For Love of the Game: Ross Perez Proposes in Pensacola

Blue Wahoos catcher Ross Perez kisses his fiancee Smirna Flores after Friday's pregame proposal.

Blue Wahoos catcher Ross Perez kisses his fiancee Smirna Flores after Friday’s pregame proposal.

Ross Perez is enjoying a record season with the Blue Wahoos.

After winning out the starting job in May, the catcher caught fire at the plate to the tune of a .335 average over 71 games. From a franchise-best six RBI on June 13 to the longest hitting streak of his professional career, the Reds organizational newcomer has benefitted from the change of scenery. Ross Perez has loved Pensacola, and the city has loved him back.

Before Friday’s game, a player married to the game for nine years asked the love of his life to marry him. These photos tell a better story than I ever could:

Smirna Flores thought she was just throwing a ceremonial first pitch to her boyfriend. But Perez, who had a hidden ball in his glove, had other plans. Opening the modified ball to reveal an elaborate ring, he popped the question to thunderous applause and an enthusiastic yes.

Flores played matchmaker on May 19 when Perez was reunited with his father Santiago. It was the first time his father saw him play professionally. This time, the longtime couple shared the occasion with the Flores family, including his mother and aunt.

In a season of phenomenal numbers, the two top highlights of his year won’t be found in any record books. In fact, his personal-best 13-game hitting streak came to an end last night.

Now, Ross starts a far more important streak: the first day in blissful union with his fiancée.

Special thanks to team photographer Michael Spooneybarger for these unforgettable photos.

Mr. and Mrs. Perez

Bay-to-Bay Series Preview: Catching Up

After a promising start to July, everyone's scratching their heads at the Wahoos' recent slump.

After a promising start to July, everyone’s scratching their heads at the Wahoos’ recent slump.

With a bumper crop of prospects joining Pensacola just after the All-Star break, I hesitated to write series previews. Nobody knew just what to expect from this group, which included a slew of All-Stars as well as the California League’s best hitter and top pitcher. The Southern League has a tendency to squash sky-high statistics after a stint in the hitter-friendly confines of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark. Nearly midway through the second half, the crew has settled in. It’s been a trial by fire in recent weeks, and it was a setback that was seemingly distant as the Wahoos took a two-game advantage over the Montgomery Biscuits. Pensacola (10-20, 41-59) dropped the next three games, and even a fresh slate against Jacksonville couldn’t shake the slump. Now with the first-place Mobile BayBears crossing the border for the Bay-to-Bay Series, the Fish are staring at a double-digit deficit in which every loss counts twice as much.

There are a few elements behind Pensacola’s skid, none of which can take the full blame for a 1-7 record since July 12. Hitting isn’t the biggest obstacle: The Wahoos’ eight-day clip of .239 (63-264) is below their season average of .250, but it’s hardly anemic. The issue on offense is literally hit or miss; the Wahoos have whiffed nearly one-fourth of the time, racking up 65 strikeouts during their slump. The Wahoos aren’t strangers to the basepaths, either. Maybe the more immediate issue is their abundance of baserunners with no place to go. Hitters have stranded 59 runners, including 13 in last night’s 5-2 tug-of-war loss. More than half of those left on base (30) were in scoring position when the third out was recorded. One hit or misplayed ball in that situation likely scores a run and changes the course of a game.

Starting pitchers have been haunted by a 3.98 earned run average, but all but three have pitched with a lead. The bullpen ERA, meanwhile, is 9.00 as relievers have surrendered 21 earned runs in as many innings. There have been some hidden gems, to be sure — Fabian Williamson had worked 12.2 consecutive innings without an earned run until Jacksonville struck last night — but in this game, the whole is greatest than the sum of its parts.

Then again, part of the struggle lies in the opponent. Jacksonville’s Austin Barnes, more pure hitter than power hitter, slugged three home runs against the Wahoos in 24 hours. That’s just the hand Pensacola drew. The Suns have given the Wahoos fits all season long, from come-from-behind victories to mandate wins like Thursday’s one-hit defeat. Much like Jacksonville, the incoming Mobile squad is aggressive. Even the best game plan falls short against a team that takes risks at the plate. Mobile slashed 20 hits on July 13 and struck out 20 times on Saturday (in a victorious effort, mind you).

Across the diamond, the BayBears (19-9, 61-36) are hot and getting hotter, working a six-game winning streak as they enter Pensacola. With their playoff tickets punched long ago, their .629 winning percentage is one of the best in Minor League Baseball. In fact, three teams in Arizona’s stacked system will go to the postseason. Mobile hasn’t fallen below .500 all season, and their race to first place in the second half is no exception. The BayBears are 6-2 since the last installment of the Bay-to-Bay Series, fresh off a series victory against Mississippi and a rain-shortened sweep of Chattanooga. During the streak, Mobile is batting .308 as a team thanks to a pair of the circuit’s top sluggers. Jake Lamb is the active lead leaguer with a .323 batting average and 52 extra-base hits, while Jon Griffin knocks a home run every 20.14 at-bats. Tom Belza has been a stronghold atop the lineup, batting .333 in his last two sets. The BayBears also benefit from an unforeseen boost to their rotation. Archie Bradley is serving a quasi-rehab assignment after an All-Star campaign in 2013, faring just as well in his last five games as he did in his award-winning season. The Wahoo slayer faces off against Michael Lorenzen on Friday.

Wins and losses can move Pensacola a full game in the standings for the next five days. With the surging M-Braves next on the Wahoos’ docket, the room for error is quickly vanishing. This 10-game push in the season’s final 40 matches will make or break Pensacola’s playoff chances.

RUNDOWN

2014: Mobile leads season series 7 games to 3
Next meeting: August 12-16 (Pensacola)

Wahoos/BayBears all-time game record: 22-35
Series record: 4-8-0

In Mobile: 12-22
In Pensacola: 10-13

Expected Starters
Monday: RHP Ben Lively (0-3, 4.38) vs. RHP Aaron Blair (0-0, –)
Tuesday: RHP Daniel Corcino (8-8, 4.36) vs. RHP Michael Lee (6-4, 4.14)
Wednesday: RHP Jon Moscot (5-9, 3.19) vs. RHP A.J. Schugel (4-1, 3.70)
Thursday: RHP Robert Stephenson (5-6, 3.84) vs. RHP Bradin Hagens (8-4, 3.95)
Friday: RHP Michael Lorenzen (4-5, 2.72) vs. RHP Archie Bradley (1-0, 1.78)

WHEN LAST THEY MET

Belza: 6-17 (.353; 2 2b, 2rbi, 3r, 1sb)
Borenstein: 4-15 (.267; 2 2b, rbi, 3r, 1sb)
Lamb: 3-17 (.235; 2 2b, hr, 4rbi, 3r)
Thomas: 3-10 (.300; 2hr, 4rbi, 3r)
Bradley: 0-0, 1.69 (5.1ip, 1er, 4h, 2bb, 3k)

Fun Fact: Outfielder Zach Borenstein made his Diamondbacks organizational debut against the Wahoos on July 5. Borenstein was one of two prospects shipped from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for big leaguers Tony Campana and Joe Thatcher.

BAYBEAR TO WATCH

Aaron Blair, P
Bats: R       Throws: R

Ben Lively might be Minor League Baseball’s on-again, off-again strikeout king, but Aaron Blair is right behind him. Suiting up for his third team in 2014, Blair will pick up strikeout number 126 with Mobile.

Blair, like Lively, has risen to Double-A in just his second professional season. The Diamondbacks took the Marshall University standout with the 36th pick of last year’s draft, where he quickly pounded the strike zone. In just 30 games, Blair conquered Class A with a sinking fastball and deceptive offspeed offerings. Blair has a three-pitch arsenal, headlined by a low-90s fastball.

Opponents hit him hard in his last three starts, but base knocks are one of the few ways to reach against Blair. With just 35 walks in 108.0 innings, the right-hander doesn’t issue free passes often. Lively ran into trouble in his introduction to the Southern League, and Blair’s Double-A debut tonight will dictate whether the D-backs’ third-best prospect encounters the same rude welcome.

READ: Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” Speech

Lou Gehrig

New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig delivered his famous farewell speech 75 years ago this week. With his prolific career cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), baseball’s Iron Horse issued a poignant address to a packed Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939:

Fans, for the past two weeks  you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

VIDEO: Jesse Winker Saves the Day

The Next Generation of Wahoos: Lively, Winker Take Center Stage

Pitching phenom Ben Lively is back home, and he brought the rest of Bakersfield with him.

Smile, Ben! You're back home.

Smile, Ben! You’re back home.

With a chance to shuffle the deck during the All-Star break, the Reds organization sent their top prospects through the pipeline. Lively is one of seven players who made the jump to Pensacola, six of whom made their Double-A debuts this homestand. Though the Wahoos lost four players and some of their best bats to Louisville, an incoming cast bubbling with promise carries the credentials to back up their prospect status. Four of MLB.com’s five top-rated Reds prospects will start the second half in the Southern League, and the collective résumé includes three California League All-Stars, a Home Run Derby champion, and the reigning Reds Minor League Player of the Year. In a three-part series, we’ll meet the new Wahoos, starting with a pair of Cincinnati’s most prized prospects.

Ben Lively

Lively will become the first Pensacola-area player to don a Blue Wahoos uniform when he starts today. The pride of Gulf Breeze High School was a three-sport athlete who followed his heart to the University of Central Florida. The high school standout was drafted by Cleveland in the 2010 draft but wisely chose college ball instead. Three years at UCF helped him master his four-pitch arsenal and turned the Indians’ 26th-round selection into an eventual fourth-round pick by the Reds. Lively won consecutive All-Conference USA Second Team honors and left his fingerprints all over the Knights’ record books. His 3.06 earned run average ranks fourth in school history, while his 21 wins and 226 strikeouts both pull seventh.

He jumped feet-first into Billings, the short-season affiliate, and didn’t surrender an earned run in his first seven starts. Lively was dealt three hard-luck losses due to the nature of a Pioneer League start — he only exceeded three innings once — but collected with All-Star honors before a cup of coffee with Dayton. Despite a winless record, opponents hit just .161 against him and didn’t manage more than four hits in a start.

He got off to a hot start in Bakersfield this season, picking up back-to-back Pitcher of the Week awards and earning the Pitching Prospect of the Month tag from MLBPipeline.com. As he quickly racked up strikeouts, comparisons to former Wahoos ace Tony Cingrani were forthcoming. Lively raced out to six straight victories and scattered only one earned run in April. Winning 10 of 13 decisions, his only loss came on the other end of a no-hitter; the Lancaster JetHawks managed only one run on four hits, but the Blaze offense couldn’t support another quality start.

California League hitters seemed to have cracked the code against Lively in his last few starts, collecting more hits and consequently more runs against the righty. Chalk it up to control issues on his offspeed pitches, which are his bread and butter for strike one. Lively then brings the heat to complete the strikeout. He ranks third in the Minor Leagues with 95 whiffs and leads the organization.

Even with his ERA bruised at the end of the half, Lively’s numbers are still phenomenal. He is the only 10-game winner in Minor League Baseball thus far, and he baffled the Carolina League’s best hitters with two perfect innings in the All-Star Game. Run support will be crucial for Lively, who received an average of 7.6 runs per game in the hitter-friendly circuit. With the heart of his Blaze lineup joining him, run production could catch up down the road.

Jesse Winker

Winker was the supplemental first-round pick of Cincinnati two seasons ago, and it hasn’t taken long for the high-school selection to make an impact. Hitting .338 in his 2012 campaign, his postseason awards included a nod from MiLB.com and prestigious Topps/Minor League Baseball All-Star honors at the rookie level. The left fielder also ranked among Pioneer League leaders with a circuit-best .443 on-base percentage while finishing in a tie for the second-best batting average.

Chris Berset and Jesse Winker celebrate after the Wahoos walk off 4-3 on Sunday.

Chris Berset and Jesse Winker celebrate after the Wahoos walk off 4-3 on Sunday.

He stepped up to Low-A Dayton next season and let his bat do the talking. To make a long story short, the prospect knocked as many home runs as Reds slugger Jay Bruce did as a Dragon, but in fewer games. Bruce has since been named a Silver Slugger winner and two-time All-Star, and Winker is on a similar trajectory. He was twice named the Dragons Hitter of the Month and earned a start in his first All-Star game after a fantastic May. Winker hit .323 with 10 extra-base hits and 24 runs batted in, also collecting the Reds Minor League Player of the Month honor.

In all, the Reds Minor League Hitter of the Year led the Dragons in five offensive categories and ranked among the organizational leaders in batting average (.281, 4th), home runs (16, 5th), and RBI (76, 4th). Two years younger than the Midwest League average, Winker quickly adjusted and boasted strike-zone discipline that exceeds his years. Winker has been rated by Baseball America as the best power hitter in the organization, as well as the most disciplined at the plate.

Winker is a two-time Home Run Derby winner, claiming the California League title in a literal opposite-field challenge. He took pitches near the warning track in center field and belted them towards the grandstands behind home plate. “It was just a different look,” Winker told MiLB.com. “Once you kind of get in your groove, it’s the same. But the dimensions were a little different, so it wasn’t as much of like a pull home run derby, you know, because it was kind of up the middle. They wanted to get ‘em up to the bleachers.” He did just that, sending five skyward to win the Derby.

Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe has plenty of praise for Winker, who was named an Organizational All-Star by MiLB:

Jesse has a very advanced feel for hitting for such a young man. He takes quality at-bats, he’s not afraid to hit with two strikes, very selective. He put together a very nice year [last season]. Defensively, he showed a lot of improvements. He’s another quality young man who’s good on a team.

Graupe’s latest assessment hasn’t changed, giving credit to his presence on the basepaths:

We saw this from Day 1, that he’s an advanced professional hitter with a great approach. He drives the ball to all fields while still hitting for a high average. He’s improved a ton defensively, runs the bases well and gets the most out of his athleticism. He’s been fun to watch.

Out in Bakersfield, the do-it-all Dan Besbris — he’s an assistant GM as well as the team’s radio personality — has seen Winker close-up. “He loves to compete, and he loves to win,” he said of the Bakersfield All-Star, who was among league leaders in every major offensive category. Winker was second among full-season Reds farmhands with a .317 average and ranked eighth in the circuit, fueled by a record night less than a week before his promotion. 21 of his 56 games were multi-hit efforts, including a perfect three-hit night on June 11. Winker drove in a career-high six runs and knocked two home runs, but more impressive than those numbers is the fact that he had accomplished both feats already. It was Winker’s fifth game with four RBI or more and his second two-homer night.

At 20 years, 10 months, and 2 days, Jesse Winker is the third-youngest player to make his Blue Wahoos debut. He swings with purpose and may have found his groove in left field. His glove is underlooked in comparison to his bat, but he’s been flashing the leather early and often in Pensacola.

VIDEO: Carlos Contreras Records First Major League Strikeout

All-Star Recap: South Division Staves Off Late Rally, Wins 6-4 in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – It’s officially a winning streak for the Southern League South Division, who rode 14 hits to their third straight All-Star victory on Tuesday night. That win belongs to Blue Wahoos pitcher Michael Lorenzen, who dealt a scoreless second inning in the South’s 6-4 triumph.

Michael Lorenzen picked up the All-Star win, pitching out of trouble in the second inning and stranding three runners.

Michael Lorenzen picked up the All-Star win, pitching out of trouble in the second inning and stranding three runners.

With runners crossing the plate early and often, the North Division challengers were quickly overwhelmed. Every peg in the lineup recorded a hit, and only Yorman Rodriguez was held off the basepaths for the South. The Wahoos outfielder was a late substitution in left field and was robbed of extra bases in his only at-bat of the night. The North didn’t go quietly into the night, smacking 12 hits in a losing effort and scoring two runs in their final at-bat. Lookouts infielder O’Koyea Dickson slammed a two-out home run in his home ballpark and the North had the potential tying run at the plate before Mississippi’s James Hoyt induced a groundout.

The midsummer classic was fraught with drama far before its thrilling conclusion. After the two teams traded zeroes across two scoreless innings, top pitching gave way to the league’s heavy hitters. Mississippi’s Mycal Jones opened scoring with a solo home run in the third inning, and Rey Navarro added another tally on a two-out RBI single. The inning came to a close when Mobile’s Jon Griffin tried to leg out two bases but slid into a tag at third base. The South extended their lead in the fourth with two runs on a pair of extra-base hits, two of eight total during the game. The offensive production was the highest in an All-Star match since 2006, signaling a return to the slugfests of years past. The squads combined for 24 hits in the 2007 game but exceeded the mark tonight.

The North found the scoreboard against Wahoos ace Robert Stephenson, producing a run on a stolen base and situational hitting. Stephenson, who ranks second in the league with 73 strikeouts, coerced a swing and miss out of Chattanooga’s Scott Schebler. The Reds’ top prospect was one of only a few pitchers to contain the left fielder, who knocked a home run and reached base three times.

Biscuits right fielder Taylor Motter was named Most Valuable Player, finishing 3-for-3 with a home run, two runs batted in, and a run of his own. Steve Selsky took his place in the sixth inning and picked up where the Montgomery outfielder left off, collecting a single in his first All-Star appearance. Designated hitter Navarro finished with a pair of singles and drove in a run, one of five All-Stars with multiple hits. Both Navarro and Selsky will be absent from Pensacola when the second half starts, rather packing their bags for Triple-A Louisville after earning promotions earlier today.

The Blue Wahoos return to action on Thursday night as the Huntsville Stars come to town for a five-game homestand. The series kicks off on Thirsty Thursday, presented by Seville Quarter, with drink specials available all night long as part of the Wahoo Waddle. First pitch is tabbed for 6:30 p.m. with gates opening at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are still available all series long at BlueWahoos.com or by calling (850) 934-8444.

Today in Blue Wahoos History: Pensacola’s First No-Hitter

Daniel Corcino (left) and Wilkin De La Rosa (right) celebrate after no-hitting the Mobile BayBears on June 16, 2012.

Pitchers Daniel Corcino (left) and Wilkin De La Rosa (right) celebrate after combining for a no-hitter against the Mobile BayBears on June 16, 2012.

For a city with baseball roots planted centuries deep, the sport’s return to Pensacola in 2012 was exciting enough without fretting about wins and losses. Looking back at the first season today, the team’s final record mattered little. Few could recall that the Wahoos finished 68-70. Instead, they’ll tell you about experiences — the Blue Angels’ flyover on Opening Day, catching their first foul ball, or coronating a new favorite player. Down to the very section, row, and seat, they remember just where they were on the magical nights when the Major League stars of tomorrow claimed the spotlight. June 16 was one such night.

Daniel CorcinoDaniel Corcino had never pitched into the eighth inning in his five-year career. Nor had he escaped the opposition’s sneaky first hit, one which clouded an otherwise perfect outing a season earlier in Dayton. For reliever Wilkin De La Rosa, the stakes had never been higher. It was his first ninth-inning appearance with a lead — a comfortable six-run advantage, but one with the highest of expectations riding on his shoulders.

But against infinitesimal odds, and with plenty of support from the rest of the Wahoos, the pitching duo pulled off one of the most impressive feats in all of sports. Absolutely nothing compares, from the degree of the pitcher’s dominance to the art of luring foes to root for history instead of their hometown team. It’s a major individual accomplishment that is impossible without the team element. The pressure mounts as four hitless innings become five, and later six. When the opponent puts the ball in play, the defense steps up their game to keep the effort alive. The Wahoos’ position players were no exception. Catcher Chris Berset played through pain, but the Double-A greenhorn called a good game behind the plate. David Vidal added a barehanded catch and throw from third base to start the fifth, a highlight-reel play that saved the no-hit bid.

The Mobile BayBears, fresh off a first-half championship, weren’t entirely baffled by Corcino. They were far from sure-handed, striking out nine times against the starter, but they made contact early and often. Corcino was effective through his first six innings, tossing 78 pitches. But to escape the seventh, the Wahoos’ starter needed 20 pitches. He did it the hard way, issuing a walk before striking out the side. Later that inning, Vidal’s two-run home run gave Corcino three runs’ worth of breathing room. As his pitch count climbed, the final throws counted more than ever, and Corcino delivered with an inning-ending strikeout:

As if his 110-pitch gem wasn’t enough, Corcino pulled off two feats that the BayBears couldn’t: register a hit and reach second base. He even slid into third base, adding an orange hue to his white uniform. He was practically unstoppable all night, and he echoed that sentiment after the game with an optimistic evaluation: “I know I can keep going and maybe next time, you know, I can finish.” Next time.

The decision to pull Corcino for a pinch-hitter wasn’t a difficult one for skipper Jim Riggleman, who didn’t remove his starter by accident. The pitch limit wasn’t up for debate, and Corcino would need fuel in the tank for his trip to the Southern League All-Star Game in Tennessee. Enter De La Rosa, who brought the crowd to its feet with a strikeout and kept them breathless after a one-out walk. But after Matt Davidson swung through strike three, he had one batter to go. Tommy Thrall had the call:

Thrall’s voice climbs as the players pour onto the field. The Marine Centennial Bell chimes in the background as a sellout crowd roars, over five thousand voices overlapping into one. The celebration is fierce and the chaos carries into the night. With national coverage on SportsCenter, the top play is shown in millions of homes. Largely for the first time, the world is introduced to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and their incredible night.

Every time we revisit Daniel Corcino’s gem, we call it the first no-hitter. It’s not an inaccurate statement, but it’s carefully worded. It suggests that another one waits in the wings, calling out for the pitcher worthy of taking the mantle from that first team. When the stars align again, we’ll see another — be it next month, next year, or in the next decade.

But one thing is certain: Two-and-a-half seasons into Pensacola’s Double-A experience, the best is yet to come.

 

Series Preview: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Out of the frying pan: Pensacola looks to rebound against the surging Suns after a five-game sweep on the road.

Out of the frying pan: Pensacola looks to rebound against the surging Suns after a five-game sweep on the road.

The Wahoos rolled into town in the early hours of Saturday morning, fresh off a doubleheader and still smarting from a five-game sweep in Mississippi. The Braves caught a hot streak to send Pensacola tumbling into a double-digit deficit, all but wiping away any prospective playoff hopes in the process. This was far from an M-Braves mandate, mind you; the Wahoos took two games into extra innings but couldn’t avoid the walkoff. In fact, a throwing error on a potential double play ball allowed the winning run to score in the thirteenth frame of Wednesday’s 5-4 heartbreaker.

But hours later, Pensacola Bayfront Stadium was abuzz with a sellout crowd. The good guys came out swinging, lighting up starter Jose Urena as Travis Mattair‘s three-alarm fire punctuated the inning. Daniel Corcino scattered ten hits, all singles, and scorched the Suns with his best outing of the season. Jacksonville stranded a season-high fifteen runners, including eight in scoring position. The Wahoos also stepped up on defense, including a gutsy bases-loaded effort in the seventh. Josh Fellhauer chased two fly balls and fired the first one home to cut off a sacrifice opportunity, preserving Corcino’s first shutout starting bid since 2012. If one had to guess which team had just come off a six-game losing streak, the first choice would likely miss the mark.

Jacksonville turned the tables on Sunday behind prospect Chipper Smith. The Wahoos put the ball in play against him in all but four at-bats, but they never found paydirt against the crafty lefty. Smith has worked 14 scoreless innings dating back to May 22, collecting a win in his second match in Pensacola. His no-hitter was short-lived, but he had the Wahoos on the ropes all day long. Left-handed pitching has baffled Pensacola hitters all season long, a .227 clip compared to a .256 average against right-handers. Fellhauer is one of only three hitters who fare better against southpaws.

What makes Delino DeShields an effective manager holds true in blowout wins or frustrating losses. He understands that over the long haul, one-game judgments aren’t wise. At least through the dog days of August, there’s always another chance to try again the next day. Circumstances change from game to game, and Exhibit A is presented from behind home plate. The Suns pulled J.T. Realmuto from the series opener as the backstop packed his bags for Miami. Catching prospect Austin Barnes arrives with a smidgen of Double-A service time, but he’ll have big shoes to fill. Realmuto’s .301 average ranked among league leaders and topped the team.

The first half is wrapping up (already?) and infinitesimal postseason hopes don’t prevent Pensacola from spoiling the Suns’ run and closing strong. The Wahoos won’t catch anyone this homestand, stationed six games behind fourth-place Montgomery. That doesn’t mean that DeShields can shuffle the lineup a bit as the team looks to the All-Star break and beyond. Yorman Rodriguez has made five straight starts in right field, his stomping grounds from a season ago. Juan Duran made a handful of appearances in left field during the Mississippi series. The skipper expects some change after the schedule flips. “The last 15 games in the first half will tell us a lot about the kids we have right now,” DeShields told local media on Sunday. “The club will not look the same after the first half is over.”

Looking at the broad picture is difficult when players come and go — Pensacola has lost the versatile Donald Lutz, while Jacksonville’s starting staff works without a pair of aces — but a startling statistic has kept up with the squad. The Wahoos are 20-15 when they are leading or tied through six innings. It’s a mark that haunted the Wahoos in the first three games of the M-Braves tilt, one that falls squarely on a bullpen that couldn’t keep up the pace with the rotation last week. A five-run eighth inning powered a come-from-behind Mississippi victory in the opener, and the extra-inning affairs were a test of wills that the Braves won down the stretch. But in the short run, the pen has been mightier. Relievers have combined for nine scoreless innings since the sixth frame of the May 30 nightcap, supporting Robert Stephenson with six zeroes after his early exit yesterday.

Steve Selsky has been productive during his season-best hitting streak. With hits in his last 10 starts dating back to May 22, the outfielder has a solid .500 average when he makes contact and a .433 batting average to show for it. He doesn’t dwell on it — at least, not that last number. “I don’t look at my average too much,” Selsky reported last night. “I look at my quality [at-bats] and moving runners, situational hitting, squaring the ball up.” Instead of seeking out hits, Selsky looks for a productive plate appearance. He leads the team with five sacrifice flies and holds the active team lead with a .410 on-base percentage.

In the other clubhouse, the Suns bring their motley crew to Pensacola for the second time in 2014. The offense packs a punch, and they’ll single opponents to death; they rank last in the South Division with just 137 extra-base hits, but the lineup has the capacity to work rallies with situational hits. They took five of six games against Montgomery and trail the first-place BayBears by four-and-a-half games. Jacksonville has added three new bullpen arms and bolstered their star power with starter Micah Owings. The former Diamondback, Red, and Padre seeks a return to the major leagues, moving from the hill to the outfield and back. Making his first organizational start on May 27, a five-inning outing that produced a win.

RUNDOWN

2014: Jacksonville leads season series 9 games to 3
Next meeting: June 29-July 3 (Pensacola)

Wahoos/Suns all-time game record: 25-39
Series record: 3-8-2

In Jacksonville: 11-17
In Pensacola: 14-22

Expected Starters
Pensacola 8, Jacksonville 0. // WP: Daniel Corcino (5-4) LP: Jose Urena (5-3)
Jacksonville 4, Pensacola 0. // WP: Chipper Smith (2-0) LP: Robert Stephenson (2-5)
Monday: RHP Jon Moscot (3-3, 2.44) vs. RHP Micah Owings (1-0, 3.60)
Tuesday: RHP Mikey O’Brien (2-3, 5.02) vs. LHP Justin Nicolino (4-2, 3.30)
Wednesday: RHP Michael Lorenzen (2-4, 2.80) vs. RHP Angel Sanchez (0-7, 6.39)

WHEN LAST THEY MET

Burg: 3-10 (.300; 2hr, 3rbi, 3r)
Nola: 11-21 (.524; 6 2b, 3b, hr, 5rbi, 7r)
Shoemaker: 6-21 (.286; 2b, hr, 7rbi, 4r)
Urena: 1-0, 0.00 (6.0ip, 0er, 2h, 1bb, 5k)

Fun Fact: Edgar Olmos was credited with an unlikely save on May 15, an 11-0 Suns victory. Per Rule 10.19 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball, relievers who throw at least three innings to finish the game can earn a save regardless of the score.

SUN TO WATCH

Miguel Tejada, INF
Bats: R       Throws: R

Tejada made his Major League debut in 1997, and his bona fides speak for themselves. The six-time All-Star has reached the midsummer classic as a representative of both leagues, and he followed his 2002 MVP campaign with an arguably better season two years later. But the veteran infielder finds himself in the Southern League as he completes the final week of his 105-game suspension. He was served with one of baseball’s longest suspensions last season after testing positive for an amphetamine, but he’s far from bitter. Tejada relishes the opportunity to show young players the ropes, shaking every hand on the Jacksonville bus and dispensing advice in the dugout.

His optimism has been noteworthy in his remarks to the press. “I feel great,” said Tejada, who was taking the field for the first time since August 10 when he started on Saturday. “I feel 20 again. I’m excited and happy to be here.”

Suns manager Andy Barkett had nothing but praise for the 40-year-old journeyman. “He said he wants one more year to do things right. That’s completely admirable. I hope [the Suns] see not just a talented player but see the hunger of this guy. We’ve got someone special on our hands as a human being and as a baseball player.”

Series Preview: A Vote of Confidence

Translating hits into runs will determine the series victor.

Devin Lohman is brimming with confidence this month, batting .295 in May with five multi-hit games.

Ask a dozen people what baseball is all about, and you’ll likely get a different answer every time. It’s a thinking man’s game, they’ll say, or a game of luck. Others dub it a game of failure, citing that even the sport’s greatest hitters were successful less than half the time. Branch Rickey called it a game of inches, and I’d tend to agree.

But more than anything else, baseball is a game of confidence. The job of the pitcher is disruption more than anything, getting a batter out of his comfort zone while finding the strike zone consistently. On the other end, hitters can’t just hope that they avoid a strikeout. A hard hit can move runners, put a defense on guard, distract a pitcher, and ultimately make a statement.

Think back to Saturday, a regrettable 4-2 loss to Jacksonville but one that’s hardly forgettable. Juan Duran was the first batter due up in the ninth inning, and he had a reason to be burdened. A fielding error in the top of the frame was his second of the night, and the Suns nearly capitalized on his mistake. But instead of buckling under pressure, he belted a screaming double past Austin Nola. That chip on his shoulder has carried him to one of his best streaks at the dish. A pair of multi-hit performances, including three last night, have lifted his batting average 30 points in the past week. Those hits have been timely as well; the outfielder is batting .364 with runners in scoring position.

Duran isn’t alone in the effort. Devin Lohman has silently been streaking, but he lets his bat do the talking these days. The shortstop is not only hitting the ball well, but he’s been hitting it hard. Even with a hitless night yesterday, his productivity in May has been incredible. Lohman has more hits in fewer at-bats, extra-base knocks at a higher rate, more runs batted in, and even a few stolen bases. The number to know is .389, a fantastic average in any case but more critical with runners on second or third and two outs. His glovework has been flawless in the last week, and Lohman has committed two fewers errors this season compared to last year’s pace.

Slow starts have been massive headaches and roadblocks to victory. In three of their last four series, the Wahoos had dropped the first two games. It isn’t a deal-breaker, as Pensacola started a season-best winning streak by taking the last three games of the Jackson set. Nevertheless, it still puts the pitching staff in a bind and becomes more aggravating when both of those games could have gone the other way. On May 11, the Wahoos were held to one baserunner through the first five innings but still preserved a 1-1 stalemate to the home half of the ninth. The Barons loaded the bases and walked off before Fabian Williamson could pencil in the third out. The next day’s affair was destined to be a 2-0 win before Christian Marrero smashed a three-run home run to spoil what would have been Shane Dyer‘s fifth save.

It was a weekend of missed opportunities. Pensacola scored first in every game and outhit Birmingham during the road series, but the Wahoos couldn’t translate hits into runs. If that was the problem a week ago, then the situational hitting in yesterday’s 7-2 victory was the cure. They demonstrated it best in the fifth inning, when three doubles and a pair of sacrifices broke the scoreless tie.

The bulk of the Barons’ star power has moved north since Birmingham hoisted the championship trophy, most notably 2013 Southern League MVP Marcus Semien. Four players who spent those dog days in Birmingham have made their way to Chicago since. Speedster Micah Johnson joined the list with a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte in the middle of the Wahoos’ visit. Johnson topped the minors with 84 stolen bases last season and roared out of the gate, ripping separate nine- and eight-game hitting streaks while notching a Barons-best .329 average. The newest Double-A farmhands are adapting well to the Southern League, including infielder Rangel Ravelo. One of only nine players with a .300 average or higher, he ranks second in the circuit with a .424 on-base percentage.

It’s been a streaky season so far, and their struggles have been well-publicized on the hill. Including the series opener, the Barons have lost five of their last six games. Since sweeping an April 15 twin bill in Mobile, Birmingham has won just 10 of their last 32 games. Much like the rest of the North Division, the Barons are chasing the shooting Stars, and Huntsville has a thirteen-game head start. So long as the Wahoos can keep shelling the battered Birmingham staff, bearers of a Southern League-worst 4.70 earned run average, Pensacola can challenge the Barons all the way through the finale. Most importantly, they can continue to build their confidence by dashing one team’s playoffs hopes and keeping their own alive.

RUNDOWN

2014: Season series tied at 3 games
Next meeting: August 28-September 1 (Birmingham)

Wahoos/Barons all-time game record: 18-10
Series record: 5-1-0

In Birmingham: 9-5 (5-5 at Regions Field)
In Pensacola: 9-5

Expected Starters
Pensacola 7, Birmingham 2. // WP: Daniel Corcino (4-4) LP: Chris McCully (2-4)
Thursday: RHP Robert Stephenson (2-4, 3.74) vs. RHP Chris Beck (2-6, 4.35)
Friday: RHP Jon Moscot (3-3, 2.11) vs. RHP Myles Jaye (0-6, 5.28)
Saturday: RHP Michael Lorenzen (2-2, 2.26) vs. LHP Scott Snodgress (2-3, 4.34)
Sunday: RHP Mikey O’Brien (2-2, 3.94) vs. RHP Mike Recchia (1-0, 1.80)

WHEN LAST THEY MET

Earley: 6-16 (.375; 2r, 1sb)
Pedroza: 5-14 (.357; 2b, 3r)
Ravelo: 5-13 (.385; 2b, 1rbi, 1r)
Richmond: 5-11 (.455; 2 2b, 1rbi, 1r)
Thompson: 3-14 (.214; 3b, 2rbi, 1r)
Snodgress: 1-0, 0.00 (7.0ip, 1r, 0er, 5h, 1bb, 5k)

Fun Fact: Former Wahoos reliever Parker Frazier, a midseason acquisition of the Reds in 2013, signed with the White Sox last November and joined the Barons on Opening Day. In 14 appearances with Birmingham, Frazier is 2-2 with a 3.18 ERA.

BARON TO WATCH

Trayce Thompson, OF
Bats: R        Throws: R

A second-round selection out of Santa Margarita (California) High School in 2009, Thompson didn’t take long to reach Double-A Birmingham. His first taste of the higher leagues came in 2012, when he ranked among the organizational leaders in RBI (1st/96), extra-base hits (1st/62), home runs (2nd/25), runs scored (2nd/88), and hits (5th/131). His ability to score early and often earned him midseason All-Star honors last season, when he stood among Southern League leaders in both runs (78) and RBI (73).

Baseball America rates him as the best athlete and top defensive outfielder on the White Sox farm. That athleticism runs in the family as his father Mychal was drafted first in the 1978 NBA Draft. With long arms and tremendous leverage, Thompson can definitely uncork a few balls. He has recorded double-digit dingers in three straight seasons, finishing second among the Barons last year with 15. But his strikeout rate, on the decline since whiffing one-third of the time in Class A, continues to cloud his batting average. He currently leads the circuit with 56 strikeouts in 160 at-bats, a crisp 35 percent.

His defense will carry him to Chicago, and it’s a question of when, not if, he makes his debut. But patience at the plate is still a virtue for the highly-regarded prospect.

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