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Villanueva, Suns win Southern League title

Right-hander belts three-run homer, throws five solid innings
September 20, 2009
When the Jacksonville Suns completed a three-game sweep of the Birmingham Barons last week to advance to the Southern League Championship Series, No. 4 starter Elih Villanueva's first postseason start was effectively scratched.

And when Jacksonville grabbed a quick 2-0 lead on the Tennessee Smokies in the Finals, it looked as if the Florida State product was poised to watch his team win a title without ever toeing the mound.

"I told myself, 'Just stayed focused and be ready to pitch,'" Villanueva said.

But 12 days after last taking the hill, in one of only two regular-season Double-A starts, the 23-year-old right-hander made his presence felt on both sides of the field.

Villanueva gave up three runs on five hits over five innings and belted a three-run homer Saturday to lead the Suns to a 7-3 triumph over the Smokies and the franchise's fourth Southern League championship.

It's Jacksonville's first title as a Marlins affiliate.

"That home run just totally gave us life," first-year Suns manager Brandon Hyde said of Villanueva's fourth-inning blast that scored Kevin Randel and Matt Dominguez. "It energized us. And the way our team reacted, it was just awesome, an awesome feeling."

So was the scene that unfolded once All-Star closer Matt Peterson put the finishing touches on the ninth inning. The formidable right-hander, who set a league saves record while leading the Minor Leagues in that category, entered with runners on first and third and one out. After picking Tyler Colvin off first base, Peterson inducing a groundout to pick up his third postseason save of the postseason and come face-to-face with pandemonium.

"It was a joyous event," Villanueva said of the celebration that centered around the mound.

"It feels great," Hyde added, still surrounded by his players and coaching staff. "We have an incredible clubhouse with an unbelievable amount of character guys that play to win every single night and make my job as a manager so easy.

"You aren't going to find a team that plays harder. And I couldn't be happier for them."

The Suns entered Game 4 of the best-of-5 series with a league-low 2.48 postseason ERA, and Villanueva (1-0) didn't disappoint. After allowing three runs over the first three innings, he retired the last eight batters he faced, six of which came after his game-changing homer.

"[The homer] definitely gave me a big lift on the mound and I just took it and ran with it," he said. "I knew we had the lead and I had to go back out there and shut them down and put a zero back up on the board."

Following Villanueva's blast, the Suns never looked back. Chris Leroux, Garrett Parcell and Daniel Jennings combined for 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief before handing the ball off to Peterson.

On the offensive side, Logan Morrison went 3-for-4 with an RBI and Scott Cousins belted a two-run double in the seventh. Leadoff batter Bryan Peterson was named Finals MVP after going 8-for-19 in the series, despite an 0-for-5 effort in the clincher.

"It was just surreal," Villanueva said. "With our club last year getting down to the final game and not being able to win it ... and this year we had was an amazing club, an amazing coaching staff, and for us to pull it off was just that much better."

"It's a real special group," added Hyde, who has managed in the Florida organization since 2005. "We have a great chemistry of older guys and younger guys and they all really enjoy playing. They really enjoy each other."

Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to