By BRIAN LESTER
Champagne was sprayed into the air, beer cans and bottles littered the field and players jumped up and down, their excitement at an all-time high, as they savored a special moment on a muggy September night.
Late Sunday, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos learned they were playoff-bound. They did their part an hour earlier, bashing the Mobile BayBears 15-2 in front of an energized crowd of 4,949 at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium.
Jacksonville did the rest, beating Mississippi 7-3 to give Pensacola the second-half Southern League South Division crown with one game left in the regular season.
“This is great. I’m so happy for the players,” Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly said, fighting back tears as he talked. “You would have never imagined this in June. It’s special.”
The story was indeed different three months ago. Pensacola wrapped up a miserable first half with 25 wins, finishing in last place.
But star outfielder Jesse Winker said you can never write off a team after one half of a minor league baseball season.
And he’s right.
Pensacola (38-31) has been a team that has battled hard all year, even when the nights ended in defeat, and its short memory paid off with the first playoff berth in the four-year history of the franchise.
The five-game divisional series begins Thursday night in Biloxi against the first-half champion Shuckers (34-33). Games three through five are in Pensacola.
“I think everyone just forgot the first half,” Winker said. “It’s a tale of two halves. It’s a cliche statement but that is the way it is. You bounce back and do it again. Anything can happen. We are firing on all cylinders right now.”
Winker was part of a High-A Bakersfield team that made the 2014 postseason but was promoted to Double-A Pensacola before the playoffs. So for him, this moment is extra special. He helped make it possible by racking up three hits in the victory, pushing him to 400 for his minor league career.
“It’s about winning. Everyone wants to do it,” Winker said. “This is special. The really cool part is everyone is locked on board.”
Interestingly enough, starting pitcher Cody Reed found himself in a somewhat similar situation as Winker.
He started the year in High-A Wilmington, which won its first half title, and was then promoted to Northwest Arkansas, which also won the first half division title. But Reed was shipped off to the Cincinnati Reds organization in the late July trade that sent Johnny Cueto to Kansas City.
“I got traded and I looked at Pensacola’s record in the first half and thought, ‘Man,’ they are in last place,” Reed said. “We need to win some games. I came here and fit in well. My teammates are great. This is my third time celebrating.”
Only this time Reed will get to pitch in the postseason. He’s 6-2, his latest win nothing less than impressive.
After a shaky first inning where he gave up two runs on a hit by Gabriel Guerrero, Reed settled into a zone. He retired the final 13 batters he faced over the next five innings, striking out nine along the way.
“This was a big-time game for us. I’m glad I had the ball,” Reed said. “I want to be in those situations.”
Kelly was impressed.
“He’s a really competitive guy and doesn’t like to give up anything,” Kelly said. “He has such good stuff and gave us six good innings.”
Rain rolled in and out of the area prior to game time. Soon, the sun started shining again and the Blue Wahoos, who entered the day a half game up in the division, went to work in their quest to keep their postseason hopes alive.
It didn’t look good early. Mobile (35-32) struck first, putting two runs on the board in the first inning.
Rather than get rattled by the early deficit, the Blue Wahoos rose to the occasion.
Billy Hamilton, on a rehab assignment for the Cincinnati Reds, led off the bottom half of the first with a hit to center. Alex Blandino walked and Phillip Ervin tied the game shortly thereafter with a two-run hit to left.
Seth Mejias-Brean broke the tie with big hit to right and the Blue Wahoos never looked back.
Hamilton helped set the tone, not just with his hit, but also because he threatened to steal.
Four times, Mobile starter Braden Shipley threw to first base on a pick-off attempt. He lost his concentration because of it and went on to give up six runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings of work.
“Obviously Billy’s presence really upset their pitcher and gave us good pitches to hit,” Kelly said. “It’s amazing. The pitcher is trying to get faster to the plate, they throw over and a one-run inning turns into a three or four-run inning.”
Pensacola broke the game open in the fifth thanks to a Mejias-Brean triple that danced down the right field line and drove in two more runs for a 5-2 advantage.
Then it was Ray Chang’s turn. The minor league veteran smacked the ball into center for a 6-2 lead.
Hamilton drilled a hit to right in the sixth and came flying home on a base hit to center by Blandino, making the score 7-2.
The eighth inning was unreal.
Eight runs came across the board, including four on a grand slam into the bay by Yovan Gonzalez. The ball sailed over the wall as the crowd exploded into a frenzy.
The inning started with a run-scoring hit by Blandino that drove in Hamilton, who ran so fast, he nearly ran into the dugout wall as he came off the field.
“He brings so much energy,” Winker said of Hamilton, who has become a good friend of his. “It’s just cool to play with guy like that. He’s fun to watch.”
The Blue Wahoos have been fun to watch as well, particularly on Sunday.
Seven players came up with at least two hits. Eight players scored.
This is a team that has endured its share of tough moments for sure but they have grown up in the second half and are hungry for a league championship.
“The first half, things just didn’t work out, whether it was lack of hitting, pitching or consistency,” Kelly said. “I kept thinking it will all come together. To see it come to fruition and for them to be rewarded is a great thing. The praise goes to them.”
Winker can’t wait for the postseason.
“It’s an incredible feeling and we want to keep it rolling,” Winker said.