Champions – 2014

Suns Celebration 1

By Roger Hoover / Jacksonville Suns

October 22, 2014

Southern League Champions. I can’t believe it.

Southern League Champions. I can’t believe it.

Southern League Champions. I can’t believe it.

In the hours after the Jacksonville Suns completed their sweep of the Chattanooga Lookouts in the 2014 Southern League Championship Series, those two phrases kept echoing in my mind.

Southern League Champions. I can’t believe it.

Now here we are over a month removed from the last out of Game Three, and it’s starting to sink in that the Suns completed their goal of bringing a championship back to Jacksonville.

This was a year that going into the season I thought the Suns had an excellent chance to win a Southern League title. There were also high hopes with the 2013 ball club, however despite the wealth of prospects the Suns came up a game shy of making it to the postseason.

2014 looked to be different, especially with a pitching staff that I told a crowd at the Jacksonville Landing at the preseason party would be the “best in Minor League Baseball.” On paper that was accurate, with all five starting pitchers ranked among the top 16 prospects in the Marlins organization according to Baseball America, and a bullpen that featured talent plus previous Southern League experience.

However as it turned out, the young pitching staff had its ups and downs during April and May. Anthony DeSclafani and Andrew Heaney shined on the mound for the Suns, ultimately earning call-ups and spending the rest of the season in New Orleans or Miami.

Angel Sanchez had a very rough go of it into June before he was claimed off waivers by the Rays, and the Suns were left with only Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino as the remaining Opening Day rotation members to still be with the Suns going into the second half.

It was a blessing those two stayed in Jacksonville for the rest of the year. While Nicolino’s 14-4 year with a 2.64 ERA earned him Southern League Most Outstanding Pitcher honors, Urena likely was the second-best pitcher in the league, going 13-8 with a 3.33 ERA. Add in contributions from starters Chipper Smith, Jay Rogers, the Suns continued competing for a Second Half South Division title into August.

The Suns were on fire heading into their only series of the Second Half between Jacksonville and Mississippi. The Suns entered the five-game set at Bragan Field up two games on the Braves, only to see Mississippi take four of five games to have the standings all even on August 10. The Braves series was gut wrenching, including the last game where the Suns lost a late lead to fall 4-3.

The Suns then lost a series on the road to Chattanooga, before taking care of the Blue Wahoos one last time at Bragan Field, taking three out of five games. After the last game against the Blue Wahoos, 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, and that game on August 22 is the one I’ll always come back to when I think about Jacksonville’s postseason push. 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.

The positive momentum carried into the next night, where the Suns came from behind in the seventh inning, not necisarrily due to hits, but walks from Tennessee pitching paved the way for a seven-run seventh inning as the Suns won 15-7. The next day? Another comeback that featured a six-run fourth inning to get a 9-7 win. Contributions for the Suns offense came all across the lineup, from homers by Joe Benson to key RBI singles and doubles for the likes of Terrence Dayleg and Issac Galloway. After the Suns won a pitchers duel 2-1 behind the brilliance of Nicolino on August 25, the Smokies looked like they had avoided a sweep on the final night of the series. Tennessee led 5-3 going into the top of the ninth, yet Tennessee closer Frank Batista blew a save as Dayleg hit a two-run double to tie the game, and with two outs Danny Black’s RBI single was the difference as the Suns won 6-5.

Despite the wins in Tennessee, that series also saw a good deal of frustration around the Suns since Jacksonville was not gaining ground on Mississippi, as the Braves swept their series against the Birmingham Barons, keeping Mississippi in front by a game.

That set up the final series of the year, playing five games in four days against Mobile thanks to Saturday’s doubleheader. The Suns continued taking care of business, seeing the pitching staff shut down a potent BayBears offense, and the winning ways continued for Jacksonville through the fourth game of the series. 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.

As the South Division Championship Series started in Mobile even adversity and a late deficit didn’t faze them. 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 Suns blew a late lead the next night in Game Two, and missed several opportunities to win in extra innings as the BayBears ended the Jacksonville winning streak with a 4-3 win in extra innings.

After a long bus ride through the night to Jacksonville, the Suns bats came alive in Game Three’s second inning, with the Suns hitting back-to-back-to-back homers by Viosergy Rosa, Brady Shoemaker, and Joe Benson to give Justin Nicolino all the run support he needed as the Suns won 7-5. The Suns looked poise to clinch the next night in Game Four, yet despite having a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning, Mother Nature had other ideas. A huge rainstorm at Bragan Field forced the Suns and BayBears to wait over two hours before the game was suspended and picked up the next Monday at noon. The layoff didn’t hurt the Suns, who scored five runs in the Monday portion to clinch the South Division title with a 9-1 win. The weary Suns didn’t have a champagne celebration after this series, with manager Andy Barkett saying the time to do that would be a few nights later.

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. Of all the moments that night and in the incredible run the Suns had, that’s the moment I’ll always have as my favorite. Nicolino, who loved pitching in Jacksonville and close to his home of Orlando, was recognized by the fans for the greatness that he displayed all year long; and it’s a moment that will live in Jacksonville baseball history forever.

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.

I hustled down to the field for the Billy Hitchcock Trophy presentation along with Rosa being named the SLCS Most Valuable Player, and we did interviews in the clubhouse during the celebration and what a party it was. Everyone got a champagne or beer shower by the players, and Andy Barkett gave a great speech where he informed J.T. Realmuto that the Suns catcher was heading back to the big leagues with the Marlins.

After we said our goodbyes on the Suns Baseball Network and the celebration continued through the next several days, I kept going back to those two phrases over and over again.

Southern League Champions. I can’t believe it.

Broadcasting in the Southern League previously with the Tennessee Smokies I saw Tennessee come up just short in the championship series, twice to the Suns and once to Mobile, and all of those losses were heartbreaking. The 2013 Suns will always be one of my favorite teams, and the heartbreak was just as tough when the season ended on the final day of the year, one game short of the playoffs.

So I was skeptical during the season whether or not this would be the team that collects a title, but my thoughts changed once I saw the Suns stomp the Smokies in that first inning the first night in Tennessee. Little did I know that would be the beginning of a stretch that saw the Suns win 11 games in a row and finish the year on a 16-1 run, but everything changed with that game.

I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact the Suns were Second Half champs when we were right in the thick of the SDCS, then the Suns won that, and the SLCS went by very quickly in the sweep, so it was a mind-blowing experience.

Now more than a month removed from the title it’s finally sunk in that the Suns are the champs, and I know when I see that championship ring it will really sink in. Broadcasting baseball on the radio is my love and getting to broadcast winning baseball and the thrills of a pennant race and postseason was a blast for me along with Suns Baseball Network colleagues Michael West and Jason Patterson.

Now that I’ve shared a lot of my memories from Jacksonville’s run to a championship, we’ll be hearing from players and coaches about what they recall from this 2014 season, and we look forward to bringing you their stories here.

Thanks for taking a look at this long read, and yes:

Southern League Champions. Alright, I believe it!

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