Their nickname may indicate otherwise, but it was the Birmingham Barons who almost had the Southern League semifinals stolen from right underneath them. They made sure that didn't happen Monday night.
Double-A Birmingham defeated Tennessee, 7-4, in a decisive Game 5 at Smokies Park to advance to the circuit's Championship Series against Mobile. That will be the franchise's first trip to the Southern League Finals since 2002, when the team swept Jacksonville in three games to claim its fifth league title.
The victory came after the Barons nearly squandered a 2-0 series lead by dropping Games 3 and 4.
"We won those two at home, but we knew they would be tough at their place," said Birmingham manager Julio Vinas. "They were always capable of playing well no matter how the first two games went, and sure enough they drove the ball pretty well to get those two wins. We always knew we had the team to get to that next level, though."
As confident as Vinas was in his club entering Monday, the Barons got some big help in the form of some Smokies miscues to break the affair open.
With the score knotted entering the fourth, 2-2, Tyler Saladino singled off Tennessee starter Neil Ramirez and Mike Blanke and Jared Mitchell walked to load the bases with one out. After Ramirez was lifted for reliever Matt Loosen, Barons leadoff hitter Micah Johnson hit a sharp ball to second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, whose error allowed Saladino and Blanke to score. The ball reached home, but was thrown away by catcher Taylor Davis, plating Mitchell to give the Barons a 5-2 lead and leaving Johnson at second.
Then the Barons second baseman topped off the inning by scoring on Javier Baez's error at shortstop on a ball off the bat of Trayce Thompson.
Although that wasn't necessarily how Vinas drew it up, he certainly wasn't complaining about the big frame.
"That ball [hit by Johnson] could've been ruled a hit, it was hit so hard," he said. "Alcantara made a nice play to get to it, but after throwing the ball around to home and to second, we were able to get a few more up. Then the ball fell out of Baez's glove, and it was just a tough inning on their end.
"But taking advantage in those situations, that's what's it all about. It was a tight game in those first couple innings, and once you get a lead like that, you have to hold it."
The Barons were able to do just that, thanks to a strong relief outing by Ryan Kussmaul. Starter Myles Jaye and Nestor Molina allowed two runs apiece over the first 4 2/3 innings before the 26-year-old right-hander took over in the fifth with a 6-4 lead. He gave up a single to Rubi Silva to begin his outing before retiring nine Smokies in a row.
Kussmaul, who owned a 2.43 ERA in 23 games during the season but missed most of June, July and August due to injury, finished with one hit and one walk allowed and two strikeouts over three scoreless frames.
"Kuss did a great job for us tonight," Vinas said of the Southern League midseason All-Star. "He's been really solid all year. It was just unfortunate he had to be on the DL for a little bit. But he comes right at guys, gets quick outs and lets his defense work. ... With his sinker-slider mix and three-quarter arm slot, he makes it really tough for guys to hit him, especially righties."
Cody Winiarski earned his second save of the postseason with 1 1/3 scoreless frames. The 24-year-old right-hander struck out Baez for the game's final out. The Cubs' top prospect had smoked a mammoth homer in the fifth and also scored after being hit by a pitch in the first.
Birmingham moves onto the Finals to face a Mobile squad that defeated Mississippi, 3-1, in the league's other semifinals. The BayBears won the first- and second-half titles in the South Division, but split their 10 games with the Barons this season.
"Mobile's a really good team, obviously, with a lot of older veteran guys," said Vinas. "We took four out of five from them and then they did the same to us, so we're pretty even there. It's going to be a pretty good series that like everything else will just come down to pitching."