Southern League playoff preview

Jackson opens against Montgomery; Biloxi takes on Pensacola

Zack Brown was the circuit's top pitcher; Taylor Widener and Nick Solak are former teammates. (Michael Krebs/Danny Parker/Brian McLeod)

By Guy Curtright / Special to | September 4, 2018 11:00 AM

After being forced to declare co-champions for the second time in 14 years a season ago because of a hurricane, the Southern League is definitely hoping for favorable weather this postseason.

Chattanooga and Pensacola shared the title in 2017, when Hurricane Irma caused a cancellation of the championship series after the Lookouts and Blue Wahoos won in the semifinals.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan canceled the Finals and the Tennessee Smokies and Mobile BayBears were declared co-champions.

The only other time the Southern League had a shared title wasn't because of the weather. The Jacksonville Suns and former Huntsville Stars were declared co-champions in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

This year's best-of-5 semifinals, beginning Wednesday, match the Jackson Generals against the Montgomery Biscuits in the North Division and the Biloxi Shuckers against Pensacola in the South.

Jackson Generals (75-64, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Montgomery Biscuits (79-61, North Division second-half champion)

Montgomery won the season series, 15-11

Game 1 at Jackson, Sept. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Jackson, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Montgomery, Sept. 7 at 7:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 6:05 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

Taylor Widener and Nick Solak, taken in the 2016 Draft by the New York Yankees, were part of the same trade prior to this season, but they didn't head in the same direction.

Widener went to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Solak to the Tampa Bay Rays in the three-way deal. That meant they would be Double-A opponents instead of teammates, which will continue in the playoffs.

Both should have prominent roles, too.

Widener, ranked as Arizona's No. 3 prospect, led the Southern League in strikeouts (176) and WHIP (1.03) for Jackson while finishing second in ERA (2.75). Solak, the Rays' No. 11 prospect, led the loop in on-base percentage (.384), hits (135) and runs scored (91) while finishing second with 76 RBIs, tying for fourth with a .282 average and winding up third with an .834 on-base plus slugging percentage. He belted 19 homers and 17 doubles.

Complete postseason coverage »

Solak, who was the Southern League's end-of-season All-Star second baseman, and Montgomery got the best of Widener in the regular season, handing him three losses in a year that ended with a 5-8 record for the right-hander.

That didn't change Solak's scouting report on his former Class A Advanced Tampa teammate, though.

"The Yankees had a lot of great arms in their system, and he was certainly one of those pitchers," said Solak, a second-round pick by New York. "He's got great stuff and is really tough to hit."

Montgomery won the second half and finished with the best record in the division, despite the promotion of Brandon Lowe and Nathaniel Lowe -- the team's top hitters - and the trade of pitcher Genesis Cabrera. The Biscuits led the league in runs scored (699).

Righty Jon Duplantier, the D-backs' No. 1 prospect, was expected to lead the Jackson rotation. But Duplantier started the season on the disabled list and spent time there in the second half as well, finishing 5-1 with a 2.69 ERA in 14 starts.

Montgomery and Jackson were the only teams in the league to finish in the top three for both runs scored and fewest runs allowed.

Video: Widener fans 13th batter for Generals

Biloxi Shuckers (81-59, South Division first- and second-half champion) vs.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos (69-68, South Division Wild Card)

Biloxi won the season series, 11-9

Game 1 at Biloxi, Sept. 5 at 7:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Biloxi, Sept. 6 at 7:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Pensacola, Sept. 7 at 7:35 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Biloxi (if necessary), Sept. 8 at TBD Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Biloxi (if necessary), Sept. 9 at TBD Watch on MiLB.TV

Despite missing a month in the second half because of a sprained ankle, Biloxi righty Zack Brown was named the Southern League's Most Outstanding Pitcher. The No. 8 Milwaukee Brewers prospect is healthy again and ready for the playoffs.

Brown allowed four hits and a run over six innings in his final regular-season outing as the Shuckers improved to 19-2 in games started by the fifth-round pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2016.

He went 9-1, and his 2.44 ERA led qualified starters. His 1.04 WHIP and .207 average against were both second in the league.

His best outing of the year assured Biloxi's spot in the postseason.

Pitching against Mississippi on June 15, Brown allowed one hit and while striking out eight without walking anybody in a complete-game victory that clinched the first-half title in the South Division. In that gem, he had a perfect game until an error to start the eighth inning and carried the no-hitter until there were two outs in the ninth.

Brown faced Pensacola three times in the regular season, going 1-0 and allowing three earned runs in 17 innings.

With him at the front of the rotation and Nate Griep anchoring the bullpen, the Shuckers led the league in ERA (3.47).

Griep converted 34 of 37 save opportunities -- going 8-for-8 against Pensacola -- and his save total was the second best in Southern League history, which dates to 1964. Matt Peterson had 37 saves for Jacksonville in 2009.

A former starter at Kansas State University, Griep was dominant in Biloxi's home games, going 20-for-20 in saves and posting a 1.69 ERA. Brown was just as good at home, going 4-0 with a 1.66 ERA.

Video: Zack Brown strikes out sixth

In brief

Late-season slump: Biloxi center fielder Corey Ray was named the Southern League's Most Valuable Player despite a slump in August that saw Milwaukee's No. 2 prospect put together a .146/.224/.354 slash line. The downturn came after Ray belted 11 homers and drove in 27 runs during July -- his best month of the season. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 Draft finished with 27 homers and 37 stolen bases, becoming the first player to lead the circuit in those two categories during the same season.

Batting average champ: Jackson's Kevin Medrano, the Southern League All-Star utility man, hit .321 in 70 games for the Generals in 2017 and bettered that average with a .331 mark in 96 games this season to claim the batting title. Medrano, 28, has a .304 career average over seven seasons, with all except 51 games below Triple-A. He played five positions for the Generals this season and had a .475 slugging mark with 30 doubles and an on-base percentage of .380, tying teammate Rudy Flores for the league lead with an .849 OPS.

Home run milestone: Right fielder Aristides Aquino became the first Pensacola player to hit 20 homers in the Blue Wahoos' five-year history, going deep twice at Tennessee on the final Saturday of the regular season. He had 11 homers on the road and nine at home. Aquino, ranked as Cincinnati's No. 16 prospect, was one of three players in the league to reach 20 homers this season, trailing Biloxi's Ray and Chattanooga's Brent Rooker, who blasted 22. Pensacola missed the postseason in its first season but has made it the last four years, tying Montgomery from earlier this decade.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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