The Montgomery Biscuits won back-to-back Southern League titles in 2006 and 2007. Thursday, they make just their second trip to the playoffs since.
Standing in their way are the Chattanooga Lookouts, the North division's first-half champions. They are not the same team they were early in the season, but they should still provide a test. They are especially not the team they were last season. In the offseason, they ended a six-year affiliation with the Dodgers and teamed up with the Twins.
Southern League semifinals (best of five): Montgomery Biscuits v. Chattanooga Lookouts (Chattanooga's probables are me guessing)
Game 1 9/10: Montgomery @ Chattanooga 7:15 PM (Jaime Schultz v. D.J. Baxendale)
Game 2 9/11: Montgomery @ Chattanooga 7:15 PM (Jacob Faria v. Jason Wheeler)
Game 3 9/12: Montgomery v. Chattanooga 7:35 PM (Austin Pruitt v. David Hurlbut)
Game 4 (if necessary) 9/13: Montgomery v. Chattanooga 6:35 PM (Taylor Guerrieri v. Greg Peavey)
Game 5 (if necessary) 9/14: Montgomery v. Chattanooga 8:05 PM (Chris Kirsch v. Brett Lee)
Montgomery lost season series, 9-8
Unsurprisingly, the Biscuits fared much better against the Lookouts in the second half, winning five of seven meetings after the All-Star break. Overall, Montgomery's run differential was underwater at 89-72 but again fared better in the second half.
Chattanooga led the league in runs, OPS, home runs and steals in 2015, but after leading the league in those categories by significant margins in the first half, the rest of the Southern League, particularly the Biscuits, closed the gap.
There are two reasons the Lookouts' offense tailed off a bit later in the season -- Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Both star prospects started the season with Chattanooga but mashed their way to Triple-A Rochester, and eventually, the majors.
With the players still there, though, Chattanooga's lineup remains formidable. Rising German outfielder Max Kepler led the league in on-base percentage and slugging, accumulated 54 extra-base hits and stole 18 bases. Adam Brett Walker led the league in home runs by a wide margin, socking 31 dingers for the Lookouts while the second-place slugger had 17. He battered Biscuits pitching for seven of those homers.
Even without Buxton, the Lookouts have plenty of players that may be willing to test catcher Justin O'Conner's arm. There are eight players active on the Chattanooga roster with double-digit steals this season, most of whom stole those bases efficiently.
Chattanooga's pitching staff is not as accomplished as its lineup. Its 4.04 ERA ranked eighth and was ninth in strikeouts, but to their credit, the Lookouts pitchers did issue the fewest walks.
What may be troubling for the Lookouts is those numbers include 90 2/3 innings from Jose Berrios, the minor league's leading strikeout pitcher in 2015 who has since been promoted to Triple-A Rochester. He owned a 3.08 ERA as his prospect stock rose this season.
They still have some pitching that won't roll over for the Biscuits, though. D.J. Baxendale was okay in leading the team in innings. Projected Game 5 starter Brett Lee led the team's starters in ERA at 3.10, not including the departed Berrios.
Chattanooga's bullpen is not especially deep, but there are a couple talented arms. J.T. Chargois, one of the organization's top 30 prospects, led the team in saves with 11 and struck out 34 in 33 innings. Also pitching in relief is Nick Burdi. The former second-round pick struggled at the start of the season with the Lookouts, but he was a little more in control when he came back from a brief reassignment to Class-A Fort Myers.
The league's two newest teams face off in the other semifinal. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos make their first playoff appearance in four seasons, and the Biloxi Shuckers reached the postseason in their inaugural season despite not having a home stadium for roughly half the season.
Purple monkey dishwasher
Pensacola's Bayfront Stadium is one of the friendlier pitching environments in the minors, but their pitching rankings were underwhelming. Offensively, they were actually fourth in home runs with a handful of high draft picks, including first-round outfielders Jesse Winker and Beau Amaral, infielder Alex Blandino and catcher Kyle Skipworth.
Biloxi has a middle-of-the-pack offense, certainly hurt by the loss of top prospect Brett Phillips, acquired by Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez trade. Its pitching staff sounds out with Jorge Lopez, the league's pitcher of the year, anchoring the staff. His ERA was just 2.26, barely topped by his rotation mate, Tyler Wagner, who had a 2.25 ERA.