentucky native is 3-1 with a 2.11 ERA and nine saves since being promoted from Class A Advanced High Desert.