The Double-A playoffs begin with three best-of-five series featuring the top two teams in each league. Montgomery and Mississippi face off in the South, Wichita wrestles with Northwest Arkansas in the Central and Bowie battles Akron in the Northeast. All three series are set to run from Sept. 21-26.
Montgomery Biscuits (Rays, 62-55, Double-A South South Division runner-up) vs. Mississippi Braves (Braves, 67-44, Double-A South South Division champion)
Mississippi won the season series, 17-7
Game 1 at Montgomery, Sept. 21 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Montgomery, Sept. 22 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Mississippi, Sept. 24 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Mississippi (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Mississippi (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Mississippi's record against Montgomery this season looked more like a football score than a baseball rivalry. The Braves (67-44) went 17-7 against the Biscuits and are now looking for their first league championship since 2008.
"I couldn't have told you that," Braves interim manager Dan Meyer said when told about the record. "They're a good team. Very talented. We have some confidence, to a point, but I will say our team is pretty grounded."
That '08 Braves squad featured a number of future (and former) Major Leaguers like Jordan Schafer, Tommy Hanson, Martin Prado and Jeff Francoeur -- even Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz appeared in one game apiece that summer in Mississippi. The duo would be proud of how the current-day M-Braves reached the playoffs, too. Mississippi pitchers held opposing batters to a league-best .224 average this year, allowed the fewest home runs (74), runs (417) and hits (785) and finished with the second-lowest team ERA, (3.58), just below Pensacola's 3.51 mark. The M-Braves also totaled a dozen shutout wins, the most in the league, and owned the best winning percentage in franchise history at .604.
Their pitching success reflects on their skipper, Meyer, who spent parts of five seasons in the Majors from 2004-2010 as a lefty reliever after he was drafted by Atlanta in 2002. He began the season as Mississippi's pitching coach and took over managerial duties in June when Wyatt Toregas resigned. It's been a wild ride for the former big leaguer, who said he'd love to see his players win a ring but doesn't necessarily know what the future holds for his own managerial career.
"There's been a lot of adversity this year, the Covid craziness and then with me becoming manager," said Meyer, who saw time in the Majors with the Braves, Athletics and Marlins. "My players asked me if I would [take the managerial job]. I presented it to Atlanta and we were all on the same page. I work a lot more now -- there's less down time -- but these guys are a great group, they get along well together and there's just too many positives. I want these kids' careers to get better, I want them to get the best out of their time in the Minors and get to the big leagues and have the experience I did. We ask them to play every day and they bust their butts."
Meyer traveled to Montgomery on Monday and spent a little time on the golf course to unwind before the pressure of the championship series. It's a position he never imagined himself in -- managing a team -- when the season began in May.
"These kids have a chance to play for a ring," the 40-year-old said. "Not many have that chance. It's a great position to be in and now it's up to all of us to do our part."
Mississippi's staff survived the bench shake-up and embraced its new leader. Hayden Deal, undrafted out of college, was the rock of the rotation with a 3.77 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings across 23 games, including 17 starts. Bryce Elder, the Braves' fifth-round pick out of Texas last summer, won seven of his nine starts, striking out 60 in 56 innings and recording Mississippi's only complete game. Right-hander Odalvi Javier owned a 3.20 ERA in 76 innings, striking out 80. Spencer Strider, the Braves' No. 10 prospect and fourth-round pick out of Clemson in 2020, led the team with 94 strikeouts and totaled 150 across three levels in 2021. Mississippi also features lefty Jared Shuster, the Braves' No. 9 prospect, and Freddy Tarnok, the Braves' No. 12 prospect.
"Our pitching was great this year," Meyer said. "Our pitchers did well and I give a lot of credit to our bullpen, they've been nothing but consistent. We've had a lot of turnover in the rotation, a lot of younger guys coming in and they seem to always find a way to get better. It's a personal competition, it's healthy."
Meyer said he plans to start Shuster in the series opener and is excited to see Tarnok after that.
"They continue to grow and it's a good experience for these guys who hopefully will have a future in the big leagues," he said. "You have this opportunity and it's great. You get to give them that chance and hopefully these guys will one day be pitching in the playoffs for us in Atlanta."
The M-Braves' offense relied heavily on the long ball, ranking second in the South with 143 homers in 111 games. That's the good news, because the Braves hit .221 as a team and ranked last in doubles (142) and on-base percentage (.302) and second-to-last in hits (786).
Braves No. 2 prospect Shea Langeliers hit .258 and led the team with 22 homers, 52 RBIs, 13 doubles and an .836 OPS. Mississippi had six players reach double digits in homers -- Greyson Jenista (19), Drew Lugbauer (18), Wendell Rijo (15), Braden Shewmake (12) and CJ Alexander (10). Shewmake, the Braves' No. 8 prospect, was the organization's first-round pick in 2019 out of Texas A&M. Justin Dean, the Braves' 17th-round pick in 2018, provided some speed on the bases with a league-best 29 steals.
The entire series will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Montgomery (62-55) edged out Birmingham (62-56) in the season's final weekend -- thanks partly to rain -- to claim the second playoff spot. The Biscuits enter the postseason with a six-game winning streak and will look to take advantage of playing at home, where they went 35-23 in 2021.
Biscuits batters hit .242 this season and led the league in runs scored (557), triples (31) and walks (427), ranked second in doubles (181), RBIs (508), on-base percentage (.330) and stolen bases (116), third in hits (906) and fourth in homers (114) and OPS (.728).
On the mound, Montgomery pitchers owned a 4.11 ERA and led the league with 1,114 strikeouts and the fewest number of walks, 296. The Biscuits were the only team in the South to issue fewer than 300 free passes.
Speedy second baseman Xavier Edwards ranked second in the South in batting, hitting .302 with 88 hits, 27 RBIs and 19 steals in 79 games -- he was one of only two qualified players to hit over .300 in the South. Ruben Cardenas and Jim Haley hit 15 and 14 homers, respectively. Montgomery had three players steal at least 14 bases this year, with Edwards and Haley (18) leading the way; Cal Stevenson swiped 17 and hit .254 in 92 games while Jake Palomaki stole 14 in 75 contests.
"They have a good lineup. Good players," Meyer said. "Edwards is a great player. Jonathan Aranda might be the best player in the league. Cardenas can lead the league at any point. Haley, he's got 15 homers. They can all leave the yard like us. It's just gonna come down to pitching."
Aranda, a 23-year-old second baseman, has the numbers of a slugging outfielder. He hit .330 this year -- including .351 at Bowling Green -- with 14 homers and 65 RBIs.
"It's gonna be a battle. It should be a really fun series," said Meyer. "They're a really good team, one of the most talented teams in the league."
Alex Valverde, a Rays 2017 Draft pick and Florida native, led the Biscuits with 92 strikeouts in 72 innings this season, starting 10 times in 30 appearances. Easton McGee, the Rays' fourth-round selection in 2016, led the staff with six wins and finished with a 4.07 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings. Jack Labosky, a 2018 selection, whiffed 76 in 79 1/3 frames across 28 games. Ivan Pelaez worked out of the Biscuits' bullpen and led the team with 10 saves, striking out 50 in 54 2/3 innings.
Wichita Wind Surge (Twins, 69-51, Double-A Central North Division champion) vs. Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Royals, 64-55, Double-A Central North Division runner-up)
Northwest Arkansas won the season series, 10-8
Game 1 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Northwest Arkansas, Sept. 22 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Wichita, Sept. 24 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Wichita (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Wichita (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Northwest Arkansas (64-55) enjoyed a narrow edge this season against Wichita, going 10-8 against the Kansas club. This Mother Nature-themed matchup puts a wind-themed team against one with a waterfall in its logo.
And there's another weird connection: the Naturals relocated from Wichita to Springdale, Arkansas in 2008. The current Wichita team reached the playoffs in its first season in the Minors, going 69-51 in the Double-A Central's North division. Wichita, Kansas previously had a Minor League team, mostly known during its existence as the Wranglers, from 1987-2007, which relocated to Northwest Arkansas after the '07 season and last claimed a Texas League crown in 1999.
That was the year Wichita's Austin Martin, the Twins No. 2 prospect, was born -- he's now the player most Twins fans will be eager to watch. Martin joined the Wind Surge on Aug. 3 after Toronto traded the 22-year-old outfielder to Minnesota in a deal for right-hander Jose Berrios. The 2020 first-round pick out of Vanderbilt hit .254 with three homers, 19 RBIs and eight doubles in 37 games with Wichita and is the biggest name in a lineup that accumulated the most hits (1,038) this season in the Central. Wichita batters hit a league-best .257 and ranked third in runs (636) and fourth in homers (150).
Spencer Steer, the Twins' third-round pick in 2019, has shown good power this year at Double-A, hitting .254 with 24 homers and 66 RBIs for Wichita and Cedar Rapids -- 14 of his long balls came at Double-A. Minnesota's No. 23 prospect was one of seven players to hit 10 or more homers this season for Wichita; Jermaine Palacios led the club in home runs with 19 and was one of three Wind Surge batters to total more than 100 hits this season.
Wichita pitchers finished within four strikeouts of leading the Central with 1,219 whiffs, owned a 4.35 ERA and held opposing batters to a .238 average, good for third the league. Right-hander Jordan Balazovic, the Twins' top pitching prospect and No. 3 overall prospect, went 5-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts this year, all with Wichita. He struck out 102 and walked 38 in 97 innings, ranked second on the team in strikeouts behind Chris Vallimont (130), the Twins' No. 21 prospect, and posted the third-lowest ERA among starters with at least 10 starts. Cole Sands, the Twins No. 19 prospect, went 4-2 with a 2.46 ERA this season in 19 games (18 starts).
The Naturals scored seven times in the final two innings of their regular-season finale against Springfield to clinch a spot in the championship series. Vinnie Pasquantino, the Royals' No. 18 prospect, plated a pair of runs in that pivotal game and figures to be a major bat in the finals. The 23-year-old first baseman hit .300 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs across two levels this season and actually hit better (.310) at Double-A than he did at High-A (.291) in roughly the same number of games. Most of Northwest Arkansas' top bats this summer have since graduated to Triple-A, with top prospects Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto now all at Omaha. Brewer Hicklen was the Nats' hottest bat over the last month, hitting .312 with six homers and 18 RBIs in the last 30 games. Pasquantino hit .300 with six homers and 21 RBIs in that same period.
Jon Heasley went 7-3 with a 3.33 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 105 1/3 innings for Northwest Arkansas this year, leading the club in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. Austin Cox, the Royals' No. 13 prospect, hasn't pitched more than three innings in any of his last three starts for the Naturals but figures to be a factor in the finals.
The entire series will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Bowie Baysox (Orioles, Double-A Northeast Southwest Division runner-up) vs. Akron RubberDucks (Indians, 73-46, Double-A Northeast Southwest Division champion)
Akron won the season series, 8-4
Game 1 at Bowie, Sept. 21 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Bowie, Sept. 22 at 6:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Akron, Sept. 24 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Akron (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Akron (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Akron (73-46) won the season series with Southwest Division rival Bowie (73-47), 8-4. A close finish in the season's final weekend left Somerset (72-47) on the outside looking in after Akron overcame six hitless innings to beat the Yankees affiliate on Sept. 19 to clinch the top seed.
Akron outscored its opponents by 134 runs this year and led the Northeast in runs scored. That was mostly without the help of George Valera, the Cleveland's' No. 2 prospect and top outfielder, who was promoted to Akron on Aug. 24 and hit .267 with three homers and 22 RBIs in 23 games at Double-A. The 20-year-old will be a focal point of the Ducks' lineup this series after hitting 19 homers across two levels this season. Akron has also been without Indians top prospect Tyler Freeman's bat -- the shortstop hit .323 with 19 RBIs in 41 games but has been on the injured list since July 30. Akron catcher Bo Naylor, Cleveland's No. 6 prospect, has struggled at times this season at the plate but had his best month since June in September's 14 regular-season games, when he totaled 11 hits.
Bowie features the Orioles' top pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez, a 21-year-old right-hander who went 9-1 with a 2.36 ERA in 23 starts this season across two levels. The 2018 first-round pick struck out 161 in 103 innings, most of that coming at Double-A.
The Baysox lineup got a boost on Sept. 14 when Baltimore promoted its No. 2 hitting prospect, Gunnar Henderson, to Double-A. The 20-year-old shortstop hit .258 with 17 homers, 74 RBIs and 16 steals in 105 games between three levels this year but enters the postseason with just 15 Double-A at-bats under his belt. Jordan Westburg, also a middle infielder, is the O's No. 6 prospect and joined Bowie in mid-August. The No. 30 overall pick in the 2020 Draft hit .285 with 15 homers, 79 RBIs and 18 stolen bases with three affiliates and had 26 hits in 30 games with Bowie. The Sox lost Terrin Vavra, a second baseman, to an injury on Sept. 16 after the Orioles' No. 13 prospect hit .275 in 48 games. Patrick Dorrian led Bowie with 22 homers and 67 RBIs. Bowie fans would probably love to have Adley Rutschman back for the finals -- the Orioles' top prospect had 18 homers and 55 RBIs in 80 games with the Baysox but finished the season with Triple-A Norfolk.
The entire series will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com.