After Javier Baez struck out against Cody Winiarski at Smokies Park last September in Game 5 of the 2013 North Division Championship series, the Birmingham Barons celebrated while the Smokies looked on. Last year’s Smokies team was talented and fans expected them to advance to the Southern League Championship Series. But that was not to be in the cards, as the White Sox affiliate upset the Smokies and went on to win the Southern League Championship in five games against the Mobile BayBears.
It is now 2014 and the teams are only separated by one game in the standings. The Smokies (7-8) will look to this series as one in which they make some noise in the North Division. The Barons (8-7) will look to do the same. Birmingham will be flying its Southern League Championship banner at Regions Field, something that the Smokies players from last year will look at and think should have been theirs. Both front offices certainly took a pencil at the beginning of this season and circled this mid-April series as something to watch closely.
Barons broadcaster Curt Bloom filled in his thoughts about this series between the two teams: “When I look at my ring I realize we went through an incredible hitting team in Tennessee and a fantastic pitching team in Mobile. This was an anticipated series in our minds. Last year’s team in Tennessee was one of the best with the talent like Baez, [Christian] Villanueva, [Arismendy] Alcantara. We upset a lot of people who thought Tennessee was going to the championship. They have been a very successful franchise as they had been to the championship for three consecutive years (2009-2011) and for what people thought would be another one last year. This also is a Cubs-White Sox matchup. We aren’t the only ones who are anticipating this, they will be watching this closely up in Chicago. It should be exciting, intense, and a lot of fun to watch.”
The Smokies and Barons are completely different teams from what they were last year, but this series will certainly feel like a playoff when they take the field at 7:30 ET/6:30 CT tonight. The Smokies boast an immense amount of talent headlined by third baseman Kris Bryant and starting pitcher CJ Edwards. Many think this could be the best Smokies team in recent years and the Barons who, not nearly as talented, are tenacious, grind it out, and have a never give up attitude which has made them successful thus far. The Smokies are coming off a successful 10 game homestand against North Division foes—the Chattanooga Lookouts and Jackson Generals–and the Barons are coming back from a road trip in Mobile, a rematch of their own from last season’s Southern League Championship Series. Again the Barons took three out of the five games. Matt Loosen is slated to pitch for the Smokies and the Barons will counter with Nick McCully. Expect this series to be close and intense as the AA affiliates of the crosstown Chicago rivals begin a pivotal five game series in Tennessee.