The Chattanooga Lookouts entered August with a 40-69 overall record and a 14-25 mark in the Southern League's second half.
They entered September having already clinched the North Division title for the half and setting their sights on the playoffs. Chattanooga closed the regular season on a 21-8 tear to finish 35-33, winning the division by three games over Tennessee following Monday afternoon's 5-1 thumping of the Smokies.
"It was a huge turnaround, and that's a big deal to us," Lookouts catcher Chris O'Brien said. "To go from the worst team in baseball to second-half champs is a pretty funny feeling, but it feels good. We never lost sight of what we wanted to do, and here we are."
Monday's crowd of 2,238 gave Chattanooga a healthy season attendance of 242,627.
O'Brien's triple to left field in the sixth inning Sunday night scored Corey Seager and O'Koyea Dickson to propel Chattanooga to a 3-2 win over the Smokies that clinched the first playoff ticket for the Lookouts since 2012. Chattanooga has not been a postseason force in recent seasons, qualifying for just the fifth time since 2002 and having posted a 2-12 combined record in its past four playoff appearances.
The Lookouts have not advanced to the league championship series since 1996 and have not won the title since 1988, the first year of a 21-year player development partnership with the Cincinnati Reds.
"Everyone wants to peak late, and we're starting to hit our stride right now," O'Brien said. "Once you hit the playoffs, everyone is 0-0 and anything goes."
Said shortstop Corey Seager: "We're hoping to keep this little stretch going and ride it to a championship. I'm ready for 10 more games if that's what it takes."
The North Division best-of-five title series will begin in Huntsville with games Thursday and Friday night. It will shift to Chattanooga on Saturday night at 7:15, with game four set for Sunday afternoon at 2:15 and game five Monday night at 7:15 should those be necessary.
Chattanooga began its late-season run with an 11-game winning streak, which turned a 7 1/2-game deficit into a tie for first. The Lookouts then lost five of their next seven to fall four games back of Tennessee but concluded with an 8-3 rebound while the Smokies collapsed.
"When we put that streak together, it was probably the most fun I've had on a baseball field," right fielder Scott Schebler said. "When we came to the park during that streak, there was a feeling that everything was going to go right. I don't know what we hit during that streak with runners in scoring position, but it had to be .500.
"It's crazy how everything has worked out, and I'm glad we're going to the playoffs. If we keep playing the way we've been playing, I think we've got a good shot."
Schebler wound up leading the Southern League in games played (135), home runs (28), triples (14), total bases (272) and extra-base hits (65). Third baseman Daniel Mayora led the league with 149 hits, tallying 39 in August to lead all of Double-A baseball.
Andres Santiago, who last Thursday threw Chattanooga's first no-hitter since 1996, headlines a vastly improved pitching staff, but manager Razor Shines has not decided on Thursday's starter. The Lookouts are scheduled to have today off and practice Wednesday.
"I love the way my team is playing," Shines said. "These guys believe in themselves, and I believe in them. I'll take our chances with this group."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.