The South Division ended the dominance of the North Division in the Southern League All-Star Game this June. Is it the time for the North to end its seven-year losing streak in the Double-A circuit's Championship Series?
A team from the South has won every Southern League title since the present division split began in 2005. But the North couldn't extend a similar All-Star streak, and that actually may prove to be a good omen for Jackson or Chattanooga.
The first-half champion Generals and second-half champion Lookouts will meet in the North Division playoffs for the right to face either Mobile or Montgomery in the Championship Series. The BayBears -- 2011 Southern League champions -- won the first half and the Biscuits the second half in the South Division.
The Southern League playoffs begin Thursday, Sept. 6. All series are best-of-5.
During the South's seven-year run, Jacksonville has won three titles, Montgomery two, and Mississippi and Mobile one apiece.
Jackson Generals (79-61, North Division first-half champion) vs.
Chattanooga Lookouts (73-65, North Division second-half champion)
Jackson won the season series, 9-6
Game 1 at Jackson, Sept. 6 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Jackson, Sept. 7 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Chattanooga, Sept. 8 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Chattanooga (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 2:15 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Chattanooga (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Pitching was the story in the first half for Jackson as a staff led by Danny Hultzen keyed the Generals' first-place finish with a league-best 3.09 ERA. But Seattle's top prospect was promoted to Triple-A after going 8-3 with a 1.19 ERA, and now Jackson's offense shares top billing with a still-talented mound corps.
The Generals hit 50 of their league-leading 115 homers in the last 48 games and led the Southern League in slugging percentage (.404), total bases (1,878) and OPS (.738) while tying Montgomery in batting average (.261).
Stefen Romero and Brad Miller both hit over .300 after being moved up from Class A Advanced High Desert. But the most intriguing addition was catcher Mike Zunino -- the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
The College Player of the Year at Florida hit .373 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs over 29 games in the Class A Short-Season Northwest League and didn't cool off after skipping two levels and joining the Generals.
The catcher batted .333 with three homers and eight RBIs in 15 regular-season games for Jackson and will be a prominent part of the Generals' push for their second Southern League title and first since 2000.
"He's the real deal," Generals manager Jim Pankovits said. "You can see why there is so much hype. He's good offensively and defensively and he's a leader. He's a huge asset for us."
Romero certainly doesn't have Zunino's prospect standing, but he's been red hot since moving up from the California League. The infielder batted .347 with the Generals and had 12 homers and 50 RBIs in 56 games. Earlier, he had hit .350 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs in 60 games for High Desert.
Miller didn't put up Romero's power numbers for Jackson, but the shortstop batted .320 in 40 games after hitting .339 in the California League.
Despite the promotion of Hultzen and the second-half struggles of Taijuan Walker, Seattle's No. 2 prospect, the Generals still had the best team ERA in the league at 3.37. But Jackson will be without Brandon Maurer for the playoffs.
Maurer, a postseason All-Star selection, was shut down after going 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 137 1/3 innings. He won seven of his last eight decisions and posted a 2.50 ERA with 10 quality starts in 14 outings.
James Paxton, Seattle's No. 4 prospect, will start the opener against Chattanooga. The left-hander was 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings.
Chattanooga finished second in the league in team ERA at 3.57 and has two hot pitchers in Zach Lee and Matt Magill. Lee, the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect and No. 34 on the MLB.com Top 100 list, was 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his last six regular-season starts after some early struggles after being promoted to Double-A. Magill also closed strong to go 11-8 with a 3.75 ERA for the season and led the league with 168 strikeouts in 146 1/3 innings.
The first two games of the series are at Jackson, but having the potential of three games in Chattanooga could work in the Lookouts' favor. The Generals were 44-26 at home and 35-35 on the road in the regular season.
Chattanooga hasn't won a Southern League title since 1988.
Mobile BayBears (69-71, South Division first-half champion) vs.
Montgomery Biscuits (74-63, South Division second-half champion)
Montgomery won the season series, 10-7
Game 1 at Mobile, Sept. 6 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Mobile, Sept. 7 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Montgomery, Sept. 8 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 9 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Montgomery (if necessary), Sept. 10 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Matt Davidson didn't join Mobile until the Southern League Championship Series a year ago, but he had a significant role in the BayBears' title.
Davidson hit a home run in the clinching Game 4 victory over Tennessee and batted .333 against the Smokies.
"That was exciting," Davidson recalled. "It was great to win a championship."
Now the BayBears and Davidson will try to do it again. It won't be easy.
Other than the third baseman and outfielder Alfredo Marte, most of the key players in Mobile's first-half title run in the South Division are gone. Mobile finished last in the second half with a 29-41 record.
That leaves Mobile to rely on the slugging of Davidson and Marte as it tries to get back to the Championship Series and repeat the 2011 title.
Davidson and Marte are the top home run duo in the Southern League, combining for 43 homers -- 10 of them against semifinal opponent Montgomery.
Davidson, Arizona's No. 4 prospect, finished third in the league with 23 home runs and Marte, who was MVP of the All-Star Game, hit six of his 20 against the Biscuits.
Although Montgomery finished with the best overall record in the South Division, the Biscuits were in danger of missing the playoffs after losing the first four games of a late-August home series against Jacksonville and falling behind the Suns in the second-half race.
But Montgomery salvaged the finale against Jacksonville and then clinched first-place with a four-game winning streak.
It's the first playoff appearance for the Biscuits since they won back-to-back Southern League titles in 2006-07.
Matt Buschmann (7-8, 3.89 ERA) is scheduled to start the series opener at Mobile against the BayBears' Chase Anderson (5-4, 2.86 ERA). Buschmann, who won the clinching game for the Biscuits, finished the regular season with five straight quality starts while going 2-1 with a 1.31 ERA.
Lee sidelined: Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee -- Tampa Bay's No. 1 prospect -- won't be available for Montgomery in the postseason. He hasn't played since suffering an oblique strain on Aug. 11. Lee set team records this season by hitting in 21 straight games and reaching base safely in 46 in a row. The All-Star selection finished with 37 stolen bases and a .261 average. He is No. 35 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects.
Switching sides: Jackson's closer is Chattanooga's old closer, creating an unusual twist for their semifinal series. Logan Bawcom went from the Dodgers organization to Seattle as part of the trade that brought reliever Brandon League to Los Angles before the trade deadline. Bawcom had 13 saves with Chattanooga and six for the Generals, his total of 19 ranking third in the league. He filled the void in Jackson left by the promotion of Carter Capps, voted the postseason All-Star relief pitcher.
Luna batting champ: Montgomery's Omar Luna, the postseason All-Star utility player, won the league batting title with a .315 average, just a point ahead of Pensacola's Josh Fellhauer. He was Montgomery's first Southern League batting champ, and his 148 hits surpassed the Biscuits' previous team record of 141 set by Gabriel Martinez in 2008. Luna finished the regular season with a 12-game hitting streak and was 5-for-9 in his last two games.