The Chattanooga Lookouts have been playing like a Southern League playoff team in recent weeks, and they're starting to feel like one, too.
"We're just expecting to make the playoffs right now," left fielder Scott Van Slyke said. "We're expecting to keep winning and doing the things we've been doing."
The Lookouts are in control of their postseason destiny despite Thursday night's 7-4 loss to Birmingham at AT&T Field. They lead the North Division second-half race with a 27-19 record and are 62-54 overall with 24 games left in the regular season.
Chattanooga has not lost a series in nearly a month, has improved to third in the league in hitting and has extended its commanding league lead in team ERA.
"This is a team built around pitching," second-year manager Carlos Subero said. "We've already lost four pitchers [to big-league promotions], and we're still throwing the ball well. Our hitting is coming around. We had some loud bats in Jacksonville, and the addition of Alex Castellanos has definitely helped.
"We're in August, so everybody's had a good shot to develop. Now it's about trying to win whatever is left."
Castellanos, who played right field Thursday, is hitting .324 in his first 10 games since arriving from the Boston Red Sox organization and has given the Lookouts an even more imposing outfield. Van Slyke leads the league in doubles and ranks second in average. Alfredo Silverio leads the league in total bases, and Kyle Russell, who was the designated hitter Thursday, ranks fourth in home runs.
The Lookouts have two ways of reaching the playoffs. They could take the direct approach by clinching the division, but finishing a close second to Tennessee would assuredly result in a postseason trip via the wild-card route.
"We're in first, and every time we win it's a good thing in the standings," Van Slyke said. "I think we're just more concerned about winning and getting that overall record, so if Tennessee makes a push it won't matter for us."
The Lookouts erupted for eight runs in the second inning of Wednesday night's 16-3 whipping, but the Barons put up five in the fourth inning Thursday to break a scoreless tie. Chattanooga pulled within 5-4 in the seventh on a two-run homer to left field by Brian Cavazos-Galvez, but Birmingham scored twice in the ninth to put the game away.
Michael Antonini (9-8, 3.83 ERA) is scheduled to start tonight's 7:15 game for the Lookouts, with Charles Leesman (8-5, 4.13) scheduled for the Barons.