By Brian Lester
As far as thrillers go, Saturday night’s Southern League showdown between the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and Jackson Generals was about as good as it gets.
After an 11-inning marathon at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, the Blue Wahoos let an opportunity slip away in an 8-6 loss in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,038.
Pensacola (19-24) left the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning as Seth Mejias-Brean grounded out to end a game that was a back-and-forth battle of wills.
“We kept battling, kept battling, but we didn’t execute,” Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly said. “Had two chances to sacrifice bunt guys over (earlier in game) and didn’t do it and ended up hitting into double plays. We don’t go into extra innings if we execute, run the bases right. Just one of those nights.”
Marquez Smith tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, bringing Beau Amaral across the plate to tie the score at 6-6 and breathe new life into the Blue Wahoos’ hopes for a victory.
Marcus Littlewood’s run-scoring double to right in the 11th gave the Generals (18-23) the lead for good at 7-6. A walk with the bases loaded pushed the advantage to 8-6.
Despite the loss, it was an impressive night for Robert Stephenson, who pitched one of his best games of the season and career as a minor league baseball player.
The ace of the Blue Wahoos struck out a career-high 11 but had to settle for a no-decision after leaving the game after 4 2/3 innings with Pensacola ahead 4-2.
“It’s been taking me the first inning to figure out the umpire’s strike zone,” Stephenson said. “As soon as I figure it out, things have been rolling pretty smoothly after that.”
Things were rolling indeed for Stephenson, who shook off a rugged start in the first where he walked four batters, including two with the bases loaded, as the Blue Wahoos fell behind 2-0.
Everything changed at the close of inning as he struck out the final two batters, marking the start of a stretch where he would send down nine of the next 12 batters on strikeouts.
“He struggled early with the walks, but he kind of found it right there at the end of the first inning and carried it all the way through,” Kelly said.
Stephenson was gunning for his third consecutive win as a starter. Still, his performance was another step in the right direction as he continues his quest to get to the Major League level.
“Aside from that first inning, I felt pretty good,” Stephenson said. “Both pitches working pretty well tonight, and after first inning, able to locate my fastball pretty well, too.”
Stephenson only allowed two runs on two hits and seemed to be in line for a win early on as the Blue Wahoos came to life offensively.
Zach Vincej drove in a run on a groundout in the third before Smith tied the game at 2-2 in the fourth on an RBI-hit. A sacrifice fly by Juan Perez gave the Blue Wahoos a 3-2 lead and Cam Maron beat the throw for a fielder’s choice to bring home another run.
The Blue Wahoos had won four of five coming in and are now 13-10 in May.
The Generals tied the game in the sixth and went on top 5-4 in the seventh after an RBI-hit by Jabari Blash.
Pensacola answered in the bottom of the seventh. Maron and Beau Amaral drew walks and Kyle Waldrop’s double brought Maron home to tie the score at 5-5.
Jackson led 6-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, but the Blue Wahoos, known for their flare for the dramatic, tied the score with Smith’s two-out hit, the crowd roaring as Amaral came home to force extra innings.
Neither team scored in the 10th and the Generals sealed the deal in the 11th, snapping the Blue Wahoos’ two-game win streak. Kevin Shackelford took the loss, giving up two runs on three hits in 1 1/3 innings.
While the game didn’t end the way the Blue Wahoos had hoped, Stephenson was pleased with progress he has made as a player in the four years he has been a pro.
“It’s been a long road,” Stephenson said. “I’ve definitely been hoping to move up a little bit quicker. I think the time that I’ve spent here has definitely helped me become a better pitcher. Being able to through the struggles and have a lot to work on is going to make me a better pitcher in the long run.