Entering the Southern League's 50th season this year, only one franchise had ever won three consecutive championships. Can Mobile make it two this milestone season?
The BayBears, who won both halves in the South Division, have a chance to match the feat of Montgomery in 1975-77 with a three-peat of their own.
Mobile had the best overall record in the league thanks to an impressive pitching staff and will have the advantage of a potential four home games as it faces Wild Card entrant Mississippi in their best-of-5 series beginning Thursday.
The North series will match second-half winner Tennessee, the league's most potent offensive team, against first-half champ Birmingham.
Mobile BayBears (79-60, South Division champion) vs.
Mississippi Braves (76-63, South Division Wild Card)
Mobile won the season series, 11-9
Game 1 at Mobile, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Mobile, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Mississippi, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Mobile (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Mobile (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Pitching ruled in the Southern League this season, and no pitcher was more dominant than Mobile's Archie Bradley -- ranked No. 7 on MLB.com's list of Top 100 Prospects.
The 21-year-old right-hander led the Double-A circuit with 12 victories, despite starting the season in the Class A Advanced California League, and posted a 1.97 ERA with 119 strikeout in 123 1/3 innings.
"He's been lights-out," Mobile manager Andy Green said of Arizona's No. 1 prospect.
Now Bradley will try to get the BayBears off to a quick start in their quest for a third straight Southern League title, facing Mississippi on Thursday night in the opener of their semifinal series.
Bradley, 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA in two games against Mississippi, won his last six regular-season starts, including a combined no-hitter against Huntsville on Aug. 14. He posted a 1.24 ERA during the closing stretch and allowed just 23 hits in 36 1/3 innings.
"He's always had the stuff, and now he's developed the maturity to go with it," said Green, who won the title in the Rookie-level Pioneer League last season. "This year was about cutting down his walks and not letting an inning snowball. The Minors are about growth, and he has done that."
Already assured of a playoff spot, Mobile was able to ease off its starters late in the season and line up the well-stocked rotation for the playoffs. David Holmberg (2.75 ERA), Andrew Chafin (2.85), Bo Schultz (2.86) and Bradin Hagens (3.47) follow Bradley.
Mobile hit just 65 homers -- 19 by former Major Leaguer Nick Evans -- but the BayBears had 163 steals, posted a 3.07 ERA and sparkled on defense.
"We've got the perfect recipe for success in the postseason with our pitching, speed and defense," Green said.
The BayBears are especially strong up the middle with shortstop Nick Ahmed, second baseman Mike Freeman and center fielder Ender Inciarte.
"There is no one I'd rather have anchor a defense than Ahmed," said Green, a former infielder.
The BayBears also have an anchor in the bullpen. Jake Barrett, promoted from Visalia at midseason, had 14 saves and a 0.36 ERA with 22 strikeouts to three walks in 24 games.
It should be a pitching-dominated series as Mississippi was just behind Mobile with a 3.07 ERA and had a 2.73 ERA to Mobile's 2.82 in their 20 head-to-head meetings.
Gus Schlosser is the ace for Mississippi but won't be available to start until the third game as the Braves didn't secure a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season. His ERA of 2.39 ranked third in the league, and he was 1-0 with a 1.17 ERA in four starts against Mobile.
Birmingham Barons (77-63, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Tennessee Smokies (76-62, North Division second-half champion)
Birmingham won the season series, 11-9
Game 1 at Birmingham, Sept. 5 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Birmingham, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Tennessee, Sept. 7 at 6:15 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Tennessee (if necessary), Sept. 8 at 3 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Tennessee (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Javier Baez homered in his first at-bat for Tennessee after being promoted in early July from Class A Advanced Daytona and never stopped producuing for the Smokies.
"The potentially great players respond when they are challenged and rise to the occasion," Smokies manager Buddy Bailey said of the Chicago Cubs' No. 1 prospect. "Not very often do you see a guy go up to the next level and do what he's done. It shows what a special talent he is."
The 20-year-old shortstop drove in 54 runs in 54 games with Tennessee, and his 20 homers ranked fourth in the league despite his late arrival. His OPS was .983 thanks to a .638 slugging mark and he had a .294 batting average.
Those numbers over two months were impossible to ignore, which was why Baez was named to the season-ending All-Star Team in the Southern League, duplicating the honor he won in the Florida State League for his work the first three months of the season.
Combined, Baez hit 37 homers -- tied for second-most in the Minors -- and had 111 RBIs.
The Smokies already had the second-half lead in the North Division when Baez arrived, but he made sure they stayed there. Now he'll try to help lead Tennessee to its first Southern League title since being declared co-champion with Mississippi in 2004.
First-half North winner Birmingham certainly knows what Baez can do. He had five homers and 11 RBIs while batting .310 as the Smokies went 6-4 against the Barons in the second half.
Baez, ranked No. 9 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, is hardly the only hitter that Birmingham pitchers have to worry about, though.
Tennessee led the league with 118 homers, a .409 slugging mark and a .258 average.
Third baseman Christian Villanueva, the Cubs' No. 14 prospect, topped the league with 41 doubles and 230 total bases while hitting 19 homers, and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, their No. 8 prospect, had 55 extra-base hits and 31 steals.
The Smokies also got a boost from the return of first baseman Justin Bour, who missed two months with a broken wrist. He finished with 18 homers and 64 RBIs in 83 games.
"Baez put up great numbers, but it wasn't like he had to carry the team," said Bailey, who reached 1,700 career victories this season. "We have a lot of good hitters and I think that let him just slip right in and not feel any extra pressure.
Holding on: Mobile OF Justin Greene was pulled after making an out in his first at-bat Sunday, ensuring that he would win the league batting title. He finished at .308, just ahead of Montgomery OF Kevin Kiermaier's .307. Kiermaier was promoted to Triple-A Durham in late July. Greene hit .349 in July but cooled in August and was hitless in his final 12 at-bats. His average was the lowest for a batting champion since Scott Leius hit .303 for Orlando in 1989.
Packing them in: The Barons' move downtown to Birmingham's new Regions Field was definitely a hit. Birmingham's attendance of 396,820 -- an average of 5,669 per game -- was the fourth-best in Southern League history and the highest since Jacksonville drew 404,992 in 2006. The league record is the 467,868 the Barons drew to their former ballpark in Hoover when Michael Jordan played for them in 1994.
On the move: Birmingham, which suffered when leadoff hitter Marcus Semien was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte, got an infusion of speed at the top spot when second baseman Micah Johnson joined the team from Class A Advanced Winston-Salem. Johnson, the White Sox's No. 15 prospect, led the Minors with 84 stolen bases, the final one coming after he joined the Barons. Johnson, 22, had three hits in his Birmingham debut and finished with a .312 overall average after starting the season hitting .342 for Class A Kannapolis.