By Brian Lester
As August rolls on, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos keep finding ways to win the games that matter, cementing themselves in the heart of a Southern League playoff hunt.
They took another step toward the goal Saturday night in front of an electric sellout crowd of 5,038, surging late offensively to pull away in a back-and-forth game against the Chattanooga Lookouts at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium.
The finals score read, Pensacola 10, Chattanooga 6, but the score only tells half the story on a night when Pensacola (31-24) set a franchise record with four home runs in one game.
This game was about a team that rose to the occasion one more time, maintaining its razor-thin half-game lead over the Mississippi Braves (30-24) in the competitive South Division and staying alive for its first postseason berth in the four-year history of the franchise.
Down 3-1 early and eventually tied at 5-5, the Blue Wahoos took control when Jesse Winker belted a two-run hit into the outfield in the seventh, sending the crowd into a frenzy and pushing Pensacola in front 7-5, a lead they would never give up.
Phillip Ervin and Alex Blandino helped finish things off. Called up last month from High-A Daytona, the two star Cincinnati Reds prospects made key contributions, with Ervin blasting a home run to left in the eighth and Blandino driving in a pair of runs in the eighth to cap the scoring and give the Blue Wahoos the series win over the Lookouts.
“This is fun,” Pensacola manager Pat Kelly said. “We’re in the last couple of weeks of August and still have a chance…it’s great. The guys have really risen to the occasion. We’ve talked all year how the losses haven’t affected them. They keep fighting.”
That fight was evident early on in a game that could have gone either way. Marquez Smith bolstered the Blue Wahoos’ victory hopes immediately, smacking a ball over the wall in left for a 1-0 lead.
But three runs in the second gave the Lookouts control at 3-1. Zach Vincej and Yovan Gonzalez both came through with homers, sending them over the left-field wall and into the bay to help tie the score at 3-3.
Juan Duran’s run-scoring hit in the sixth gave Pensacola a 4-3 lead and Ervin hit a ball in the air in the fifth that dropped in right for his first Double-A hit. He also drove in a run, extending the advantage to 5-3.
Pensacola tallied 12 hits and Kevin Shackleford earned the win in 2/3 innings of relief. He allowed just one hit
“It felt good to the first hit, to get that monkey off my back,” Ervin said. “It’s been great being able to play up here. I’m having fun and competing hard.”
And showing off his potential, which he has plenty of as a first-round pick of the Reds in the 2013 draft.
“Philip is a really good player,” Kelly said. “He can play all three outfield positions, can run, throw and has the potential to be a really good hitter. He has power, too. To me, is the five-tool player we all look for. Now that he is over injuries from a couple of years ago, he’s ready to take off.”
And the Blue Wahoos are eager to continue their quest for a postseason berth. A crucial five-game home series against the second-place Mississippi Braves begins today. A total of 15 games remain on the schedule, 10 of which will be at home.
“All of them are big and 10 are against contenders (Mississippi and Mobile) at home, where we have played well. The fans do a great job of supporting us.”