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Pensacola rallies once again to win SL crown

Fletcher-Vance's grand slam keys Marlins affiliate's comeback
2:10 AM EDT

Championship Series

Championship Series

Sept. 28

Blue Wahoos 11, Smokies 4
Even though Pensacola clinched the Southern League first-half title, it was an uphill battle all throughout the playoffs.

The Marlins’ Double-A affiliate lost the first game of the semifinals to reigning champions Montgomery, and had to grind out back-to-back one-run wins to stay alive. In the Finals, they dropped the first game to Tennessee and rode a seven-run frame to take Game 2.

The clincher would not be quite as close.

The Blue Wahoos walloped the Smokies behind a go-ahead grand slam from Cobie Fletcher-Vance and a big four-run seventh inning to pull away. It marked the club’s first crown since 2017, when it was named co-champions. Full story »

Sept. 27

Blue Wahoos 7, Smokies 1
Pensacola only scored in one inning, but it was enough to secure a winner-take-all Game 3 in the Southern League Championship Series.

After Tennessee starter Riley Thompson stifled the Blue Wahoos for five scoreless frames -- working around two hits and a pair of walks while fanning eight -- Pensacola's offense roared back in the sixth.

With two outs and a runner on second, the Marlins affiliate sent nine batters to plate on six hits and two walks and plated seven runs. Will Banfield accounted for a double, a single, two RBIs and a run scored in the frame. Cobie Vance, Thomas Jones, Demetrius Sims and Norel Gonzalez drove in runs for the Blue Wahoos.

On the hill, left-hander Patrick Monteverde earned the victory after allowing a run on three hits and one walk while whiffing six. Cody Mincey and Andrew McInvale combined on four scoreless frames of relief to seal the win, Mincey scattered two hits and a pair of walks while striking out two over three innings and McInvale twirled a hitless ninth.

Cubs prospect Yonathan Perlaza opened the scoring with an RBI double to center that scored Zach Davis in the third. Box score

Sept. 25

Smokies 4, Blue Wahoos 1
Tennessee is one win away from its first title since 2004.

The Smokies capitalized on their opponent’s mistakes to capture Game 1 of the club’s first Finals in 11 years. Cubs No. 13 prospect DJ Herz allowed an unearned run and worked around four walks while fanning five in 3 1/3 innings of work, and three relievers -- Riley Martin, Blake Whitney and Bailey Horn -- combined to toss 5 2/3 frames of scoreless ball, surrendering just one hit and one walk.

Chicago’s Double-A affiliate got the majority of the scoring done in the first inning. Yonathan Perlaza and Jake Slaughter singled to lead off the game, and Cole Roederer drew a two-out walk to load the bases. Chase Strumpf fell behind in the count 1-2 and ended up drawing a six-pitch walk for the game’s first run, and a throwing error on a pickoff attempt plated two more.

Nelson Maldonado added some insurance in the third, clubbing his first home run of the postseason to left-center to give his team a four-run cushion. The Blue Wahoos scratched a run across in the fourth on a fielder’s choice, but that was all they’d get. Box score

Semifinals

Sept. 23

Blue Wahoos 1, Biscuits 0
With a trip to the Finals on the line, Dax Fulton left it all out on the field.

The Marlins’ eighth-ranked prospect turned in the best start of his career, striking out a pro-best 13 across six innings of one-hit ball to set up Pensacola for its first trip to the Southern League Championship Series since 2017. Norel Gonzalez plated the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning with a two-out single.

It was a pitchers’ duel throughout the contest. While Fulton racked up the K's, neither team was able to get anything going offensively. Montgomery threatened early when the first two reached base in the second frame on a single and a walk, but Fulton proceeded to retire the next 15 Biscuits in a row, whiffing 11.

Going into the eighth, the Blue Wahoos were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. On the first pitch of the frame, Thomas Jones ripped a double to left, setting up Nasim Nuñez, who sacrificed him to third. Will Banfield struck out on five pitches, leaving it up to Gonzalez to cash in and he did, attacking the first pitch and grounding it into right field for the game's first and only run.

A pair of two-out singles in the top of the ninth had the defending champions threatening, but righty Sean Reynolds got Jordan Qsar to fly out to end the game. Box score

Smokies 3, Trash Pandas 1
Thanks to a pair of solo homers from Harrison Wenson and strong pitching from Chris Clarke and Samuel Reyes, Tennessee is heading to its first league finals since 2011.

The Smokies dropped the first game of the series but powered their way to two straight victories, holding Rocket City to just three runs in the final two games. Tennessee led the Southern League in home runs this season with 189, so it wasn’t a surprise that Wenson’s second multihomer effort of 2022 lifted his club to victory.

The catcher got the scoring started with his first solo shot to left field in the top of the third. His second dinger came on the first pitch he saw in the eighth to give his team a two-run lead. Jake Slaughter added an RBI single in the fifth that put Tennesse ahead for good.

Clarke surrendered a bases-loaded walk that tied the score in the third, but that would be the only damage the Smokies pitching staff would allow. The righty set down 10 of the next 13 batters he faced after the walk, and Reyes closed out the win with five strikeouts across three innings of two-hit ball.

Tennessee will be playing for its first championship since 2004. Box score

Sept. 22

Blue Wahoos 6, Biscuits 5
Before Game 2, Nasim Nuñez had only hit two home runs in his three-year professional career.

His third career dinger saved Pensacola from elimination.

After falling behind 5-0, the Blue Wahoos rallied to score six unanswered runs, capped off by Nuñez’s solo shot in the eighth, to force a decisive final game against Montgomery to determine who will move on to the championship series.

Right out of the gate, it seemed like the Biscuits were primed for a sweep. The Rays affiliate had jumped on Eury Pérez for four runs on four hits, knocking him out of the game after just three innings. Montgomery held a 5-0 advantage after four frames, while Pensacola had only mustered one hit through five.

But a Demetrius Sims leadoff walk, a Davis Bradshaw RBI double and a Thomas Jones two-run homer suddenly put the Blue Wahoos within two in the sixth frame. With two outs in the following frame, Bradshaw again came up clutch with a game-tying two-run single before Nuñez’s towering blast -- his first at the Double-A level -- put Pensacola ahead for good.

Lefty Patrick Monteverde and righty Sean Reynolds combined to limit Montgomery to one run on four hits in the final six innings. Box score

Smokies 4, Trash Pandas 2
Chase Strumpf made sure that Tennessee got one last chance to make it to the finals.

The Cubs' No. 25 prospect belted a go-ahead three-run homer to even up the series and force a Game 3. Yonathan Perlaza got the scoring started with an RBI double in the third, but a homer from Zach Neto and a single from Ryan Aguilar put Rocket City ahead by one after the fourth frame.

With two on and one out in the sixth, Strumpf hammered a 2-2 pitch over the wall in left-center to give his team a two-run lead they would not relinquish. Relievers Bailey Horn, Blake Whitney and Zac Leigh combined to strike out 10 and allow just one hit in 5 1/3 scoreless frames to seal the victory. Box score

Sept. 20

Biscuits 5, Blue Wahoos 2
Montgomery is one step closer to whipping up a spot in the Championship Series.

The Rays’ Double-A affiliate defeated Pensacola on the back of Kameron Misner's two-homer game against his former club. After the Biscuits jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on a homer by Brett Wisely and a single by Niko Hulsizer, but the Blue Wahoos' Norel Gonzalez evened things up with a two-RBI single in the third inning.

A rain delay paused the game for 52 minutes, and on the second pitch out of the break, Misner cranked a towering opposite-field shot to put Montgomery back on top. The second solo dinger by Tampa Bay's No. 21 prospect two frames later put some distance between his squad and Pensacola, and Wisely added an RBI single in the eighth to seal the deal.

Biscuits relievers Joe LaSorsa, Justin Sterner, Chris Gau and Jose Lopez combined to throw five scoreless innings of three-hit ball while racking up six strikeouts.

Gonzalez was the sole source of offense for the Blue Wahoos, finishing the contest 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Box score

Trash Pandas 9, Smokies 5
For the first time in franchise history, the Rocket City has a playoff win under its belt.

The Angels’ Double-A affiliate jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and never looked back to take Game 1 against Tennessee. Six Trash Pandas starters posted multihit efforts, including 2022 first-round pick Zach Neto and top prospect Logan O'Hoppe.

The two Los Angeles sluggers were key players in a four-run frame for Rocket City. After the first two batters reached base, Neto, who led off the game with a double, smacked another two-bagger to extend the lead to 5-0. O’Hoppe followed it with a ground-rule double to score Neto, and a wild pitch with the bases loaded brought in another run.

Lefty Ky Bush set the tone from the mound, striking out seven across five scoreless frames while allowing four hits and a walk. He retired eight of the first 10 batters he faced and closed out his start with a three-pitch strikeout.

Chase Strumpf and Yonathan Perlaza notched three-hit games while Cole Roederer collected three RBIs for the Smokies. Box score

How they got there

Sept. 11

Montgomery Biscuits

Seven was indeed a lucky number for the Biscuits.

Double-A Montgomery is headed to the postseason for a seventh consecutive year after blanking Rocket City, 7-0, at Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium. The victory pushed the Biscuits' second-half record to 39-24, a marked improvement from their 28-34 first half.

Mason Montgomery allowed two hits and a walk with five strikeouts in five innings to earn his second Double-A win. The No. 7 Rays prospect has been superb in his first full-season campaign, posting a 2.21 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and 167 punchouts in 118 innings across two Minor League levels.

No. 28 prospect Brett Wisely left the yard and Diego Infante also went deep to pace a Biscuits offense that pounded out 12 hits, three from Niko Hulsizer, who opened the scoring with his 17th roundtripper. Blake Hunt added the victors' fourth long ball of the day in the sixth. Box score

Sept. 9

Tennessee Smokies

Celebrations were muted by a doubleheader sweep, but Tennessee ended the night with the knowledge that its season would continue past the end of the regular season.

By virtue of a Rocket City win over Montgomery, third-place Birmingham was eliminated from playoff contention. That ensured Tennessee would at worst finish with the second-best SL North record. However, because the Trash Pandas won the division's first-half title, a repeat in the second half would hand the crown to the Smokies.

In short, Tennessee is in, with the precise reason to be determined over the final two days of the regular season.

June 23

Pensacola Blue Wahoos

Double-A Pensacola will be returning to the postseason for the first time since 2019. Fueled by a five-run ninth inning that put to rest any thoughts of a comeback by Biloxi, the Marlins affiliate clinched the South Division first-half title with a 10-6 win over the Shuckers at MGM Park. Multiple Blue Wahoos posted multihit nights, but the biggest performance came from catcher Paul McIntosh, who ripped a pair of two-run doubles.

The offensive outburst was a nice cushion for a team that’s relied heavily on its pitching all season. Pensacola’s staff leads the Southern League in ERA with a 3.79 mark and is tied for first in WHIP (1.26). The Blue Wahoos hurlers have allowed the fewest hits (463) and homers (57) as well as the third-fewest walks (225) in 547 total innings. Marlins' No. 3 prospect Eury Pérez leads the staff with a 3.35 ERA, 69 strikeouts, 0.96 WHIP and .196 BAA in 51 innings. Box score

June 19

Rocket City Trash Pandas

The Double-A Trash Pandas moved 15 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and clinched the North Division first-half title in the process after topping Montgomery, 7-2. Rocket City held a 2-1 edge after seven innings but broke the game open with a five-run eighth.

The win secured the first postseason berth for the Angels affiliate, who debuted last season with a 54-56 record. The club has done a majority of its damage at home, going 25-11 at Toyota Field. Rocket City's .351 on-base percentage is second on the circuit while its .255 average and 774 OPS each rank third. On the pitching front, the Trash Pandas stand tied for the league lead in WHIP (1.25) and is second in ERA (4.46). Box score