Pat Kelly knew this team would win. It was just a matter of when.
At 17-10, the Blue Wahoos lead the Southern League South Division and sit seven games above .500 for the first time in history. Their record is punctuated by an 11-game winning streak at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, also a franchise best.
“It’s a credit to these guys, considering how tough things were in the first half,” Kelly said. “They never gave up, they kept battling. We went through a really tough June, but we knew we were undermanned. We lost some people, and we knew once we got back to full strength, we were going to be fine.”
Pensacola is enjoying a power surge with catcher Kyle Skipworth and outfielder Juan Duran back in the lineup. Skipworth returns after missing 23 games with a sprained ankle, while Duran was rehabbing a right wrist injury at the Reds’ spring training complex.
Skipworth is the reigning Southern League Player of the Week after bashing home runs in five straight games from July 10 to 16. When the dust settled, he had knocked seven home runs in a 10-game stretch. Meanwhile, Duran returns with the sweeping swing that produced a team-best 17 homers in 2014. Of his 19 hits since July 1, 10 have fallen for extra bases.
“Having Duran in the middle of the lineup changes a lot of things,” Kelly said. “Any time he swings the bat, he’s got a chance to hit it out of the park.”
The Wahoos’ 67 extra-base hits in July rank first among Double-A clubs, while the team’s 19 home runs since the start of the month pace the Southern League. Hitting coach Alex Pelaez is pleased with the results, if not a little surprised.
“We’re putting good swings on it, and it’s jumping out,” Pelaez said. “The funny thing is, they’re not trying to [hit home runs]. Believe it or not, we’re trying to tell them to hit the ball up the middle or the other way, and it just happens.”
Pensacola Bayfront Stadium profiles as one of the Southern League’s most homer-friendly parks. However, the same winds that push fly balls out to left field also knocks them down in right field.
“Our park is conducive to home runs if they’re hit to left field,” Kelly said. “That’s just the way the park plays, and now we’re taking advantage of it.”
Marquez Smith, who clubbed 30 home runs for Kelly’s Bakersfield Blaze club in 2014, has been a potent piece in the middle of the lineup. He has recorded 10 extra-base hits in July after hitting 11 from April to June. But the home runs, including a pair on July 20, are just a bonus.
“My job is usually try to drive in runs,” Smith said. “Whether that’s [with a] runner on third, hitting a ground ball to the shortstop and getting the run in, or driving him in with a base hit. Any way I can try to get him in and help the team out, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Wahoos are also finding production from their younger players. Seth Mejias-Brean is batting .282 with three home runs in July after hitting just two in his first 60 games. Jesse Winker has already matched his first-half home run total with three, including a grand slam on July 10.
“They’re just learning their swings more now,” Pelaez said. “Most of these guys, they’ve finally completed one full year of Double-A, and it usually takes about a year of Double-A pitching to slow the game down. They work every day in the cage and it slowly starts to come into the game. They’re starting to believe it more. They’re slowing the game down, sticking to their approaches more and they’re hitting the ball well.”
While Kyle Skipworth chases a 19-year-old Southern League record, his defensive presence has kept Pensacola at the top of the South Division standings.
Skipworth has homered in five straight games, which is is one short of Derrek Lee’s 1996 streak with the Memphis Chicks. With six home runs in eight games, Skipworth also tied the Wahoos’ franchise record for the most home runs in a calendar month. He attributes his success to a mechanical adjustment.
“[I’m] working with a new load, almost like a mini leg kick,” Skipworth told MiLB.com after knocking a three-run home run on July 13. “I’m early and on time a lot more often.”
Meanwhile, the Wahoos have a 9-6 record in July after mustering just six wins in June. Pensacola has owned at least a share of the division lead since July 9, when they embarked on a five-game sweep of Montgomery. It’s the latest point in the season that the Wahoos have been in first place since July 22, 2012.
After spending a month on the disabled list, Skipworth is quickly making up for lost time. He sprained his left ankle on May 27 as he stepped on a bat while trying to field a bunt. The injury sidelined him for 23 games, during which the Wahoos went 5-18.
“We obviously pitch better when he’s back there,” said manager Pat Kelly, who is backed up by Skipworth’s 17-14 record as a starter. “He really shuts down the other team’s running game.”
Since returning to the lineup on June 26, Skipworth is batting .273 with 10 of his 15 hits falling for extra bases. However, he has racked up 30 strikeouts in 60 plate appearances since then.
“He’s going to swing and miss, but he’s also going to hit balls out of the ballpark,” Kelly said. “That’s the type of hitter he is. Those kind of guys, when they get on a run, [home runs] seem to come in bunches.”
Skipworth still sees room for improvement. His strikeout rate of 40.4 percent between Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville includes 14 whiffs since his home run tear began on July 7.
“There are times where I don’t bear down mentally enough and I give away too many at-bats,” Skipworth said. “I think it’s still just inconsistency, and it shows when I do bear down and I stick to a good approach, good things generally happen. Not always home runs, but just better at-bats, putting the ball in play hard, things like that. [It’s] putting together good at-bats and not the ones where you’re walking up and four pitches later you’re walking back.”
Skipworth’s chase for the record will continue Saturday. With Wandy Peralta on the hill, Yovan Gonzalez — who Kelly calls the “Peralta whisperer” — is likely to catch Friday night.
“They communicate better, obviously because of the language,” Kelly said earlier this season. “He caught Peralta a lot in Bakersfield, and he’s able to calm him down. Wandy’s very emotional out there, and it affects his pitching. Gonzalez does a great job of keeping him under control.”
Vincej steps into leadoff role
While Skipworth has dominated headlines, Zach Vincej has been silently productive atop the Wahoos’ lineup.
He extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a two-hit night Thursday, which ties for the team’s longest streak of the season. Through 19 second-half games, Vincej has served as Kelly’s leadoff hitter for all but five.
“We don’t really have a true leadoff man,” said Kelly, who has used six players at the top of his lineup. “Right now, we’re on a really good run with Zach in that leadoff spot.”
Vincej is batting .417 (15-36) with a double, four RBIs and five runs since July 4. With three middle infielders at Kelly’s disposal, Vincej struggled to find regular playing time before Ryan Wright went on the disabled list in June.
“Even when his average was down, his on-base percentage was good,” Kelly said. “He was taking his walks.”
Vincej batted .182 in 17 June games but managed a .324 on-base percentage, drawing more walks (11) than hits (10). His .362 mark ranks fourth among Wahoos hitters.
Kelly used Beau Amaral at the top of the order to start the season, but he has also experimented with having a second leadoff hitter of sorts to set the table for the likes of Jesse Winker.
“It gives us somebody in front of Winker, usually because Winker’s in that [No. 2] spot,” Kelly said. “They seem to be a good combination.”
Twenty games into the second half, Vincej and Winker have been the Wahoos’ top hitters. Vincej’s .346 average since June 25 ranks fourth among Southern League hitters, while Winker’s .328 clip ties for ninth.
In his first week at Double-A Pensacola, Billy Hamilton hit the ground running.
Hamilton paced Minor League Baseball with 104 stolen bases at the time of his promotion on June 11, 2012, leading his next closest competitor Delino DeShields by 50 thefts. Joining the Wahoos on the road in Chattanooga, he tripled and stole a base in his debut.
In just Hamilton’s fifth Southern League game and his second at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, Hamilton ran into the hearts of Blue Wahoos fans with an inside-the-park home run, the first such round-tripper in franchise history.
The ball bounces in front of a diving Kyle Jensen in right field, then deflects off center fielder Donnie Webb’s glove. By the time Webb tracks the ball down and fires it home, Hamilton is already rounding third base.
Baseball Prospectus put Hamilton on the clock, pegging his time to second base at 7.58 seconds. By the time he rounded third base at 10.55 seconds, Hamilton shifted into another gear. He strode across home plate and nearly carried his momentum into the dugout.
Up to that point, author Larry Granillo had been timing home runs on the Tater Trot Tracker. The final jaw-dropping time of 13.8 seconds was the fastest time ever recorded.
It wasn’t the first time Hamilton or the Wahoos earned national attention. Pundits had been keeping an eye on Hamilton since April, and Daniel Corcino and company made SportsCenter after the franchise’s first no-hitter on June 16, 2012. In fact, Hamilton had previously recorded two inside-the-park home runs, most recently on April 19, 2011, with the Dayton Dragons.
History had more in store for Hamilton, whose pursuit of professional baseball’s stolen base record was entering the home stretch.
The rain before Sunday’s matinee game between the Blue Wahoos and Montgomery Biscuits was expected. However, Mother Nature had other plans for the scoreboard and video board.
At approximately 3:00 p.m., lightning struck a light pole situated behind the scoreboard in right field. The lightning rod did its job, redirecting the force of the bolt. However, the strike’s proximity to the board knocked it offline.
WEAR-TV photojournalist Chris “Squeaky” Johnson was filming from the Hancock Bank Club above the seating bowl, panning from left to right with an iPhone 4S. With a stroke of luck, he caught the bolt’s path to the pole.
The footage quickly made the rounds on social media. At the time of this post, Johnson’s tweet received over 430 retweets and an additional 58,000 views on Facebook.
— Squeaky (@WEARSqueaky) July 12, 2015
— Ashley Kummer (@ThatShortGirl08) July 12, 2015
Sorry! We will not have a scoreboard/video board tonight because it got struck by lightning today. pic.twitter.com/fXVXzxziIz
— PensacolaBlueWahoos (@BlueWahoosBBall) July 12, 2015
— Kaleb Lewis (@KingLouisXIth) July 13, 2015
The scoreboard and video board are being fixed. Those lights on the scoreboard lit up when struck yesterday. pic.twitter.com/DJVdYrFaha
— PensacolaBlueWahoos (@BlueWahoosBBall) July 13, 2015
Incredibly, the game was played to a full nine innings after a delay of one hour and 31 minutes. The Wahoos extended their winning streak to five games with a 4-1 victory.
The video was also featured on NBC News’ TODAY, though Al Roker was enamored with the Biscuits’ moniker.
Al, the wahoo-on-a-biscuit sounds fantastic. But I can’t recommend the team’s chicken biscuit highly enough as a homestand special.
— PensacolaBlueWahoos (@BlueWahoosBBall) July 13, 2015
Some repairs were made Monday, but the main scoreboard wasn’t ready by the start of the game. A smaller board, which was installed below the press box in 2012 to accommodate fans on the outfield berm, was operational Monday night. The team hopes to have both back online by the next homestand on July 21.
Here’s a rundown of the headlines covering the lightning strike.
The Washington Post: Too close for comfort? Lightning strikes baseball scoreboard in Pensacola
Ballpark Digest: Blue Wahoos, Biscuits make Today show
Josh Smith rode a long outing and short memory to a 3-2 victory in his return to Pensacola Thursday.
Making his first start since a three-game stint with the Cincinnati Reds, Smith struck out 10 Montgomery batters across eight scoreless innings with a walk and three hits. Only once did the Biscuits have multiple baserunners during Smith’s effort, and none of those four advanced to third base.
Smith is the third Wahoos starter to work into the eighth inning this season, throwing 104 pitches with 75 strikes. He has registered seven innings or more in five of his 17 season starts.
“I don’t care if I’m at 100 pitches through seven, I want to go eight, nine,” Smith said. “My dad, that’s where I got it. It’s just that competitive nature.”
As for the second front, Smith’s night of double-digit punchouts wasn’t uncharacteristic. Instead, it was a return to his Minor League roots after struggling with his control in Cincinnati.
“I’m the same pitcher that I was,” Smith said. “I don’t walk guys. I know I gave up a bunch of free passes (13 in 12.1 innings) and that’s just not me. I haven’t done that in my life.”
In the third appearance with the Reds, Smith tied a franchise record by hitting four batters. He left the game after hitting Carlos Gomez to load the bases in the fifth inning.
“I’m done thinking about what happened in Cincinnati on Fourth of July,” he said. “I know the fans weren’t happy, and I wasn’t happy. Nobody was happy with the outcome. You’re just anxious to get to that next one. That one’s in the past, and after tonight, this one’s in the past.”
What Smith lacks in velocity, he makes up in deception. But on balls that Southern League hitters would chase for strikes, Major League hitters wouldn’t budge.
“Early in the count, you can’t be really fine,” Smith said. “Up there, those borderline pitches that are probably balls or a little bit off, they don’t swing at them. You get yourself in a lot of 1-0, 2-0 counts, and those guys can hit.
“If you get ahead 0-1, 1-1, 1-2, 0-2, you can get guys out up there. Early in the count is where you’ve really got to challenge guys.”
Joining the team July 6 in the midst of a road trip, Smith was champing at the bit to get back on the mound.
“When he showed up in Mobile, he was excited,” manager Pat Kelly said. “He wanted to pitch. There was no moping, no mule lips. He was ready to go and it really showed [Thursday].”
Smith struck out five of the six batters he faced in the third and fourth innings, mixing in a curveball and slider. Though the Biscuits mustered rallies in the next two frames, Smith closed both innings with whiffs.
“He’s a strike thrower,” Kelly said. “I think nerves sometimes get you the first time you’re in the big leagues. He’s always been a strike thrower since he’s been in the organization.”
The Reds’ long-term plan for Smith is unclear, but he’ll be part of the Wahoos rotation in the interim. The stability is a welcome change after suiting up for four teams in 2015.
“Before this year, I’ve never been moved up,” Smith said. “I’ve always been at the same team for the whole season. This year, traveling so much and playing at so many different levels, it’s been a crazy ride and a crazy journey. I know my girlfriend’s probably not happy with all the traveling and canceled flights, but I told her, ‘Sorry, it’s never been like this.’”
Regardless of the uniform he wears, Smith uses every start as an opportunity for growth.
“It was a learning curve up there that I needed to go through,” Smith said. “Everybody goes through it. Now when I come down, I know exactly what I need to do to come back.”
The fireworks started early on July 3, 2014, when Jesse Winker knocked the first walk-off home run in Blue Wahoos history.
He had played just 14 games with Pensacola, but Winker was no stranger to late-inning heroics. He provided the game-winning hit a day earlier, smacking a single in the 15th inning of a 4-3 win against Jacksonville, and scored the go-ahead run on June 22.
Before the hit, the two weeks prior had been kind to Winker, who was named to the All-Star Futures Game in June. However, he was hitless that night before leading off the ninth inning against Suns reliever Casey McCarthy.
“I had swung at some bad pitches earlier in the game,” Winker said after the game. “And it’s funny how baseball works — when you are not trying to hit a home run, it gets up and gets out for you.”
Winker took a strike down the middle but didn’t hesitate on the next pitch, driving McCarthy’s fastball onto the berm in right field.
“As soon as I hit it, I thought, ‘Oh, that could go,'” Winker said.
And go it did, a rare home run to right field. The wind off Pensacola Bay pushes most fly balls out to left field, but left-handed hitters have a harder time leaving the yard.
“Pensacola’s known for being an absolute parachute to right field,” Winker told MiLB.com. “Nothing really [flies] to right. I hit it and I knew it had a chance. The wind luckily wasn’t blowing today, so it got up and got over it.”
Winker couldn’t have scripted a better ending for the full house.
“It [was] like another Opening Day,” Winker said. “It’s such an exciting time. There were people packed on the hill and packed everywhere. It was a great time, and I was happy we could win.”
The Reds’ consensus top prospect is one step closer to Cincinnati.
Robert Stephenson will join the Louisville Bats’ rotation, making his Triple-A debut when he pitches. In 14 starts with Pensacola, Stephenson was 4-7 record and 3.68 ERA.
Across his final five starts of the first half, Stephenson went 2-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 11 walks to 40 strikeouts. That stretch included three straight starts of seven innings or more, the first time in his career that he reached the benchmark. His sharpest outing came on June 4, an eight-inning effort during which he allowed an unearned run on one hit, a walk and seven strikeouts.
— Robert Stephenson (@robsteev44) July 2, 2015
Stephenson, ranked by MLB.com as the No. 18 prospect in baseball, seemed to flip a switch during the first inning of his May 23 start. After walking four batters, a fastball adjustment helped him find the strike zone and rattle off 11 strikeouts.
Stephenson has used his third Double-A season to strengthen his three-pitch arsenal, addressing control issues by slowing down his tempo. He features two Major League caliber pitches, but his most improved offering is a two-seam changeup.
At the time of his promotion, Stephenson leads Reds Minor League pitchers with 89 strikeouts and a .197 opposing average, the latter of which led the Southern League.
In 45 appearances dating back to 2013, Stephenson was 11-19 with a 4.40 ERA. He earned Southern League All-Star honors in 2014, pacing the circuit and setting a franchise record with 140 strikeouts. He leaves Pensacola as the team’s strikeout leader at 247.
In the Winker household, there was never any doubt that Jesse would be a professional baseball player.
The 21-year-old outfielder takes time to thank his parents, Joe and Karen, in any conversation that turns to the success he’s enjoyed in his trip through the Minors. Long before Baseball America commended his strike-zone discipline as the Reds’ best, Winker was sharpening his swing with his father in the batting cage behind his family’s Olympia, Fla. home.
Ahead of Father’s Day, Winker reflected on his family’s sacrifices from the first swings in Cayuga Little League in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to his first-round selection in 2012.
“My whole family has come a long way in these three years,” Winker said. “They’ve pushed me really hard through three years of Minor League ball, and my whole life they’ve been in my corner and they’ve pushed me. I’ve always seen myself to be a big leaguer, and that’s always been my dream. They’ve done everything they can to help me achieve that, so back to the credit, I give that all to my family.”
While Jesse tours the Southern League, the rest of the Winker family is situated in Orlando. The family runs The Warehouse, an invitation-only hitting facility founded by 14-year Major League veteran Dante Bichette. The staff includes father Joe, who Jesse describes as a “baseball junkie,” and Joey, 25, one of two older brothers and a former Dodgers prospect with whom Jesse regularly discusses strategy.
“My mom helps down there too, I’ve got to give her credit,” Winker is quick to add. “I think actually both my brothers are throwing in there now or something. It’s a great spot to hit at.”
But a father’s work is never finished. The elder Winker continues to throw batting practice at The Warehouse, including an occasional round with Jesse at the plate.
“He knows a lot about the game,” Winker said. “He’s very good at teaching kids and trying to help them get to the next level or help them accomplish whatever dreams in the game they want.”
The statistics are secondary in a rehab assignment, but that doesn’t mean Marlon Byrd isn’t using his two-day stop in Pensacola as a learning experience.
“I wish I would have come through on that last one,” said Byrd of a game-ending strikeout with the bases loaded. “Mechanics broke down a little bit, timing broke down on the fastball. It’s something to work on [Thursday].”
Byrd finished 1-5 with a three-run home run and a pair of strikeouts, both swinging. His blast to center field punctuated Pensacola’s comeback effort, tying the game in the eighth inning before Mobile rallied to win 5-3.
“The wrist felt fine, that was the big thing,” Byrd said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel. I didn’t know if it was going to bother me, going full speed. You can practice all day long, but game speed is always different. But it felt good on every swing I took.”
As for the 1-1 pitch Byrd sent into Pensacola Bay that electrified a crowd of 4,251, Byrd was measured in his response.
“[BayBears reliever Jake Barrett] left a slider up,” Byrd said. “I’m sure he wanted it down in the zone, try to get me to chase and come back with fastballs. But I put a good swing on it.”
Byrd was involved in three plays in left field, throwing without incident after fielding a ground ball single in the second inning. The other two plays were outs that ended the inning.
Reds manager Bryan Price was optimistic ahead of Wednesday’s game, noting Byrd’s progress is “way better” than expected. He expects Byrd to return to Cincinnati this weekend for a three-game series against the Marlins.
“His broken bone is mending quickly,” Price told MLB.com’s Robert Bondy. “He doesn’t have soreness. He was able to do an awful lot of stuff — baseball activity — when we were on the road. [He’s] swinging the bat, running, throwing, doing all the things he needs to do.”
Byrd will again participate in a full range of activities Thursday night. Southern League All-Star Tim Adleman gets the start for the Wahoos.
Marlon Byrd hits a three-run home run for Pensacola during his rehab assignment.