Southern League Finals preview

Zunino, starting pitching lead Jackson into Finals vs. Mobile

By Brendon Desrochers / | September 10, 2012 1:01 PM ET

With the 2012 season winding down, follow along with as the Minors' best teams face off in an attempt to take home their league's crown.

When the season began, Jackson boasted the Mariners' top three pitching prospects -- Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton plus Brandon Maurer -- and Mobile featured two of the D-backs' top three pitching prospects -- Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs -- plus Patrick Corbin and Charles Brewer.

The teams then met in a highly anticipated five-game set in May, but, of the touted prospects for Mobile, only Skaggs pitched due to the others being promoted. The Generals won all five games with their top four pitchers combining to allow just four runs in 23 1/3 innings.

The series sweep helped Jackson take the first-half title, but did not deter Mobile from winning the Southern crown. With Paxton, Walker and Maurer hanging around western Tennessee for most of the second half, the Generals ended the season with the league's best overall record. Mobile, on the other hand, was decimated by departures and played to the league's worst record in the second half.

"Last year, we had a lot of players who played college ball and were more mature in baseball mentally," said Mobile manager Turner Ward. "This year, it's a lot of high school guys. That's been the difference in our lineup. It's a tough transition for those guys."

Nonetheless, the BayBears rebounded to take their semifinal series with Montgomery in four games, scoring 27 runs and holding the Biscuits to 11. Mobile returns to the SL Finals in search of a second straight title and takes on Jackson, which was equally dominant in knocking out Chattanooga in four games.

Mobile BayBears (69-71, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Jackson Generals (79-61, North Division first-half champion)

Jackson won the season series, 7-3

Game 1 at Jackson, Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Jackson, Sept. 12 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Mobile, Sept. 13 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Mobile (if necessary), Sept. 14 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Mobile (if necessary), Sept. 15 at 8:05 p.m. ET

Jackson has ridden starting pitching and home run power to get to the Finals. The Generals led the Southern League in ERA (3.37) and home runs (118). The player who connects those two strengths is catcher Mike Zunino, the No. 3 pick in June's Draft.

The University of Florida product hadn't played a professional game when Jackson clinched its spot in the postseason, but he may be the key man in this series. After dominating the Northwest League in 29 games there, Zunino had a quick transition to Double-A in mid-August, producing a three-hit game in his third time in the Generals lineup and then hitting a home run in each of his next two games. In the semifinal series against Chattanooga, Zunino homered three times, including twice off top Dodgers prospect, Zach Lee, in a Game 2 win.

"Offensively, he's been a steadying force in the middle of the order," said manager Jim Pankovits. "He's been a very reliable RBI guy, puts on excellent at-bats and gets big hits."

When he's not hitting, he's usually catching, and he's had excellent pitchers to catch. Even though Maurer, the league's pitcher of the year, has been shut down since he reached his innings limit in August, the Generals befuddled Chattanooga for four games.

"Defensively, he's done a good job," added Pankovits on Zunino. "Even though he hadn't seen most of our pitchers pitch, he hit the ground running. He did a great job of game-calling and receiving and blocking. He's the total package."

Added Walker, "He's real good behind the plate -- he calls a good game. He's a big target too, and it makes it better for us pitchers."

Just as he did against Chattanooga, Pankovits will throw lefties in each of the first two games of the Finals. Paxton pitched six scoreless innings, striking out nine, in Game 1 vs. Chattanooga and will take the ball again on Tuesday. Teammate James Gillheeney, called up from High Desert in August, will pitch Game 2. Gillheeney allowed two runs on six hits without walking a batter in a Game 2 win.

"We've relied on our starters heavily," acknowledged Pankovits. "I think James Paxton really set the tone with the outing that he gave us in the first game of the playoffs. He did a great job of letting Chattanooga know that they would have to earn everything they got."

The series heads south to Mobile for Game 3 where the righty Walker gets the ball. Featuring a fastball in the mid- to upper-90s, Walker was effective against Chattanooga in Game 3, allowing one run on five hits in 7 1/3 innings, though he did walk four batters in what ended up being a tough-luck 1-0 loss.

"I felt like it was probably one of my best games this year," said Walker. "I had to battle -- they put the ball in play a lot. My defense made some plays behind me."

Anthony Fernandez, the winner of the clincher vs. Chattanooga, and Steve Garrison are set to get the ball, if necessary, in Game 4 and 5 respectively.

Mobile should provide a sterner test for Jackson's pitching. Chris Owings may be the key for the BayBears, though Mobile has a deep lineup. The D-backs' No. 5 prospect batted .438 with a home run and four RBIs vs. Montgomery. Owings' typical double-play partner, David Nick, also had a big series, leading the SL playoffs with a .533 average and five runs scored.

"I think that getting hot at the right time is always key, going into the playoffs," said Mobile manager Turner Ward, "But we're going to face some good pitching going into this series."

If the offense from Nick, just a .249 hitter during the season, was a pleasant surprise, Ward has come to expect big things from Matt Davidson. The D-backs' No. 4 prospect led the team vs. Montgomery with seven RBIs and added a home run while batting .308. Davidson -- a high-school teammate of Walker's in Yucaipa, Calif., was among the league leaders in nearly every offensive category this season, including finishing second in runs scored (81), fourth in home runs (23) and fourth in RBIs (76).

Mobile's pitching will be tested in what figures to be a low-scoring series. Though effective against Montgomery (2.61 ERA and 38 K's in four games), the BayBears were second to last on the circuit in ERA during the season, this despite allowing the second-fewest walks.

Mobile's rotation also remains unchanged from its semifinal series. D-backs' No. 19 prospect Chase Anderson pitches Game 1. With a 2.86 mark, the righty would have led the Southern League in ERA had he qualified. He allowed two runs on eight hits while fanning nine in five innings against the Biscuits.

"Chase Anderson was a kid who had Tommy John surgery last year and was limited this season, but he had a great season," said Ward.

Lefty David Holmberg, Arizona's No. 8 prospect, gets the ball in Game 2. Much like Walker in Game 4 for Jackson, Holmberg pitched well -- seven innings, one run allowed on four hits -- but watched his team lose, 2-1. Holmberg's 153 strikeouts between Visalia and Mobile tied for the 16th-most in the Minors.

Game 3 starter Bradin Hagens made just two starts for Mobile in the regular season, but fired seven scoreless innings in a Game 3 win vs. Montgomery.

Michael Bolsinger, the Game 4 starter if necessary, fanned nearly a batter per inning (113 strikeouts in 115 2/3 innings). Righty Derek Eitel (8-11, 4.37) is the scheduled starter should the series go the distance.

Beyond Zunino, Jackson's lineup is a free-swinging but productive one. Along with leading the league in home runs, it was first in average (.261), last in walks (473) and second in strikeouts (1,120). Corner man Nate Tenbrink had a homer and a .455 average in the semis, and with a .396 OBP, is one of the few patient hitters in the lineup.

Designated hitter Joe Dunigan was second in the SL in home runs with 25, but his inability to make contact -- he led the league with 175 strikeouts -- and his poor hitting vs. lefties -- .189 average -- limited him to 0-for-7 in the semis.

"It's making pitches," said Ward of his approach to Dunigan. "He's got a lot of swing and misses for the season. He's capable of doing damage at any time in the course of the game. He's like most hitters who will hit cripple pitches."

In brief

Free for all: The Generals announced Monday that they would not charge admission to Games 1 and 2 of the SL Finals. Pankovits indicated that the fan support in the semifinal series, where Jackson averaged about 2,000 fans per game, exceeded his expectations.

"I thought we had some great crowds with a lot of energy, and no doubt it contributed to us winning those two games at home," he said. "Typically in the playoffs when school has started, the crowds are down, but I think the front office has done a great job in promoting the playoffs."

First time for everything: Mobile is going for its second straight league title, whereas Jackson seeks its first title since it won as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx in 2000 vs. Jacksonville. West Tenn last made the Finals in 2005, when Jacksonville avenged its defeat from five years earlier.

Damaging departures: Along with four-fifths of its starting rotation being promoted early in the season, Mobile suffered from the effects of a July 29 trade made by the Diamondbacks. The BayBears' most productive hitter, Marc Krauss, and power prospect Bobby Borchering were sent to the Astros in exchange for Chris Johnson. After the deal, Krauss homered five times in his first five games with Double-A Corpus Christi and ended the year first among all Double-A batters with a .423 OBP.

Brendon Desrochers is an editor for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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