Blue Wahoos still in hunt for second-half title

August is about to give way to September and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos find themselves in the heart of the hunt for the second-half South Division crown.

Already assured of a Southern League playoff berth because they own the first-half title, Pensacola, with a 4-0 win over Jacksonville Monday night, has closed within a half game of a Mississippi Braves team that once seemed destined to run away with the division.

Barrett Astin played a pivotal role in the latest win for Pensacola, which has an opportunity to complete a season sweep the division titles. He won his ninth game Monday night, throwing seven scoreless innings. He gave up only five hits and struck out seven.

“He was outstanding,” Pensacola manager Pat Kelly said. “He was commanding the zone and was very aggressive. He pitched extremely well to lefthanders.”

Astin, who went 4-4 a year ago while in Pensacola, said all five of his pitches were working for him, including the cutter.

“I felt good out there. We had a good game plan going in and I was able to execute,” Astin said. “I threw all of my pitches for strikes. That helps a lot.”

It doesn’t hurt that he is now in his second season at the Double-A level.

“I started off well last year but it didn’t end well,” Astin said. “But I still learned a lot. I learned to pitch to contact and that speaks for itself. Being around Danny (Darwin) and PK has been a big help, too. I’ve turned what I’ve learned from them into success.”

Astin (9-3) got all the run support he needed in the opening inning when Brandon Dixon smacked a double to center to drive in Phillip Ervin for a 1-0 lead.

Zach Vincej scored on a wild pitch in the fourth and Taylor Sparks drew a bases-loaded walk in the inning to score Alex Blandino. Eric Jagielo’s double in the eighth finished off the scoring for the Blue Wahoos, who are 75-58 overall and 33-29 in the second half of the year.

Although not an explosive offensive team, the Blue Wahoos produce just enough more often than not to help pave the way for a win. They managed six hits against the Suns, who sent Luis Castillo to the mound. Castillo worked 3 2/3 innings and struck out five.

“It’s nice to get on the board. Our guys hit the ball well and forced (Luis) to throw some pitches,” Kelly said. “We had some really good at-bats.”

With seven games to go, the Blue Wahoos have momentum on their side, winning six of their last eight. It’s the exact opposite for the M-Braves, who are 3-10 since 2015 No. 1 draft pick Dansby Swanson was promoted to Atlanta Aug. 16. Pensacola was five games back at the time.

“At this level, one player can improve or really hurt your lineup,” Kelly said. “They miss his leadership. He was only hitting .260, so it wasn’t as if he was tearing up the league, but he took pressure off other hitters.”

As for the Blue Wahoos, they are playing their best baseball at the right time as they inch towards their playoff opener Sept. 7 at Blue Wahoos Stadium.

“You want to go into the playoffs clicking on all cylinders,” Astin said. “Things are going good right now. We feel good about where we are as a team.”

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