After Sunday’s opening-game loss, the Blue Wahoos now hope to repeat their comeback from a year ago in the Southern League Championship Series.
But it’s going to take another impressive turnaround.
The Tennessee Smokies produced a quick knockout in Game One, scoring eight runs in the first three innings, including a 5-run third inning, powering their way to an 8-4 win at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee, located near Knoxville.
It’s now a do-or-die scenario for the Blue Wahoos when the second game occurs Tuesday night at Blue Wahoos Stadium. A third game, if necessary, in the short series will be Wednesday in Pensacola. The Blue Wahoos traveled all night Sunday back to Pensacola and the series has an off-day Monday.
This is a rematch of the 2022 SLCS and the Blue Wahoos do have history and home field on their side. The Blue Wahoos dropped the first game in Pensacola last year, then won twice on the road against the Smokies to claim their first outright Southern League title.
The Smokies, the Chicago Cubs affiliate, are seeking their first outright championship in 45 years as a minor league franchise. They shared the 2004 Southern League title with the Mobile BayBears when the playoffs were cancelled due to Hurricane Ivan.
When the Smokies won in 1978, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa was the Tennessee skipper and the team was called the Knoxville Sox as the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.
The Blue Wahoos, who went 7-4 in the regular-season matchups against Tennessee, are trying to become only the seventh team in Southern League history to win back-to-back titles.
That quest got off to a rocky start Sunday. Blue Wahoos starter Evan Fitterer struggled from the outset. He allowed leadoff batters to reach in the three innings he worked and couldn’t find a groove with his pitch command, which is something that has hurt him in recent starts.
He plunked Smokies’ leadoff batter Matt Shaw, the Cubs’ No. 1 draft pick in July, to start his outing. He then gave up a run-scoring double to BJ Murray, followed by a single to the third batter, Owen Caissie.
Fitterer then got a double-play ball that scored Tennessee’s second run, but helped him out of the inning. The scenario repeated in the second inning with a leadoff walk allowed, followed by a run scoring double by Ezequiel Pagan.
The Blue Wahoos bullpen was warming up in the third inning when Fitterer gave up another leadoff walk, a single and an RBI double by Haydn McGeary. Reliever Breidy Encarnacion was summoned with one out in the inning and he struggled as well.
After a walk to load the bases, Encarnacion hit the next batter to force home a run, then yielded consecutive RBI on a sacrifice fly and two singles to complete the explosive rally.
From that point, the Blue Wahoos relief corps of Jonathan Bermudez, Matt Pushard, Chandler Jozwiak and Caleb Wurster combined on five shutout innings.
Blue Wahoos shortstop Nasim Nunez drove in the team’s first run in the third inning on a sacrifice fly. He also played sensational defense, including a spectacular play in the seventh when he fielded a ball behind second, turned and threw across his body to first baseman Bennett Hostetler, who make leg split to record the out from a sitting position.
That play had the Smokies crowd of 3,382 applauding in appreciation. Nunez also scored the team’s second run in the top of the eighth when he walked, went to third on a single by Jose Mesa Jr. and scored on Paul McIntosh’s sacrifice fly.
The Blue Wahoos managed six hits – two from second baseman Cody Morissette – who temporarily spoiled the crowd celebration by hitting a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth inning.
The Smokies, who now have 14 of the Chicago Cubs’ Top 30 rated prospects, have won their past seven games and nine of their last 10, including a two-game sweep of the Chattanooga Lookouts – the Cincinnati Reds affiliate – in the Southern League North Division series.
They will send one of those top-rated players, righthander Cade Horton, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2022, on the mound Tuesday night against the Blue Wahoos’ Luis Palacios, who was superb in his last start to beat the Montgomery Biscuits in the first game of the South Division playoffs last week.
Horton, 22, was a former star at Oklahoma and was elevated to Double-A in August. He is a finalist for the Minor League Baseball pitching prospect of the year. He has risen to the No. 2 best prospect in the Cubs organization.
The game on Tuesday will start at 6:05 p.m., a half-hour earlier than the Blue Wahoos regular-season, weekday starting times. The ceremonial first pitches will begin at 5:45 p.m. followed by the actual first pitch of the game at 6:05.
The Blue Wahoos will have a one-price, inclusive ticket for $22 that includes the best available seats, plus a hot dog, chips and a soft drink. Fans will also be allowed to bring their dogs in a carryover from the “Doggone Tuesday” promotion during the regular season.
On Sunday, the Blue Wahoos learned former star Troy Johnston, their first baseman in the past two seasons, before being elevated to Triple-A Jacksonville, was named the Miami Marlins Minor League Player of the Year. He is batting .307 with 26 homers and 116 RBI this season in 102 games between the Blue Wahoos and Jumbo Shrimp
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Game 2, Southern League Championship Series
WHO: Tennessee Smokies vs. Blue Wahoos
WHEN: Tuesday, 6:05 p.m.
WHERE: Blue Wahoos Stadium
TICKETS: $22 one price, includes hot dog, soft drink, chips.
AUDIO: Available on live stream audio broadcast beginning at 6:00 p.m. on BlueWahoos.com, the MiLB First Pitch app (radio), Bally Live, and MiLB.tv (video).