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.