By Jason Patterson / Jacksonville Suns
→Elimination numbers are dropping into single digits as the first half races intensify. Just two full weeks of baseball remain to settle the first round of Southern League playoff tickets for 2015.
→Tennessee took four of five from Chattanooga, creating a dead heat atop the North Division with fifteen games to play. Fans filed out of Smokies Park Friday night with the rivals even in the standings following a series that spanned both cities in a five day stretch. The Smokies claimed sole possession of the division lead for twenty four hours, but had their shot at a series sweep turned back when the Lookouts salvaged the finale.
→Chattanooga and Biloxi used strong weekend showings to hold serve with a little breathing room in their respective divisions. Despite a 4-6 mark across their last ten, the Lookouts have won three straight to rebuild a two game advantage.
→Though the Shuckers made headlines on a number of fronts this past week (see today’s spotlight), perhaps their most important work was matching South Division foes win for win to protect the division lead. Four of the five teams down South posted identical 6-4 marks across the past ten games.
→Strong Big League connections were evident around the Southern League. Former Pensacola pitcher John Moscot and Suns early season ace Kendry Flores made their MLB Debuts. Chris Denorfia and Jeff Mathis had rehab stints in Tennessee and Jacksonville. Tyler Wagner was up with the Brewers and back down in time for a big moment in Biloxi, while former Generals closer Carson Smith picked up his first MLB save with Seattle this past weekend. To cap it all off, 2014 Southern League standout Kris Bryant was named the National League rookie of the month for his performance in the Windy City throughout a solid May at the hot corner for the Cubs.
Southern League Spotlight…
This week’s spotlight rests on Southern League history made in the MGM Park Opener. It took until the bottom of the 14th inning, but the long-awaited and welcomed result sent Shuckers fans, who rarely left their seats and never left their new ballpark, into a frenzy.
After 54 games on the road to begin the season, it was fitting that everyone had to wait a little longer for the dramatic finish. In the end, it was well worth the time investment.
Nick Shaw drove home Brent Suter to secure Biloxi’s 5-4 victory over Mobile, capping a night of pageantry and pride both gulf-side and throughout the Southern League.
The festivities included a wide range of dignitaries, from MiLB President Pat O’Conner to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant. Southern League President Lori Webb, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin and Former Biloxi Mayor AJ Holloway were all on hand for the special night.
Mobile made it tough on the home team with a run in the top of the 14th, requiring Biloxi to battle back with a pair in the bottom half to secure the win. It was fitting, since the Shuckers have been battling obstacles all season. They did so one more time to send their fans home happy.
Perhaps lost in the classic, major playoff implications surround the series, which continues into this week of action, as Mobile looks to stay alive against the South Division leaders.
Also lost in the shuffle, the finish nailed down back to back extra inning victories for the Shuckers, who finished their historic road journey with a memorable five run 10th frame for a 6-2 victory in Birmingham on Friday night before finally busing home.
We were able to catch up with Southern League President Lori Webb briefly this weekend during a press conference on Sunday in Pensacola, where she indicated that the Biloxi opener was viewed by everyone involved as a “complete success.”
Webb was very upbeat as she discussed the fanfare surrounding the opener, as well as, league attendance, travel and pace of play initiatives.
Since we are spotlighting league history, several other highlights from this past week come to mind. Birmingham welcomed its one millionth fan through the gates, Jackson drew a franchise record crowd of 6,814 on Friday night and the high profile Lookouts-Smokies series packed the other two ballparks in the Volunteer State for five consecutive days.
It seems the opener in Biloxi simply serves as the latest indicator of a healthy Southern League.
-Rankings listed use the format Baseball America/MLB.com-
Birmingham– The White Sox signed Chris Marrero, brother of current standout Christian Marrero, on June 4th and immediately assigned him to Birmingham, where he will patrol the outfield alongside his sibling, who happens to be on fire at the plate.
Christian Marrero had a monster week which was capped by a game winning home run in extra innings on Sunday. The blast came one day after he combined with his brother Chris for four hits to lead the club over Tennessee in the series opener, just two days after they became Double-A teammates. Earlier in the week, Marrero hit the first inside the park home run in Regions Park history.
Marcus Lemon was also effective with the bat this past week, smacking two homers in a single game on June 5th.
Mark Blackmar is still winless on the year, but tossed 7 shutout innings on Sunday to put Birmingham in position to pick up the second straight victory over the Smokies on Marerro’s aforementioned eleventh inning homer.
Jacksonville– Matt Juengel has been on a home run tear since going deep in the Rickwood Classic. In snagging player of the week honors from the league, the Suns outfielder posted a .391 (9-for-23) average with three homers and six extra-base hits. He has also driven in seven runs and with one more HR in the Pensacola series will have three multi-HR series in a row.
Speaking of HR’s, Carlos Lopez slapped his first of the year into the right field bleachers at Bragan Field. The long ball was memorable because it served as the first hit for a left-hander against player of the month Blake Snell (MTG) (see note below) this season. Lopez is also riding a team-high eight game hitting streak entering play on Monday.
Journeyman Kenny Wilson made highlight reels this week with a diving stab in Wednesday’s game which landed him #2 on SportCenter’s top 10 plays of the day.
Suns starter Matt Tomshaw delivered six full innings of no-hit baseball against the Wahoos on Saturday but was lifted in favor of a pinch hitter in the 7th.
Mississippi– Jake Brigham’s bid for a perfect game came up short, but his stellar start still garnered him Pitcher of the Week honors from the league office. Brigham was all but untouchable on Thursday. He went the distance for a complete game, while striking out ten batters. Dan Paolini’s (Generals) double in the 9th was the only hit and resulted in the only run for Jackson.
Pensacola– Closer Kyle McMyne was name the BC Powder Relief Pitcher of the Month for May.
Highly-regarded Red’s prospect Jesse Winker (#3/#2) followed up his first three hit game at the Double-A level on Friday night with a three-bagger on Saturday which broke up Jacksonville’s combined no-hit bid and served as the Wahoos only hit in the ballgame.
Top Prospect Robert Stephenson (#1/#1) seems to be coming into his own, following up his dominant performance from last week with eight innings of one-hit ball vs Birmingham in his most recent start.
Chattanooga– Slugger Adam Brett Walker (#17/#13) delivered his Southern League leading 15th home run of the season in the Lookouts third straight victory on Sunday.
Mike Gonzalez logged a stretch of three consecutive games with a home run this past week.
Byron Buxton (#1/#1) had three stolen bases on Saturday, alongside a pair of hits, the top overall prospect in the Twins organization continues to impress.
Alex Wimmers provided seven shutout innings versus Jackson in his most recent appearance.
Montgomery– Blake Snell (#9/#9) saw another run of excellence come to an end this past week, finally giving up a hit to a left-hander. His run of dominance against lefties may have ended, but it was a memorable extended streak for the young Rays prospect. Snell did not allow a hit to the first thirty-eight lefties he faced this season, striking out twenty-two of them along the way. It is easy to see why he entered June as the reigning Player of the Month.
Biloxi– Jorge Lopez (#15/#12) surrendered just three hits over seven scoreless with eight punch outs against the Barons in his most recent start.
Nick Ramirez ended up with four hits and fell just a triple short of hitting for the cycle on June 3rd.
Nathan Orf enters the week having set a new franchise mark with an active twelve game hitting streak. He also scored the first ever run at MGM Park on Saturday, coming home on an RBI groundout from Taylor Green after tripling in the 5th inning.
It was a whirlwind week for Tyler Wagner (#9/#11), the Brewers prospect spent a portion of it in Milwaukee before returning to the Shuckers just in time to make history by starting the opener in Biloxi. Wagner’s first every MGM Park offering: a called strike.
Tennessee– Kyle Schwarber (#4/#2) was selected the Cubs Minor League Player of the Month after homering eight times, scoring eighteen runs and driving in seventeen during May. Schwarber also found the time to secure twenty-four free passes along the way.
Wes Darvill’s RBI explosion on June 2nd was a contributing factor in a huge series for the Smokies versus the Lookouts. Darvill drove in four runs alongside three hits, one of which was a homer in the contest.
Frank Batista ( used 7 shoutout innings versus the Barons to lower his league-leading ERA to 1.48 in his most recent trip to the hill.
Felix Pena had a timely solid outing, twirling seven innings of one-run ball on Thursday against the Lookouts to put the Smokies in first place at the time.
-Weekly honors handed down by the league office each Monday at Noon-
▪ Player of the Week: Matt Juengel (Marlins), OF, Jacksonville
▪ Pitcher of the Week: Jake Brigham (Braves), RHP, Mississippi
Series To Focus On…
Biloxi Shuckers @ Mississippi Braves
June 11 – June 15
Just a quick glance at the current standings is needed to understand the importance of this upcoming showdown. The top teams in the South Division will face off in Pearl beginning Thursday.
Biloxi’s lead is currently within the five game margin, meaning if things stay where they are across the next three days Mississippi could claim control of the division with a dominant showing.
With all the pomp and circumstance of the Shuckers homecoming out of the way, a huge matchup back on the road awaits. Just five games will remain for both teams once the dust settles on this key series.
A Look At The Standings…