Birmingham Barons vs. Jacksonville Suns
(Best of five)
REGULAR SEASON SERIES
Birmingham won series, 13-10. The Barons enter the playoffs with the hot hand, having won the last six games against the Suns. The teams opened and closed the season against each other. The first meeting resulted in a four-game split, a feat duplicated in late August (the Barons won the last two of that series, then swept four to end the year). Birmingham won three of four in mid-April before the Suns answered back by winning two out of three in May and three out of four in July.
While the Barons hit .248 as a team, Ryan Sweeney and Casey Rogowski enjoyed hitting against the Suns. Sweeney hit .333 with 10 RBIs while Rogowski hit .298 with a team-leading 16 RBIs. Jerry Owens hit only .262, but stole 12 bases in 15 attempts. ... Birmingham's ERA was 4.10 in the 23-game series, but several starters had success. Game 1 starter Charlie Haeger had a 2.45 ERA over two starts while going 1-0. Daniel Haigwood, the starter in Game 2, made three starts, winning two of them and posting a 3.38 ERA while striking out 21 in 16 IP.
The Suns actually out-hit the Barons with a .273 team average. Joel Guzman led the way by hitting .364 with three homers and 13 RBIs. Tydus Meadows hit .347 with a team-leading five homers and 15 RBIs and James Loney hit .314 while driving in 10 runs. ... Suns pitchers also posted a better ERA than their counterpars in Birmingham with a 3.95 mark, leading one to wonder how they lost the season series. Chad Billingsley goes in Game 1 and he knows the Barons well. He made five starts against them, going 2-1 with a 2.10 ERA and a .156 batting average against. Lefty reliever Luis Gonzalez might be called on often, seeing that he threw 10 shutout innings in six appearances, holding Barons hitters to a .152 batting average.
Game 1: Birmingham at Jacksonville
Charlie Haeger (6-3, 3.78 ERA) vs. Chad Billingsley (13-6, 3.51 ERA)
Game 2: Birmingham at Jacksonville
Daniel Haigwood (6-1, 1.74 ERA) vs. Eric Hull (7-7, 3.38 ERA)
Game 3: Jacksonville at Birmingham
William Juarez (6-5, 4.59 ERA) vs. Sean Tracey (14-6, 4.07 ERA)
Game 4: Jacksonville at Birmingham (if necessary)
Joel Hanrahan (9-8, 4.92 ERA) vs. Nik Lubisch (9-4, 3.00 ERA)
Game 5: Jacksonville at Birmingham (if necessary)
Justin Orenduff (5-2, 4.07 ERA) vs. Heath Phillips (9-5, 4.07 ERA)
AT THE PLATE
Chris Young, OF: Young has put his considerable tools together this year, hitting 26 homers (tied for the league lead), driving in 77 runs and stealing 32 bases. His .545 SLG topped the Southern League.
Jerry Owens, OF: Owens is among the league leaders in a host of categories. He won the batting title with his .331 average while leading the league in hits with 173. He was second in runs scored (99), tied for third in steals (38) and seventh in OBP (.393), making him perhaps the best leadoff man in the league.
Ryan Sweeney, OF: Sweeney's production may have been hurt by an injury that kept him out for three weeks in April, but he still managed to hit .298 as a 20-year-old in Double-A. He didn't hit his first homer until Aug. 29, but still poses a big threat from the left side of the plate.
Russ Martin, C: All Martin has done -- while handling one of the best staffs in the Minor Leagues -- is finish third in the league in average (.311), second in OBP (.430), hit nine homers, drive in 61 runs and steal 15 bases.
Joel Guzman, SS: The 20-year-old phenom led the Suns in homers with 16 and RBIs with 75 while hitting a respectable .287, usually as the cleanup hitter.
Andy LaRoche, 3B: LaRoche set the world on fire in the FSL, hitting .333 with 21 homers in 63 games before being promoted. He slumped in July, but rebounded in August by hitting .300 with a pair of homers and 18 RBIs to bring his Suns total to .273, nine homers and 43 RBIs. On the year, LaRoche has 30 homers and 94 RBIs.
The Barons rejoined the league for good in 1981 and have been a White Sox affiliate since 1986. Since '81, Birmingham has won it all five times, most recently in 2002. ... Jacksonville joined the Southern League in 1970, the longest consecutive association of any city with a Double-A league. The Suns hold the record for most playoff appearances (now 15), but have won just one championship, in 1996, despite having played in 10 finals. They shared the title with Huntsville in 2001 when the series was cancelled following the terrorist attacks.
SERIES COULD TURN ON...
The Suns making a mental adjustment. Jacksonville arguably has the deepest team in all of Minor League Baseball. The Barons are no slouches, however, and seem to have the Suns' number of late, having won the last six meetings between the two teams. Granted, the Barons were working toward winning the second-half title while the Suns had the first-half crown in their back pocket, but a sweep would've given the Suns an extra home game in this series. And it's never good to enter the postseason on a four-game losing streak, especially against the team you're facing in the first round.
Many teams are able to wipe the slate clean when this second season begins. With super-prospects Martin, Guzman, LaRoche, James Loney, and veterans like speedster Todd Donovan and Tydus Meadows in the lineup, combined with a starting staff that goes five deep and a bullpen with plus arms like Jonathan Broxton and Greg Miller, the Suns could very well be one of those teams. The Barons, chock full o' talent themselves, aren't exactly going to roll over, making this one of the toughest playoff series to call. Suns in five.
Carolina Mudcats vs. West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
REGULAR SEASON SERIES
Carolina won series, 9-7. The clubs didn't meet until the middle of May, and West Tenn got off to a good start with a three-game sweep. The Mudcats returned the favor in early June. The clubs split a four-game series July 8-11, then Carolina won two of three at the end of the month. The Mudcats finished things off with another series win in early August. So after losing those first three, Carolina went 9-4.
Jason Hill has feasted off of Diamond Jaxx pitching, hitting .323 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 16 games. ... Reggie Abercrombie has hit .293 and stolen three bases in 10 games against West Tenn. ... Game 2 starter Nick Ungs has gone 2-1 with a 2.52 in four starts vs. West Tenn, including the first no-hitter in Mudcats history on July 29. Game 1 starter Ray Aguilar won his lone start against West Tenn, allowing two runs in seven innings. Game 3 starter Luke Lockwood had a 3.06 ERA in five outings (two starts) spanning 17 2/3 IP. ... The Mudcats had a 3.45 ERA in the season series, but hit just .233
The Diamond Jaxx hit .236 over the 16 games against the Mudcats. ... Brandon Sing led the way with three homers and seven RBIs in the season series. ... Matt Creighton picked up just 21 at-bats in the season series, but collected seven hits and drove in six runs. ... West Tenn's pitching staff had a collective 3.30 ERA, but only a 7-9 record to show for it. ... Jae-kuk Ryu made four starts and went 0-1, but posted a 2.36 ERA in 26 2/3 IP. ... Ricky Nolasco had no record, but struck out 15 in 12 IP over two starts and had a 1.50 ERA.
Game 1: Carolina at West Tenn
Ray Aguilar (5-2, 3.20 ERA) vs. Reynel Pinto (10-3, 2.78 ERA)
Game 2: Carolina at West Tenn
Nick Ungs (7-5, 3.68 ERA) vs. Ricky Nolasco (14-3, 2.89 ERA)
Game 3: Carolina at West Tenn
Luke Lockwood (2-8, 3.24 ERA) vs. Carlos Marmol (3-4, 3.65 ERA)vs.
Game 4: West Tenn at Carolina (if necessary)
Jae-kuk Ryu (11-8, 3.34 ERA) vs. James Russ (1-0, 0.00)
Game 5: West Tenn at Carolina (if necessary)
Pinto vs. Aguilar
AT THE PLATE
Jason Hill, C: The veteran has moved behind the plate, and it hasn't hurt his stick. Especially with Jeremy Hermida up in the bigs, Hill becomes the Mudcats' most dangerous hitter with 18 homers, 74 RBIs and a .296 average.
Reggie Abercrombie, OF: The former Dodgers wunderkind has put together a pretty solid first season with the Marlins. As long as you don't look at the K:BB ratio (127:25), Abercrombie has 25 homers and 26 steals on the year at two levels.
James Shanks, OF: Shanks returned to the Mudcats after a 19-game trip up to Albuquerque. He hit .296 for Carolina showing a little pop (nine homers in 371 at-bats) and a little speed (16 steals).
Brandon Sing, 1B/OF: Sing has delivered as West Tenn's No. 4 or 5 hitter all year, leading the team and league with 26 homers. His 71 RBIs top active Diamond Jaxx as does his .538 SLG (third in the league) and .404 OBP (fifth).
Adam Greenberg, OF: Greenberg returned to West Tenn after recovering from his big league beaning. His on-base skills (.386 OBP) and speed (15 steals) should come in handy at the top of the lineup.
Eric Patterson, 2B: Corey's younger brother has had a better season than he has. The 2004 eighth-rounder joined West Tenn in late August after tearing apart the Midwest League to the tune of a .333 average, 13 homers and 40 steals. He'll be the Diamond Jaxx' leadoff hitter in the postseason.
Carolina, a member of the Southern League since 1991, has won championships in 1995 and 2003. ... West Tenn didn't join the Southern League until 1998 and won its first title in 2000.
SERIES COULD TURN ON...
The Mudcats shaking off the rust. Because of Hurricane Katrina, Carolina had its final series in Mississippi cancelled. So the club hasn't played since Sept. 1. In the meantime, the Diamond Jaxx won three straight to end the season to overtake Carolina in the standings and sweep both halves. As a result, the first three games are in West Tenn's home park, where the Diamond Jaxx went 46-24 during the season. So not only does Carolina have to be sharp after a nearly week-long layoff, they have to do it on the road against the league's best team, at least according to overall record.
If the Mudcats were at full strength, with Jeremy Hermida, Scott Olsen, Robert Andino, even Eric Reed, Jason Vargas and the just recalled Josh Johnson, this would be a tremendous series. But all have been promoted save Olsen, who's on the shelf. At least they got Southern League All-Star reliever Chris Resop back. But unless he starts hitting again, the Mudcats are likely in trouble against the league's top lefty (Pinto) and righty (Nolasco, also voted Most Outstanding Pitcher), not to mention No. 3 and 4 starters who'd top most other rotations. It'd be great to see this series get back to Zebulon, N.C., but even with West Tenn missing uber-prospect Felix Pie, it's hard to see it happening, especially with Johnson gone and replaced by James Russ, just up from Jupiter. Diamond Jaxx in three.