Tennessee was the best-hitting team in the Southern League last year, but the Smokies have been even more productive this season. Look at the top of the order and it's easy to see why.
Brett Jackson, the Chicago Cubs' No. 1 prospect, is back with Tennessee and he is flourishing in the leadoff spot.
The speedy 22-year-old center fielder leads the circuit in runs scored (14), is second in on-base percentage (.500) and third in batting (.395) for the 7-4 Smokies, who've scored more than seven runs per game so far this season.
Tennessee's lineup is stacked from top to bottom, as shown by a league-leading .332 team average. But Jackson is the catalyst.
"I'm really learning to love leading off," said Jackson, who usually batted second after being promoted to Double-A midway through last season. "I like making things happen, and with the way this team can knock the ball around, anytime you get on base there is a good chance you'll be able to come around and score."
Batting first with the Smokies is also good training for what might eventually be Jackson's role once he reaches the Major Leagues.
"There is no true leadoff hitter in Chicago right now, so this could benefit my future with the Cubs," Jackson said. "I'm really enjoying batting first. Hopefully, the experience will pay off now and later.
Jackson, a five-tool player who was the 31st overall pick in the 2009 Draft after a standout career at the University of California, is not only the Cubs' top prospect, but also ranked as the 46th overall prospect in baseball by MLB.com. It isn't hard to see why.
The left-handed hitter has a career average over .300 and does everything well, whether it is at the plate, in the field or on the bases.
Through the Smokies first 11 games, Jackson has two doubles, a triple, a homer, seven RBIs and five steals in seven attempts. Strikeouts have been considered an issue, but he has nine walks to balance eight strikeouts.
Jackson might have started the season in Triple-A rather than Double-A if he had been able to play a full schedule in the Arizona Fall League. But a staph infection in his right shin ended his AFL stint quickly and led to a few scary moments.
"They didn't know what it was at first, and I was in the hospital four days," Jackson said. "I fouled a ball off my leg a couple months before, and it eventually got infected. It was pretty serious surgery to get it cleaned out, and it wasn't a good sight for a while. They had to let it heal from the inside out."
But Jackson was ready to go by Spring Training, going 7-for-26 with two doubles, a homer and three RBIs in Cactus League action with the Cubs. He also used the time to soak up all he could from Marlon Byrd, Chicago's current center fielder.
Byrd is under contract through 2012, but Jackson may be ready for the Cubs' outfield before then. He's not looking that far ahead right now, though.
"I'm enjoying the start here," Jackson said. "This is a lot of fun."
Goldschmidt stays hot: Mobile first baseman Paul Goldschmidt didn't cool off after hitting two homers and driving in four runs on Opening Night. He hit his sixth homer and drove in five runs in the finale of the BayBears' second series. The right-handed hitter has a .333 average while leading the league in homers (6), RBIs (15) and slugging percentage (.861) through 11 games.
Hatcher makes switch: Chris Hatcher's homer gave Jacksonville a 1-0 victory over Tennessee in the deciding game of the Southern League Championship Series last season, but the converted catcher is throwing pitches now rather than hitting them. So far, so good: in his first four relief appearances for the Suns, Hatcher allowed one hit over 4 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out four without walking a batter.
Beckham starts well: Montgomery shortstop Tim Beckham, the top overall pick in the 2008 Draft by Tampa Bay, got off to a good start at the plate with the Biscuits. Through 10 games, the 21-year-old was hitting .308 with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs. Beckham did have 12 strikeouts in 39 at-bats, though.