With Cade Horton on the mound Tuesday, the Cubs' Double-A affiliate had reason to be confident about their prospects of winning the franchise's first outright Southern League title in 45 years. And once the Tennessee Smokies scored four runs in the first three innings, it felt like that was very much in reach.
"I ain't gonna lie," Smokies manager Kevin Graber said. "When I woke up this morning knowing that Cade Horton was on the mound, I was like, 'I think it's going to be a good day.'"
The win produced the club's first outright title since 1978 -- back when the team was called the Knoxville Sox. The Smokies also shared the 2004 crown with the Mobile BayBears due to Hurricane Ivan.
Winning it all this season felt extra special because Tennessee wound up a win short of the championship in 2022, losing to the very same Blue Wahoos in the best-of-3 Finals.
Of course, one key player the Smokies did not have last year was Horton, who was an essential part of the team's second-half surge to a division title. With a 1.33 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 27 innings across six starts, the seventh overall pick in the 2022 Draft has been lights-out since his promotion to Double-A on Aug. 1. That dominance helped make Horton a finalist for MiLB Pitching Prospect of the Year.
In Game 2 of the Finals, Horton gave up one run on one hit and three walks, striking out four. He threw 44 of his 71 pitches for strikes.
"It's so nice to look at your schedule and look at when Cade's scheduled to start and know that you're going to have a really, really good chance to win that day because you're not going to give up a lot of runs," Graber said. "Just put up three or four up on the board, and it's going to be a good day. It's nice to have those parts of the schedule that you can look to with optimism and know it's going to be a good week."
Tennessee's offense, which led the circuit with 166 home runs during the regular season, didn't slow down in the playoffs. BJ Murray Jr. (CHC No. 18) gave the Smokies a three-run lead in the third on a home run to right-center field. Another run crossed the plate when he forced a throwing error, and he picked up his fourth RBI on a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
To win the title behind the team's best pitcher and another big offensive performance seemed fitting to the first-year manager.
"I joined the organization Nov. 1, so I'm totally new to the Chicago Cubs," Graber said. "This is my first go-around managing the Cubs organization. I got to know all of these guys during Spring Training. But to be on this journey with them, 142 games in at this point to win the championship for the Tennessee Smokies for the first time since 1978, I just feel so special that I was able to be inserted into this situation and make some history."