Some pretty awesome news down in Alabama tonight.
The Tennessee Smokies trashed the Rocket City Trash Pandas (Angels), 3-1. The win clinched the Southern League North Division playoff, two games to one.
Just like the South Bend Cubs in their title series, the Smokies lost game one at home and then came back to win games two and three on the road.
The Smokies handed the ball to right-hander Chris Clarke for this deciding game three. Neither team scored before Smokies catcher Harrison Wenson hit a solo home run off of Trash Pandas starter Mason Erla in the top of the third inning.
But Clarke gave the run back in the bottom of that inning. After a leadoff single and a fielder’s choice, Clarke loaded the bases with another single and a hit batsman. Next, with one out, Clarke walked in a run when Preston Palmeiro worked him for an RBI eight-pitch walk.
But Clarke dug in after that and got Logan O’Hoppe to pop out and Aaron Whitefield to fly to right. That lost opportunity in the third inning was the only one the Trash Pandas would get tonight. Rocket City never got a runner past second base after the third inning.
The Smokies retook the lead in the fifth. Wenson led off the inning with a walk. After an error on a sacrifice bunt put runners on first and second, third baseman Jake Slaughter singled home Wenson to make it 2-1. The Smokies had a chance for more after Nelson Maldonado walked to load the bases with two outs, but Cole Roederer struck out to end the rally.
Meanwhile, Wenson tormented the organization that released him. In the eighth inning, he tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer, his second of the night. Wenson had hit five home runs all summer before tonight.
The Smokies bullpen struggled badly down the stretch, but they came up big in this playoff series. After Clarke left after six innings, Samuel Reyes went the rest of the way for a three-inning save. Reyes gave up two hits, but no runs. He struck out five, walked one and hit one batter.
In his winning effort, Clarke allowed one run on five hits over six innings. Clarke struck out seven and walked one. He also hit one batter.
Wenson scored all three Smokies runs tonight. He went 2 for 3 with a walk and the two home runs. He also threw out the only runner trying to steal.
Slaughter was 3 for 5 with the RBI single. He also stole a base.
The Smokies only had seven hits tonight and went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position. But the two solo home runs and the excellent pitching were enough.
Here’s Wenson’s 2nd home run.
Harrison Wenson puts Tennessee on his shoulders. 2nd HR on a 101mph FB! pic.twitter.com/f6rAX0JeOy— Itsacon (@thats_so_cub) September 24, 2022
Here’s the celebration at the end of the game.
The Smokies move on to the Southern League Championship Series, where they will take on the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a Marlins affiliate. Game one is in Pensacola on Sunday, September 25. Games two and three (if necessary) will take place at Smokies Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Tennessee franchise is shooting for their first outright Southern League title since 1978 when they were the Knoxville Sox. If you want to know how long ago that was, their manager that year was Tony La Russa. It’s the second-longest title drought in Minor League Baseball. (The Syracuse Mets have not won an outright title since 1976.) The Smokies were named co-champions of the Southern League in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan canceled that year’s title series, but they have not won an individual title since 1978.
The Iowa Cubs had the heavens open up on them by the Omaha Storm Chasers (Royals), 10-2.
Starter Caleb Kilian still seems to have control issues, which was a big reason he got the loss tonight. Kilian allowed four runs on four hits over 4.1 innings. He struck out four, but he walked five. Only 42 of his 88 pitches were strikes.
In his second-straight rehab appearance, Steven Brault failed to retire a batter. Brault allowed four runs on three hits and a walk. One of those hits was a home run.
Second baseman Christian Donahue hit a solo home run in the fourth inning, his first of the season. Donahue was 1 for 4.
Shortstop Scott McKeon went 2 for 4. He scored a run with two outs in the top of the ninth to see that the I-Cubs only lost by eight instead of nine.