By Brian Lester
Marquez Smith revived the Pensacola Blue Wahoos’ hopes for a victory with one swing of the bat Saturday night. His grand slam over the left field wall in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Biloxi Shuckers trimmed a six-run deficit to two.
The electric crowd of 4,1014 loved it, roaring as the ball sailed into the bay, but the big blast by Smith couldn’t save the Blue Wahoos’ season. The curtain was lowered on it in a 7-5 loss to the Shuckers in Game 3 of a Southern League divisional series at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium.
“It was exciting and it says a lot about this team and the fight we have to come back the way we did,” Smith said. “We gave ourselves a chance. We just fell a little short.”
The Blue Wahoos went from worst to first in the second half of the season to clinch their first postseason berth in the four-year history of the franchise. After winning only 25 times in the opening half, they claimed the second-half South division title by winning 38 games.
But they faced a must-win situation Saturday after dropping the first two games of the best-of-five series.
It didn’t look good at all early, with Tyler Wagner in command on the mound. Wagner gave up just one hit in the first four innings — a double to Smith in the second — and finished his night by striking out six in six innings of work.
Stellar defense behind Wagner also kept the Blue Wahoos in check. And a two-run home run by Orlando Arcia in the fourth highlighted a five-run fourth in which the Shuckers extended their lead to 7-0.
Pensacola loaded the bases in the fifth after walks by Juan Duran and Kyle Skipworth and a base hit by Seth Mejias-Brean. Opportunities to cash in on the situation slipped away when Ray Chang popped up to the pitcher and Phillip Ervin struck out swinging, his bat flying out of his hand when he swung at strike three.
Pensacola left two runners stranded in the sixth before coming to life in the seventh. Jesse Winker drew a bases-loaded walk to end the shutout and Smith stepped up and sent the first pitch he saw over the wall.
But the Blue Wahoos were unable to do anything else the rest of the night and Alex Blandino struck out for the final out of the ninth as the Shuckers celebrated on the field.
Despite the difficult ending, Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly was happy with the effort his team gave, not just on this night, but throughout the season.
“It says a lot about the character of the club,” Kelly said. “It’s the character we’ve seen all year. We were down 7-0 in a do-or-die game, and a lot of clubs would pack it in. We kept plugging away. We got five runs on the board and gave ourselves a chance.”
That in itself is an accomplishment against a Shuckers team that features 11 of the top 30 prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization. That includes Arcia, who came up with three doubles and a home run to fuel the Shuckers’ offense.
“They have a heck of a club,” Kelly said. “They can hit, they have speed and they have great pitchers.They are tough to beat.”
Pensacola managed only five hits, including two by Smith, and Tim Adleman took the loss in 3 2/3 innings of work. He gave up six runs on eight hits and struck out five.
The Blue Wahoos were the first Cincinnati Reds Double-A team to make the playoffs since Chattanooga did it nine years ago. But a championship will have to wait at least another year. Still, the players are proud of what they accomplished.
“We had a tough first half but we turned things around in the second half,” Smith said. “We battled all year and it says a lot about our team. It was great to have an opportunity to be in the playoffs.”
“It was a very fulfilling year,” Kelly said. “We played tough the whole year and to see these guys to keep fighting and clinch a playoff berth was a great thing. It’s nice to see them rewarded for their hard work.”