Suns face Barons in 2015 Rickwood Classic

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By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

One of the Southern League’s great traditions will feature the Jacksonville Suns this season, as the Suns will play the Birmingham Barons in the 20th annual Rickwood Classic at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama on Wednesday May 27 at 12:30 p.m. CT.

This will be Jacksonville’s third appearance in the classic, losing 3-2 in 2007 before picking up a 4-2 win the next season in 2008. The Suns and Barons are 1-1 in Rickwood Classic meetings.

Former Rookie of the Year, eight-time Major League Baseball All-Star, and four-time World Series champion Darryl Strawberry headlines the game as the Guest of Honor and is available for autographs during the game.

Strawberry spent 17 seasons in the Majors, was elected to eight consecutive All-Star games from 1984-90 and was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1983. During his career, Strawberry suited up for the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees. The slugger won his first World Series title in 1986 with the Mets before winning three with the Yankees (1996, 1998, 1999). The outfielder led the league with 39 home runs and a .545 slugging percentage in 1988 to claim his first of two Silver Slugger awards. Currently, the former big leaguer and his wife, Tracy, are pastors and the founders of Strawberry Ministries.

While the Barons will wear replicas of their 1948 flannels, the Suns will wear their all-yellow uniforms that debuted last season for Sunday throwback games.

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The Rickwood Classic was named Minor League Baseball’s Promotion of the Year in 2010, deemed the most desirable Minor League Baseball game to attend in a poll on MiLB.com in 2009, and was included in the “101 Things All Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die” column written by ESPN.com’s Jim Caple. Over 120,000 people have attended the Rickwood Classic since its inception in 1996 and has been covered by dozens of local and national media outlets – including HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

Rickwood Field is America’s oldest ballpark, opening in 1910. The historic field was the longtime home of the Barons until the 1987 season, but the Barons have returned to Rickwood each year since 1996 for the Rickwood Classic.

Tickets for the Suns and Barons in the Rickwood Classic are available through the Barons ticket office by calling (205) 988-3200 or visiting www.barons.com.

#MarlinsMonday – January 26, 2015

New baseballs for the 2015 season with the signature of commissioner Rob Manfred.

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

Late last week the Miami Marlins made it official, signing Ichiro Suzuki to a one-year deal. Ichiro will be a fourth outfielder for the Marlins, taking over the roll that we saw Reed Johnson fill last season.

While Ichiro will not be playing every day, he is another good veteran presence for the Marlins to have in the clubhouse with the young players, especially his fellow outfielders Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna.

There continues to be some James Shields to the Marlins chatter, but most of it now is that a deal is unlikely given how much Shields is asking for.

The baseball world lost an icon on Friday, when we learned that Hall of Famer and Cubs legend Ernie Banks passed away. I grew up a Cubs fan, so the news hit home for me, and I wrote about what he meant to the game and my family here.

Here are today’s #MarlinsMonday links:

Marlins.com: Finding at-bats for Ichiro a good problem for Marlins
Marlins.com: Realmuto No. 8 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 C Prospects list
Miami Herald: Greg Cote: Marlins can narrow gap on Nats by adding James Shields
Sun Sentinel: Marlins in running for hosting 2017 All-Star Game
Fish Stripes: Juan Pierre impressed by Marlins’ offseason
Yahoo! Big League Stew: New commissioner Rob Manfred open to defensive-shift ban
MLB.com: Presenting the official 2015 MLB baseball
Chicago Sun Times: Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, leaves this world to play two, if not more
Chicago Tribune: For ebullient Ernie Banks, day at the ballpark was a day in paradise
The New York Times: New Commissioner With a Long-Term Mission

Marlins Announce 2015 Spring Training Non-Roster Invitees

Viosergy Rosa is one of several former Suns that are non-roster invitees to Marlins spring training. Photo Courtesy: Roger C. Hoover.

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

The Miami Marlins announced the list of non-roster invitees to spring training on Wednesday afternoon. In the list are 15 minor league free agents along with 10 players from the organization, and in the group are six former Jacksonville Suns.

The minor league free agent pitchers included right-handers: Ryan Chaffee, Nick Masset, Vin Mazzaro, and Ryan Reid. Left-handed pitchers are Pat Misch, Chris Narveson, and Pat Urckfitz. Former Sun Vinny Rottino earned an invitation as a catcher along with Jhonathan Solano. The list of minor free agents includes infielders Reid Brignac, Don Kelly, and Scott Sizemore, along with outfielders Tyler Colvin, Cole Gillespie, and Kenny Wilson.

Among players from the organization invited to spring training are former Suns: right-handed pitchers Nick Wittgren and Trevor Williams, catcher Sharif Othman, and infielders Austin Nola and 2014 Southern League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Viosergy Rosa. They are joined by right-handed pitcher Brian Ellington, infielders Justin Bohn, Avery Romero, and Jordany Valdespin, and outfielder Austin Wates.

These players will join members of the Marlins 40-man roster for spring training, which begins on February 20 with pitchers and catchers reporting to Jupiter, Florida.

Former Jacksonville Suns (19) on the Miami 40-man roster: pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Arquimedes Caminero, Steve Cishek, Adam Conley, Grant Dayton, Sam Dyson, Brad Hand, Tom Koehler, Justin Nicolino, A.J. Ramos, Matt Ramsey, and Jose Urena. Catchers are J.T. Realmuto and Jeff Mathis, along with infielder Derek Dietrich, and outfielders Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich.

The 19 former Suns on the 40-man roster along with six of the invitees puts 25 former Suns in spring training with the Marlins.

The first full squad workout is on Feb. 24, with the first exhibition game on March 2 against Florida International University. The final exhibition game will be in Jacksonville on Saturday April 4 at Bragan Field against the Suns, ticket information is available at http://www.jaxsuns.com.

#MarlinsMonday – January 19, 2015

Could Ichiro Suzuki be headed to Miami?

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

As we are another week closer to pitchers and catchers reporting, the Miami Marlins continue to fine tune their roster. Speculation continues that the Marlins could bring in Ichiro Suzuki or James Shields to add a veteran presence the club that will need veterans to compete in a rapidly improving National League Eastern Division.

The Washington Nationals have solidified their rotation with the signing of former Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, adding to a talented stable of starting pitching along with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez.

There has also been some broadcasting news in the Southern League, as one broadcaster will have a new home in 2015. Chris Harris, who has been with the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx/Jackson Generals since 2009, will be the inaugural radio voice of the Biloxi Shuckers for this upcoming season. Chris is one of the hardest workers in this league and we look forward to seeing him in Jacksonville once again!

Here are today’s #MarlinsMonday links:

Marlins.com: Marlins open to two-year deal with Ichiro
Marlins.com: Focused on ’15, Cishek excited about Marlins’ direction
Miami Herald: Marlins avoid arbitration with four players, including Steve Cishek
Sun Sentinel: Report: Don Kelly signs minor league deal with Miami Marlins
Fish Stripes:Marlins ‘still in’ on James Shields
Ballpark Digest: Shuckers sell out luxury suites for opening season
The Jackson Sun: Chris Harris leaving Jackson Generals
Yahoo! Big League Stew: Cubs upgrade outfield by acquiring Dexter Fowler from Astros
Yahoo! Big League Stew: Max Scherzer makes the Nationals favorites to win World Series
ESPN Chicago: Wrigley minus bleachers until at least May 11
The New York Times: Nationals Place Early Bet That Aces Will Bring October Success

 

#MarlinsMonday – January 12, 2015

Remember former Sun Vinny Rottino? He’s signed a minor league deal with the Marlins and will report to spring training. Here he is with Jacksonville in Tennessee during the 2010 season. Photo Courtesy: Knoxville News Sentinel

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

With the eyes of the sporting world on the NFL Playoffs and tonight’s College Football National Championship Game, the baseball season continues to get closer and closer to beginning.

The action of course begins with Spring Training, and right now it appears that pitcher Dan Haren will be with the Marlins come late February, however a deal could still be in the works. Haren was acquired in the trade that brought Dee Gordon to Miami and saw the Marlins part with talented players including former Suns Austin Barnes, Andrew Heaney, and Chris Hatcher.

Haren is considering retirement, but that looks to be going by the wayside as he gets ready for the season. Now one of the biggest question marks for the Marlins will be to trade the right-hander to where he wants to be, with a West Coast club, or keep him in hopes that he will suit up for Miami.

The Haren news headlines today’s #MarlinsMonday links, enjoy Oregon vs. Ohio State tonight!

Marlins.com: Haren reportedly to attend camp, but status unclear
Marlins.com: Fernandez measuring up to Hall of Fame arms
Sun Sentinel:Report: Vinny Rottino signs minor league deal with Miami Marlins
Fish Stripes: Marlins interested in Will Venable, Andy Dirks
Fish Stripes: Marlins doing everything to sell fans on product
Yahoo! Big League Stew: MLB Network to launch new documentary series on January 13
NBC Sports Hardball Talk: Report: Yankees to hire Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell as hitting coaches
Ballpark Digest: Improvements pitched for Hank Aaron Stadium

Former Jaxpo Randy Johnson Elected to Hall of Fame

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By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

Former Jacksonville Expos pitcher Randy Johnson was one of four players elected on Tuesday to the 2015 Hall of Fame class for induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Johnson is part of a talented 2015 Hall of Fame class that includes pitchers John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, and second baseman Craig Biggio.

Johnson was originally drafted by the Montreal Expos from the University of Southern California in the second round of the 1985 draft. Two years later, Johnson made his Southern League debut pitching with the Jaxpos in 1987.

During his time in Jacksonville, Johnson went 11-8 with a 3.73 ERA in 24 starts. Johnson worked 140 innings with the Expos where he walked 128 batters compared to 163 strikeouts.

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The 1987 Jacksonville Expos, led by manager Tommy Thompson, were one of the most memorable teams in Suns’ franchise history, going 85-59 in the regular season and winning the Second Half Eastern Division title. The Suns fell one game short of the Southern League Championship Series, falling to the Charlotte O’s in a hard-fought five-game Eastern Division Championship Series.

12 1987 Jacksonville Expos went on to play in the major leagues, with eight of those players pitchers led by Johnson. The 1987 club also included future All-Star Larry Walker who would go on to be the 1997 National League Most Valuable Player.

Johnson never returned to Jacksonville after 1987, and did see his first major league time with the Expos in 1988. He would go on to pitch in 22 major league seasons, going 303-166 with a 3.29 ERA. His long major league tenure where he was a 10-time All-Star included pitching for the: Expos (1988-89), Seattle Mariners (1989-1998), Houston Astros (1998), Arizona Diamondbacks (1999-2004, 2007-08), New York Yankees (2005-06), and San Francisco Giants (2009).

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He won the Cy Young Award five times (1995, 1999-2002), and was shared the World Series Most Valuable Player Award with rotation mate Curt Schilling as their pitching helped the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the seven-game 2001 World Series.

Johnson ended his career with 4,875 strikeouts which is second-most all-time behind Nolan Ryan, and his 303 wins are the fifth-most by a left-handed pitcher.

Johnson and the Class of 2015 will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 26.

Top 10 Suns Moments of 2014

Justin Nicolino tips his cap to Jacksonville fans during Game Three of the 2014 Southern League Championship Series. Photo Courtesy: Roger C. Hoover.

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

2014 was more than memorable for the Jacksonville Suns, who captured the franchise’s sixth Southern League championship in September. This was a year where Suns fans learned to expect the unexpected and to be ready for memorable moments each night at Bragan Field.

The journey to a championship featured many twists and turns, and we’ve selected our favorite memories from this past season of Suns baseball. There probably could have been 20 or 30 the way this season went, but these 10 stood out the most.

Enjoy this look back at 2014 and Happy New Year from the Jacksonville Suns!

10. Suns and Barons Make Headlines with July Brawl

While some will not view this as a “top” moment, there is no doubt that this event was one of the most newsworthy moments of the season and perhaps sparked the Suns in the second half of the year. In the ninth inning of a July 26 game against the Barons, Birmingham took a 5-1 lead when Luis Sierra brought home Jeremy Farrell on an RBI single off Suns reliever Matt Ramsey. After he scored, Farrell collided with Ramsey, sparking a benches-clearing brawl. After manager Andy Barkett and Ramsey were ejected, first baseman Wilfredo Gimenez charged at the Barons dugout and another, longer brawl occurred. The delay ended up taking 19 minutes, and the incidents led to suspensions and fines for both the Suns and the Barons. The brawl also went viral on social media and the Internet, as it was one of several major brawls in Minor League Baseball that week. It is also interesting to note that following that game, the Suns went 24-11 during the rest of the season as Jacksonville won a second half South Division title.

9. Alex Burg caps memorable Barons comeback with walk-off homer

The night before the Suns and Barons brawled, game five of the series on July 25 featured one of the most memorable and remarkable comeback victories of the year. The Suns trailed the Barons 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, yet roared back at the plate as Jacksonville scored five times to tie the game up and force extra innings. The Suns sent 10 men to the plate in the inning and received a bases loaded walk from Alex Burg, a two-run double from Terrence Dayleg and RBI singles from Brent Keys and Austin Barnes to tie the game at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Barons quickly retook the lead in the top of the 10th when Christian Marrero hit a solo homer, but once again the Suns answered. In the bottom of the 10th, Alex Burg drilled a two-run homer well over the left field wall to give the Suns a walk-off 7-6 victory. Burg had a knack for walk-off heroics in 2014, as that hit was his fourth walk-off hit of the year and the ninth for the Suns.

8. Barnes Homers Suns to Third Consecutive Golden Skillet

On July 19, Austin Barnes hit a three-run go-ahead home run to give Jacksonville a 3-2 lead over the Blue Wahoos in the seventh inning, and Jacksonville went on to win the contest 6-2 to clinch a third consecutive Golden Skillet crown. So far the Suns have won all three Golden Skillet battles with their instate rival from Pensacola, but the clinching win on the 19th proved more than just a signature moment for the Suns. The homer sparked Austin Barnes, who hadn’t hit a home run in his first 35 games with the Suns, to 12 homers in the last 43 games of the year in a time where Jacksonville needed offense to chase down a second half South Division title.

7. Furcal and Tejada join Suns

It’s not uncommon for the Suns to have major league stars “rehab” in Jacksonville as they work their way back to Miami from injury. In the Barkett era alone players like Chris Coghlan, Clay Hensley, Nathan Eovaldi, and Logan Morrison all suited up for the Suns before returning to the Marlins. However in 2014, some very noteworthy players had extended rehab stints with the Suns. First of all, Marlins second baseman and three-time All-Star Rafael Furcal had three separate rehab stints with the Suns from late April to mid-June as he nursed several leg injuries. Another star was former American League MVP and six-time All Star Miguel Tejada, who joined the Suns on a minor league rehab stint, as he was signed by the Marlins in April and joined the Suns in late May. Tejada only played in four games, all in Jacksonville, before injury would ultimately end his season. There were a few days in Jacksonville where Tejada and Furcal were both in the Suns clubhouse, a rare duo of accomplished major leaguers in Double-A.

6. Back-to-Back-to-Back Homers Power Suns to Game Three SDCS Win

After a long bus ride through the night to Jacksonville following the Game Two loss of the South Division Championship Series, the Suns bats came alive in Game Three’s second inning. The Suns hitting back-to-back-to-back homers by Viosergy Rosa, Brady Shoemaker, and Joe Benson off talented Diamondbacks prospect Aaron Blair to give Justin Nicolino all the run support he needed as the Suns won 7-5 and a 2-1 lead in the series. In the regular season, the Suns hadn’t had back-to-back homers all year, let alone the back-to-back-to-back display seen that night by Rosa, Shoemaker, and Benson.

5. Nicolino Tips Cap to Bragan Field Crowd

One of the most dramatic moments of the season came during a pitching change in Game Three of the Southern League Championship Series at Bragan Field. Justin Nicolino, who would be named the Southern League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher and the Miami Marlins Minor League Pitcher of the Year, tossed the first six and two-thirds innings against Chattanooga in scoreless fashion as the Suns led 6-0 in the seventh inning. When manager Andy Barkett took out Nicolino for reliever Reid Redman, Bragan Field erupted in applause as Nicolino made his way back to the dugout as he tipped the cap to the Jacksonville fans who witnessed his brilliance all season long. Nicolino was 14-4 in 2014 with a league-best 2.64 ERA, and barring injury it is likely that was his final moment on the mound in a Suns uniform.

4. 11-Game Winning Streak Begins in Tennessee

After a loss against the Blue Wahoos in Jacksonville on August 21, the Suns bused through the night north to Kodak, Tennessee where the Tennessee Smokies were waiting for a crucial five game series. The Smokies were also in a pennant race with the surging Chattanooga Lookouts for the Second Half North Division crown, yet from night one in Tennessee it was clear the Suns were on their way to greatness.

The Suns won the first contest 18-1 and had a 7-0 lead on Tennessee in the bottom of the first when the first out was recorded. Jacksonville also led 16-0 in the middle of the fourth. That night a tired Suns team went to a unfriendly territory and carried the fight right to the Smokies and in turn, the rest of the Southern League South Division, as the victory sparked Jacksonville to what became a 10-game winning streak to close the regular season, and then ultimately an 11-game winning streak stretching into the playoffs.

3. Suns Clinch Second Half South Division Title

The Suns had won nine games in a row and thanks to a pair of Braves losses against Huntsville, the Labor Day game against Mobile presented the Suns with the same scenario as the year before – win and you’re in the playoffs. However there was no margin for error, since the Braves owned the tiebreaker a Suns loss and a Braves win meant that Mississippi, who ended up with the league’s best record, would be postseason bound.

The Suns built an early lead before Brady Shoemaker’s three-run homer in the fifth inning gave Jacksonville a 5-2 lead. In the seventh inning Viosergy Rosa smashed a solo homer that looked to be an exclamation point to a clinching win, as the Suns went ahead 6-3. However things got interesting in the top of the ninth, as the BayBears scored two runs on Brandon Drury double that came just a few feet shy of a grand slam home run that would’ve given Mobile the lead. Yet Nick Wittgren forced Dustin Martin to ground out to short to secure Jacksonville’s 2014 Second Half South Division Championship.

The Suns had a great champagne celebration on the field and in the clubhouse, and long after fans left Bragan Field on that perfect Monday, the ball club, led by ace Justin Nicolino, took a victory lap around the bases. Baseball is a game that brings the little kid out in everyone, and as I watched from the radio booth at these guys running around the field, I knew that this group was special and that the playoffs wouldn’t faze the Suns.

2. Barnes Homers to Give Suns Game One SDCS Win

As the South Division Championship Series started in Mobile even adversity and a late deficit couldn’t faze the Suns. In Game One, trailing 4-3 with Mobile’s closer on the mound in the top of the ninth inning, a pinch-hit single by Ryan Rieger put a man on base and then with two outs, Austin Barnes continued his home run tear from the regular season as he clobbered a two-run dinger over the left field wall at Hank Aaron Stadium to put the Suns up 5-4, which would be the final score. The home run set the tone for the rest of the playoffs, and the Suns ended up beating the BayBears in four games in the SDCS.

 

1. Suns Sweep Lookouts in Southern League Championship Series

The Suns travelled to Chattanooga to face the Lookouts in the Southern League Championship Series. While the Suns under the Marlins had already won two titles in 2009 and 2010 and had five Southern League crowns overall, the Lookouts had not won a league championship since 1988 and were in the championship series for the first time since they lost to the Suns in 1996.

Jacksonville took the first contest 5-3 behind five runs in the first two innings of the game combined with brilliant pitching from Urena. The Chattanooga portion of the series came to a close in Game Two with the Suns winning a blowout 12-3. The series shifted back to Jacksonville on Friday September 12, and Viosergy Rosa continued his terrific postseason with a first inning three-run homer that proved to be plenty of run support for Justin Nicolino.

The ace didn’t allow any runs during his time on the mound, and when he was taken out of the game in the seventh inning he received a lengthy standing ovation from the loud Bragan Field crowd and he tipped his cap to them as well. Despite the Lookouts grabbing a run in the top of the ninth, Matt Ramsey forced Darnell Sweeney to ground out to second base to end the season as the Suns swept the Lookouts to claim their sixth Southern League title, and their third as a Miami Marlins affiliate.