Double-A Jackson manager Blake Lalli was satisfied after one inning. He had watched Emilio Vargas give up a run and his offense fire back with five. He knew many of his players had shown up for Spring Training sometime in January, and some eight months later, "really, really wanted it.""I
Double-A Jackson manager Blake Lalli was satisfied after one inning. He had watched Emilio Vargas give up a run and his offense fire back with five. He knew many of his players had shown up for Spring Training sometime in January, and some eight months later, "really, really wanted it."
"I don't care what happens," Lalli told his staff in the dugout. "I'm so proud of the way these guys showed up today."
His pride only grew. Vargas took the early cushion and didn't allow much else as the Generals sailed to a 6-2 victory over the Shuckers in decisive Game 5 of the Southern League Championship Series at The Ballpark at Jackson on Sunday night.
Jackson, which also bested Biloxi in last year's Finals, became the first back-to-back champion in the Southern League since Mobile secured consecutive trophies in 2011-12. The Generals have won three of the past four Southern League championships and joined Visalia -- the last California League team standing -- as D-backs affiliates to win a title in 2019.
"The kids on this team, the thing that showed out most when we started the playoffs was just their belief and their will to win," Lalli said. "That's what was so special about playing here in the playoffs and the Minor Leagues. You see the ultimate team atmosphere. From where they came to the beginning of the year to the end of the year was absolutely incredible. We expected guys to have a transition period and there really wasn't much of one. They bought in and really all the credit goes to them."
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Game 5 marked the end of a back-and-forth series. Luis Aviles Jr.powered Biloxi to a win in a slugfest of an opener. Jackson scored four in the ninth inning of Game 2 to level the series, then had Series MVP Daulton Varsho -- the No. 5 D-backs prospect -- take the reins in a 2-0 win in Game 3.
"He just comes every day," the manager said of Varsho, a catcher who of late manned center field and went 6-for-15 with four runs and three RBIs in the Finals. "He works. He's a ballplayer. He's the definition of the word 'ballplayer'. He wants to win. He does everything to help his team. He's just incredible. He's a guy we've leaned on all year."
But Jake Gatewood's fourth homer of the playoffs helped the Shuckers in Game 4 forced the final matchup.
Sunday's first inning followed the same theme. Biloxi's Cooper Hummel roped a one-out double to right field off Vargas and came home two batters later when Weston Wilson singled up the middle. From there on out, though, the contest belonged to the reigning champs.
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The Generals batted around in the bottom half of the opening frame. Five of their first six batters reached base, a string capped by a two-run triple to center by Ramon Hernandez that knocked No. 13 Brewers prospect Drew Rasmussen out of the game after one-third of an inning. Tyler Spurlin came on to get the final two outs, but allowed an RBI single to Renae Martinez that put Jackson up, 5-1.
The Generals' final tally came on a sacrifice fly by Hernandez in the seventh.
"Both playoff series, we lost Game 1 and it was nothing to these guys," Lalli said. "'So what? Let's go. We're going to do it.' And they did it."
Vargas surrendered two singles in the second and then flipped on cruise control. He faced the minimum the rest of the way, and at one point, retired 13 straight batters. Bruce Caldwell's leadoff single in the seventh was the only other hit off the 23-year-old. As Lalli watched the right-hander deal, he turned to Jackson hitting coach Rick Short and noted Vargas' presence on the mound seemed different.
"The body language, the emotion -- you could tell that he knew it was his game and that he wanted it," Lalli said.
Miguel Aguilar needed just six pitches to complete a 1-2-3 eighth. West Tunnell came on to close out the ninth and walked the first two batters before Caldwell singled in Hummel. But Tunnell sealed the win -- and another championship -- by getting Gatewood to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Tunnell lifted his arms toward the sky before the ball went from the shortstop to the second baseman. He knew. There's a dynasty in Jackson.
Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.