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Barons Make 2013 A Season To Remember

 

The 2013 season proved to be one of the most memorable in the long and storied history of Birmingham baseball as the Barons celebrated their return to downtown with the franchise's 14th Championship. Under the leadership of manager Julio Vinas, the Barons went 77-63 and stamped their ticket to the post-season with a North Division First Half Championship. In the playoffs, the Barons defeated the Tennessee Smokies and Mobile BayBears in two thrilling five-game series to capture their seventh title in the Southern League era.

However, the story of the 2013 season can be traced even further, as far back as 2009 when initial discussions laid the groundwork for the Barons return to downtown full-time for the first time since 1987.

That dream became a reality on February 2nd, 2012, when a special groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site of the future ballpark commemorating the start of construction. The event was held on First Avenue South between 14th Street and 15th Street South across the street from Railroad Park. The two-hour event drew over 1,000 spectators including Barons fans, city officials, former Birmingham Black Barons players, Barons staff members, representatives of the ballpark development team, Regions Financial officials and distinguished speakers including Mayor William A. Bell Sr. and Barons Owner Don Logan.

14 months of construction neared completion as the Baron opened the 2013 season on the road in nearby Montgomery against the Biscuits. In the season's opening game, Barons' shortstop Tyler Saladino set the tone for a magical season with a 4th inning Grand Slam, leading the Barons to a 5-2 win.

Six days later on a picture-perfect evening, the Barons opened the gates to the public for the first time at the sparkling new downtown home.

Mayor William Bell along with Barons' Owner Don Logan, representatives from Regions Bank and members of the Birmingham City Council held a special Ribbon Cutting Ceremony prior to the game. The streets around the ballpark were filled with a festival-like atmosphere as fans visited nearby Railroad park and Good People Brewery throughout the afternoon.

Pre-game festivities included appearances by former Birmingham Black Barons players and an on-field ceremony honoring project supervisors. Vocal trio, "The Three Strings" performed the National Anthem and Regions CEO Grayson Hall and Mayor William Bell threw out the ceremonial first pitches.

A capacity crowd of 8,505 watched as Barons' starter Nestor Molina threw a first-pitch strike to Mississippi Braves second baseman Philip Goselin at 7:03 PM. The Barons would go on to defeat the M-Braves by a score of 9-5 thanks in part to a two-run home run by Marcus Semien, the first home run by a Barons player at Regions Field and a harbinger of great things to come from the Barons' infielder.

Following the game, fans were treated to the first fireworks show at Regions Field, an impressive display that illuminated the downtown skyline and ushered in a new era of Barons Baseball.

Opening night was just the beginning of an incredible season for the Barons in their new downtown home as they went on to record a five-game sweep of the M-Braves en route to winning 14 of their first 16 games at Regions Field including a string of nine in a row from April 22 - May 12. It marked the longest home winning streak for the team since a nine-game streak at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in 2009.

Highlighting the opening series sweep was a 3-0 shutout in game three that put White Sox prospect Erik Johnson on the map. Johnson allowed just three hits over 7.0 shutout frames while striking out six. Johnson would go 5-1 with a 1.06 ERA in seven starts at Regions Field on the season. The Barons followed up that pitching gem with a historic offensive performance in game four, scoring 11 runs in the first inning on their way to a 13-2 win. The Barons sent 15 batters to the plate in the inning with each player in the lineup recording one hit and at least one run scored in the frame.

Johnson recorded a Barons' season-high 10 strikeouts over 7.0 scoreless innings against the Huntsville Stars on the 22nd as the Barons went 15-10 in April aided by starters Scott Snodgress and Stephen McCray who registered four wins apiece during the month.

The Barons won 11 games in a row from April 28 - May 10, the second-longest streak in franchise history behind a 14-game streak in 1989. The streak included taking four-of-five games against the Smokies in Tennessee. Andy Wilkins led an offensive explosion in the series, hitting four home runs including two in a 16-0 win in the rain-shortened opener. On the season, Wilkins hit .381 with five home runs, nine runs scored and 10 RBI in 10 games against the Smokies, helping to earn his first Triple-A call-up on June 24.

The Barons received surprise production from pitcher Nick McCully who began the season in the Barons bullpen. He was inserted into the starting rotation on May 9 and took the most of his opportunity going 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 12 starts. Over a span of four starts from May 9 - June 2, McCully tossed 18.0 consecutive scoreless innings, including three consecutive scoreless starts from May 14 - 26 and was named Southern League Pitcher of the Week for the period of May 20 - 26.

A 19-10 month was capped by taking four-of-five games against the Suns in Jacksonville, highlighted by back-to-back shutouts in games three and four of the series. Erik Johnson struck out seven and allowed four hits over 7.0 shutout innings in game three and was followed by McCully who allowed just one hits over 6.0 scoreless frames while striking out seven. It was the first series win for the Barons in Jacksonville since 2011. On the season, the Barons would lead the Southern League with 15 shutouts.

In the 18th annual Rickwood Classic, the Barons defeated the Tennessee Smokies 6-3 behind three hits and two RBI by catcher Miguel Gonzalez. The win evened the Barons' record in the classic at 9-9.

First baseman Dan Black enjoyed a tremendous season hitting .290 with a team-best 17 home runs, 70 runs scored and 83 RBI in 133 games while ranking among the league-leaders in multiple categories including walks (1st, 91), RBI (2nd), on-base percentage (2nd, .411), batting average (T-3rd) and slugging percentage (5th, .470). He hit a Grand Slam and drove in a Barons season-high five RBI in the team's 16-0 win over the Smokies on May 7 and hit two home runs against the Suns on June.

The Barons clinched their 10th playoff berth in the last 14 seasons with a 7-3 win over the Jacksonville Suns at Regions Field on June 10th , guaranteeing a 'September to Remember' in the new ballparks inaugural season and setting off a champagne celebration in the home clubhouse. The Barons finished the first half of the season with a record of 44-26 including a 24-11 mark at home, both tops in the league and finished the half with a 9.0 game lead over second place Chattanooga.

Following the first half championship, a host of players earned promotions to Triple-A Charlotte including Wilkins and Johnson. Johnson finished with a record of 8-2 and an ERA of 2.23 in 14 starts. At the time of his promotion, he ranked among the league-leaders in wins (1st), opponents average (1st), WHIP (1st), strikeouts (3rd) and ERA (4th) while leading all of Minor League baseball with three complete games. Johnson's success continued with Class-AAA Charlotte and carried him all the way to Chicago where he made his Major League debut against the New York Yankees on September 4.

Additional losses included bullpen arms Daniel Webb, Santos Rodriguez and Jacob Petricka who helped the Barons to an undefeated record when leading after seven innings in the first half. On the year, the Barons lost only three times when leading through the seventh.

One of the season's most memorable moments came on Father's Day. The Barons trailed the Jackson Generals 8-4 entering the 9th inning but came back to win thanks to a five-run inning. The comeback started with a towering three-run home run by Trayce Thompson, his second long ball of the afternoon. A wild pitch later in the inning tied the game at 8-8 and Tyler Saladino delivered the walk-off hit with an infield single, scoring Jared Mitchell from third base.

The team welcomed a familiar guest prior to the All-Star break when White Sox hurler Jake Peavy made his third career rehab start with the Barons in an appearance against the Stars in Huntsville. Peavy scattered five hits and allowed just one run while picking up the win in his lone appearance before returning to Chicago.

The Barons were well represented at the Mid-Summer Classic with 10 players earning election to the Southern League All-Star Game in Jacksonville. The representatives were catcher Mike Blanke, infielders Marcus Semien, Dan Black and Andy Wilkins, outfielder Trayce Thompson and pitchers Scott Snodgress, Taylor Thompson, Ryan Kussmaul, Nick McCully and Erik Johnson. Johnson and Wilkins were unable to participate due to their promotions to Class-AAA Charlotte while Kussmaul was scratched due to injury.

Manager Julio Vinas also earned recognition during the All-Star break when he was named to the coaching staff for the World All-Stars at the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field in New York. Vinas became the fifth Barons' manager to coach in the Futures game joining Nick Capra (2000), Razor Shines (2005), Ever Magallanes (2009) and Bobby Magallanes (2011).

Another round of promotions followed the All-Star game as starter Nick McCully and closer Taylor Thompson were called up to Charlotte. Thompson led the Barons and ranked third in the Southern League with 12 saves at the time of his promotion.

Another White Sox star joined the Barons after the All-Star break in the form of longtime White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko. He would appear in three games with the Barons while rehabbing a back injury, hitting .400 with a run scored and an RBI.

The Barons received outfielder Brandon Jacobs on July 18 after a trade with the Boston Red Sox for LHP Matt Thornton. He made an immediate impact on his new team, hitting safely in his first 17 games with the club while hitting .323 with two home runs and 16 RBI. The 17-game hitting streak was the longest by a Barons player in 2013 and was tied for the 11th-longest streak in franchise history.

The month of July belonged to two rising stars in Marcus Semien and Scott Snodgress who helped the Barons to a 17-10 record in the month. Semien carried the offense during the month, hitting .372 with eight home runs, nine doubles, 28 runs scored, 20 RBI and 29 walks in 26 games. Individual game highlights included a two homer game against Chattanooga on the 22nd and a pair of four-hit games against Mobile on the 24th and 26th. He was named Southern League Player of the Week for the period from July 22 - 28 after hitting .583 with four home runs, a triple, three doubles, 10 runs scored, 11 RBI and 12 walks. He was promoted to Charlotte on August 1 at which point he ranked among the league-leaders in numerous categories including first in runs, walks, on-base percentage, total bases and ranking tied for first in hits, tied for fifth in home runs and sixth in batting average. At the time of his promotion, the Barons were tied for the second-best record in all of Minor League Baseball at 67-42. On the season, Semien led all of Minor League Baseball with 110 runs scored. Following the season, Semien was named the Southern League MVP, joining Joe Crede (2000) and Aaron Miles (2002) as former Barons to win the award.

Meanwhile, Snodgress went 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA in four starts during the month with back-to-back shutout outings against Chattanooga and Mobile. In his start on the 22nd against the Lookouts, Snodgress took a no-hitter into the 9th inning before surrendering a base hit with one out in the inning. He had a streak of 24.2 consecutive scoreless inning from July 10 - August 1 and was named Southern League Pitcher of the Week for the period of July 22 - 28 after going 2-0 with no runs allowed in 14.1 innings. Snodgress finished the year with a team-best 11 wins, tied for the second-most in the league.

With a playoff berth in hand, the Barons coasted through the final month of the season while finishing third in the North Division second half standings. However, the promotions of four young players from Class-A Winston-Salem proved vital to the Barons' post-season success. Starters Chris Bassitt and Chris Beck joined the Barons for the final month and after strong seasons with the Dash. Bassitt went 7-2 with a 3.46 ERA in 18 starts and Beck went 11-8 with a 2.90 ERA while being elected to the 2013 Carolina League Mid-Season All-Star team. At the time of his promotion, Beck led the Carolina League in wins and ranked sixth in ERA. Additionally, reliever Cody Winiarski joined the Barons after recording 10 saves with the Dash.

However, perhaps the biggest addition was second baseman Micah Johnson who joined the Barons during the final homestand of the season. Johnson arrived in Birmingham with a Minor League Baseball-leading 83 steals between Class-A Kannapolis and Class-A Winston-Salem. On the season, Johnson hit .312 with 84 steals and ranked among the minor league leaders in triples (4th, 15) and runs scored (T-4th, 106).

In the playoffs, the Barons faced off against the North Division Second Half winning Smokies in the Divisional round. The Barons rode their home field advantage and the arms of Beck and Bassitt to a 2-0 series lead. Bassitt set the tone for the series with a dominant outing in game one, allowing a run on three hits over 7.0 innings while striking out nine. Trayce Thompson twice gave the Barons leads in the game, swatting a solo home run in the 4th and reclaiming the lead in the 5th with an RBI single as the Barons won 3-1.

In game two, it was Chris Beck's turn to stifle the Smokies' bats as he allowed just three hits over 5.0 scoreless innings. Thompson again led the way for the offense, finishing 3-for-5 with three RBI. Catcher Mike Blanke also contributed with a 2nd inning solo home run, part of a four-run inning against Smokies' starter Dae-Eun Rhee en route to a 7-1 win.

The series moved to Tennessee for the final three games with the Smokies coming back to even the series at 2-2 after a 9-2 win in game three and a 10-7 win in game four.

In the decisive fifth game, the Barons broke a 2-2 tie in the 4th inning thanks in part to three errors by the Smokies defense. The inning was highlighted by a two-run error by second baseman Arismendy Alcantara on a hard-hit grounder by Micah Johnson. Reliever Ryan Kussmaul provided 3.0 innings of scoreless relief and Cody Winiarski picked up his second save of the postseason punctuated by a strikeout of top Cubs prospect Javier Baez for the final out of the game as the Barons advanced to their first Championship series since 2002 with a 7-4 win.

Waiting for the Barons in the Finals were the two-time defending Southern League Champion Mobile BayBears. The BayBears won both the first and second half division titles in the South Division and dispatched the Mississippi Braves in four games to advance to their third consecutive finals berth.

In game one, a suddenly relentless Barons' offense struck early and often against top-rated prospect Archie Bradley, scoring six runs on seven hits in the first five innings. Micah Johnson led off the game with a nine-pitch walk and scored a batter later when Cody Puckett deposited a 2-0 fastball onto BayBear Mountain in left field. Puckett finished the 3-for-6 as the Barons cruised to an 8-3 win. Starter Chris Bassitt's stellar post-season continued with seven strikeouts over 5.2 scoreless innings while improving to 2-0 with 0.71 ERA in the postseason.

An 8-2 win the following night gave the Barons a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to Birmingham. Trayce Thompson broke a 2-2 6th inning tied with a booming solo home run to left field, his second home run and eighth RBI of the postseason. The home run made a winner out of Chris Beck who improved to 2-0 in the postseason after allowing two runs over 6.0 innings. The Barons would blow the game open with five runs in the eighth highlighted by two Mobile errors.

With the series moving to Regions Field, the city of Birmingham was enveloped with excitement over the chance at a championship victory. However, the champagne was forced to stay on ice for the next two nights as Mobile responded with back-to-back wins of 6-0 and 3-1 in games three and four, forcing another decisive fifth game.

Birmingham's championship hopes rested on the shoulders of 21-year old Myles Jaye who was promoted to the Barons on the final day of the regular season in place of injured starter Scott Carroll. In just his third Double-A start, Jaye survived a rocky two-run first inning to throw 5.0 solid innings against the BayBears. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the first, Micah Johnson led off the inning with a solo home run, his first long ball since joining the Barons. An inning later, the Barons plated three runs to take a 4-2 lead. A wild pitch by starter Bradin Hagens tied the game at 2-2. Johnson would strike again later in the inning, scoring Mike Blanke from third on an infield single. Johnson would score a batter later on a base hit by Cody Puckett for the final run of the inning.

Reliever Ryan Kussmaul replaced Jaye in the sixth and preceded to strike out six of the eight batters he faced over 2.2 dominant innings. Cody Winiarski would record the final four outs of the game including a strikeout of Keon Broxton to end the game, setting off a frenzied celebration at the mound and in the stands as the Barons celebrated the cities first championship in 11 seasons and the franchises 14th title overall.

The win came on Sunday, September 15th, the 50th Anniversary of the 6th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls and ignited the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, making the four runs the Barons scored in the game even more poignant.

Micah Johnson was named Finals MVP after hitting .450 with a home run, six runs scored and four RBI in the series. In the postseason, he led the team with a .368 average, 12 runs scored and seven steals while collecting seven RBI and seven walks.

A season's worth of success ended with the Barons being named the Don Mincher Southern League Organization of the Year while General Manager Jonathan Nelson was named the Jimmy Bragan Southern League Executive of the Year. Regions Field also earned it's due, earning Ballpark of the Year honors from Baseballparks.com. During the regular season, the Barons drew 396,820 fans to Regions Field and accumulated a total of 410,186 fans including the playoffs. The regular season attendance was the fourth highest in Barons history and the fourth-most in Southern League history since 1964. Perhaps even more impressive, the Barons never suffered a rainout in the ballparks' inaugural season despite a record amount of precipitation in Alabama.

From Opening Day to final pitch, the 2013 season was beyond the hopes of even the most outlandish dreamer. With a fearless manager and a host of hungry players from Marcus Semien to Micah Johnson, the Barons captured the hearts and minds of fans across the region and made the team's return to downtown a celebration of Birmingham's past, present and future.