It took three years, but the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx are headed back to the Southern League playoffs.
Ryan Ketchner allowed just an unearned run over 7 1/3 innings Tuesday as the Diamond Jaxx beat the Huntsville Stars, 5-1, in a one-game playoff at Joe Davis Stadium to clinch the Southern League North Division first-half title.
West Tenn (42-29) won two of its final three games, while Huntsville (41-30) dropped four of five to finish the first half to force the deciding playoff game.
Ketchner (6-2) scattered four hits and a walk and struck out two to win his second straight start in his second longest outing of the season.
The 26-year-old left-hander gave up a sacrifice fly to Chris Errecart after Angel Salome reached on a fielding error by shortstop Mark Kiger in the second inning.
"He threw a gem. We couldn't ask for a better performance out of him in a pressure situation," said skipper Scott Steinmann, who is in his first year with the Diamond Jaxx after managing the Class A Advanced High Desert Mavericks in 2007.
Shawn Kelley recorded the final five outs, striking out two and walking one to close out his first save with West Tenn and end Huntsville's run of three straight half titles in the North Division.
The team qualified for the Southern League playoffs for the first time since 2005, when West Tenn took both half-season titles before falling to the Jacksonville Suns in the Finals.
Steinmann admired the collective efforts of his club.
"It's a pat on the back for all the hard work of the players," he said. "The dedication has paid off and it shows."
After starting the season 7-7, the Diamond Jaxx won 15 of 18 games from April 18 to June 6 and took six of 10 contests against Huntsville. The pitching staff, which ranked third in the league with a 3.70 ERA, was led by right-hander Rich Dorman (7-2, 2.62 ERA), who was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma for the second half, Ketchner (3.23), and right-hander Doug Fister (5-5, 3.83). Closer Mumba Rivera enjoyed a fine first half as well, going 4-1 with 11 saves and a 2.60 ERA in 25 appearances.
West Tenn's offense stood second in the league with a .275 average and second with 359 runs scored. First baseman Thomas Hubbard topped the squad with a .360 average, while Michael Wilson slugged 14 homers and drove in 43 runs.
"We expect these guys to continue to play hard and develop and grow not only as individuals but as a team," Steinmann said.
Wilson gave the Diamond Jaxx the lead with a two-RBI double in the first, Adam Moore hit a run-scoring single in the fourth and Luis Valbuena delivered a two-RBI single in the sixth.
Huntsville starter Steve Hammond (7-4) gave up five runs -- four earned -- on 10 hits while striking out two over 5 2/3 innings.
The two teams will start the second half with a five-game series in Huntsville.