The Tennessee Smokies completed a 2-0 sweep of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Marlins) with a 10-3 shellacking. The win was the Smokies first title since 2004 and the first undisputed title since 1978 for the franchise.
With a 8-4 win against Pensacola at home on Sunday, the Smokies traveled to Florida and needed just one win to clinch the title. Tennessee manager Kevin Graber left nothing in reserve, going with top pitching prospect Cade Horton to start game two. Horton wasn’t as sharp as he had been in previous starts, but his stuff was still pretty much unhittable by the Blue Wahoos. Horton pitched five innings and allowed just one run on one hit—a double in the second inning that was really just a hard-hit grounder that found a seam between the Smokies infield and outfield defense. Horton did walk three batters—including one right before the double that then scored on a sacrifice fly in the second. Horton also struck out four.
Meanwhile, the Smokies took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning when DH Haydn McGeary led off with a double, went to third on a single by first baseman Moises Ballesteros and scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Pablo Aliendo.
But that lead was short-lived as the Blue Wahoos got that run back in the bottom of the second. But in the third inning, the Smokies re-took the lead with a three-run home run by third baseman BJ Murray Jr.
The score would remain 4-1 until the fifth inning, when the Blue Wahoos defense began to fall apart. Both shortstop Matt Shaw and Murray reached on errors to lead off the fifth and then Shaw scored on a double play by McGeary.
The Smokies blew the game open in the sixth, scoring four times. Left fielder Kevin Alcántara led off the inning with a double and then pinch-hitter Ezequiel Pagan was hit by a pitch. Shaw hit a fly ball to center field for a sacrifice fly, but Blue Wahoos outfielder Victor Mesa Jr. missed catching the ball.
The error put runners on second and third with one out. Murray hit another sacrifice fly to make it 7-1 an and then right fielder Owen Caissie doubled home Shaw to make it 8-1. McGeary was next up, and he singled home Caissie for an eight-run lead after six.
The one threat that the Blue Wahoos had in this game came in the bottom of the eighth, when reliever Porter Hodge walked the first three batters he faced. He was taken out for Blake Whitney, who got a pop out and a strike out before walking in a run. Still, a ground ball to shortstop meant that a potential big rally turned into just one run for Pensacola.
Hunter Bigge pitched the ninth inning and retired the side in order to clinch the title.
Murray was 1 for 4 with the home run, the sac fly and four RBI.
Alcántara went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a walk. He scored twice.
McGeary was 2 for 5 with a double. He scored one run and had one run batted in.
Ballesteros was 2 for 4 with a walk.
Shortstop Andy Weber was 2 for 4. He scored twice and had one run batted in.
Murray’s home run.
Horton’s four strikeouts. (Video)
The final out on a nice leaping catch by Matt Shaw.
The Smokies were named co-champions of the Southern League in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan wiped out the Championship Series. But the last time they won a title on the field, it was 1978 and they were the Knoxville Sox, a White Sox affiliate. That team was known for its pitching, but the star of the team was outfielder Harold Baines. Rusty Kuntz was also an outfielder on that team, whose name I have to mention. Pitchers on that team included future Cub Steve Trout, former Cub Ken Frailing, Rich Dotson and Ross Baumgarten. That team was managed by Tony La Russa, so there were two Hall-of-Famers on the title winners.
The last Cubs affiliate that won a Double-A title was the 2000 West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, who also won the Southern League title. That team had Corey Patterson, Hee-Seop Choi, Eric Hinske, Will Ohman and Carlos Zambrano.
It’s always more pleasant when the Cubs minor league season ends with a victory, and that’s what we got this year from the Smokies. And while South Bend and Myrtle Beach have won multiple titles over the past eight years, it was especially satisfying to see a team in the upper-minors to come home with a crown.
And with that, the minor league season is over, at least for the Cubs. Thank you to everyone who read us this year and to everyone who commented. And another thank you to Ashley and Al for filling in for me over the past few weeks. It was a great season for the Cubs minor league system, which can only mean good things going forward. I’m glad you were with me.