The Double-A Tennessee Smokies have been swinging hot bats all year. So manager Buddy Bailey found it a little ironic that they clinched the Southern League's second-half Northern Division crown on the back of a shutout.
Top Chicago Cubs prospect Javiez Baez homered and plated four runs and starter Matt Loosen scattered three hits over seven strong innings in the Smokies' 6-0 win over the Mobile BayBears.
The victory, combined with a Birmingham Barons loss in Pensacola, gave Tennessee a seven-game lead at the top of the division with six games to play. It marks the fourth time in five years that the Smokies will advance to the postseason.
"I'm soaking wet. I'm trying to get these wet clothes off so I don't get pneumonia," Buddy Bailey joked after his team's impromptu on-field champagne celebration. "Some of the players got on top of the dugout and sprayed the fans to show them we appreciated their support. But this is just the first step. There are two more steps to go."
But as the old saying goes, each journey begins with a single step. For Baez, his steps have been more like leaps and bounds, and he took another giant one Monday with his 35th homer of the year.
"It was 3-1 and I was looking for my pitch," he said. "It was a slider and I just crushed it to left field. They wanted me to roll over the ball and I hit the ball to the left side. I made the adjustment."
Considering the Smokies lead the league in team batting average (.258), homers (111) and doubles (266), it came as no surprise the offense, and Baez in particular, stayed in a groove.
"[Mobile pitcher Blake Cooper] made a mistake with a hanging slider and [Baez] did what he does best and hit it 400 feet," Bailey said.
Hitting .308 in 48 Southern League games after a midseason promotion from Class A Advanced Daytona, Baez now has a team-best 18 long balls and 44 RBIs for the Smokies. Across the two levels, he has 105 RBIs, more than twice the 46 he posted last year between Class A Peoria and Daytona.
"It is really exciting," Baez said of clinching a division title. "I've never been in something like this, it's the first time ever. We've got a good team here."
First baseman Justin Bour has collected 17 homers and 55 RBIs while third baseman Christian Villanueva has amassed 16 dingers and team-high 67 RBIs. Rubi Silva and Arismendy Alcantara have also chipped in with double-digit homers and 50-plus RBI seasons.
On the mound, Kyle Hendricks is 10-3 with a 1.85 ERA in 21 starts while Eric Jokisch is 10-12 with a 3.50 mark. Frank Batista has 17 saves and a 2.69 ERA in 45 relief appearances and Brian Schlitter sports an 0.83 ERA is 16 games out of the bullpen.
The Smokies will travel to the first-half champion Barons for the first game in the best-of-5 series in the Division Championship Series on Sept. 5.