Pensacola slams its way to Southern League title

September 29th, 2022

Even though Pensacola clinched the Southern League first-half title, it was an uphill battle all throughout the playoffs.

The Marlins’ Double-A affiliate lost the first game of the semifinals to reigning champions Montgomery, and had to grind out back-to-back one-run wins to stay alive. In the finals, they dropped the first game to Tennessee and rode a seven-run frame to take Game 2.

The clincher would not be quite as close.

The Blue Wahoos walloped the Smokies, 11-4, behind a go-ahead grand slam from Cobie Fletcher-Vance and a big four-run seventh inning to pull away. It’s the club’s first crown since 2017, when it was named co-champions.

"These guys never gave in," said Pensacola manager Kevin Randel. "We just hung around, and when they made mistakes, we capitalized on them. It was a memorable series."

Though he was tagged for three runs, Eury Pérez whiffed the first eight batters of the game -- six swinging, two looking -- and finished with nine strikeouts across three frames. Luckily for Miami's top prospect, the offense was about to get him off the hook and take the lead with one swing of the bat.

Down by a run entering the fifth frame, a fielding error and two walks loaded the bases with one out for Fletcher-Vance, who had never recorded more than three RBIs in a game his entire career. The 25-year-old deposited the very first pitch he saw down the left-field line to give Pensacola a lead it would never relinquish.

"Everybody was going crazy in the dugout, that's for sure," Randel said with a laugh. "Everything lined up pretty good. We ran into a little hiccup, and we had to piece the game together, but the offense came through."

Two innings later, the Blue Wahoos put up another four-spot to firmly pull away. Fletcher-Vance again came to the plate with the bases loaded, but this time, he settled for a single to add another run. J.D. Osborne ripped a two-run double, and a fielding error scored the 10th run of the game for Pensacola. Demetrius Sims put the icing on the cake with his first home run since Aug. 7 in the ninth.

Four Pensacola pitchers finished what Pérez started. Robinson Martínez, Chandler Jozwiak, Jorge Mercedes and Sean Reynolds combined to strike out 10 across the final six innings, allowing just three hits and a run.

The Blue Wahoos rode strong pitching throughout the playoffs, posting a 2.89 ERA and holding opponents to a .193 average with 70 strikeouts in 53 frames.

"That's how you win championships. Every man is contributing; one through nine in the lineup, everybody in the bullpen. Starting pitching always gave us a chance, kept us in ballgames," Randel said. "It's a special moment. You win the first game of the playoffs against a hot club, then you go into a team that's got pretty good offense, and we were able to get our outs."

Having to win two games in a row on the road while staring elimination in the face is a tough task for any team, but the coaching staff didn't waver from its core philosophy -- no matter what, you've got 27 outs to play with.

"Just keep playing, keep grinding, at-bat after at-bat," Randel said. "We knew it was going to be a tough matchup, but everything worked out in our favor. ... It was good for us to bring home a sole-possession championship."