Wahoos Win First Championship In Franchise History

September 9, 2017

Pensacola right fielder Aristides Aquino delivered a 400-foot homer and then a single to right field that both put the Blue Wahoos ahead in Friday’s Southern League playoffs.

It was his line drive single in the top of the 12th inning that gave the Pensacola Blue Wahoos its first Southern League championship in its history with a, 5-4, victory over the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp in front of 3,689 Friday at Blue Wahoos Stadium.

The players sprinted out to the mound and then all took a knee. After a moment of calm, pandemonium broke out. Pensacola manager Pat Kelly got a bucket of ice cold water dumped over his head. Players rubbed hitting coach Gookie Dawkins bald head with alcohol and poured champagne and beer down pitching coach Danny Darwin’s back. No one escaped without getting drenched with champagne and beer.

Aquino got two chances to win the game and delivered both times. His single drove in left fielder Gabriel Guerrero, his teammate who does a little jig with him after every home run at the top of the dugout steps.

“I don’t have words to explain it,” said a dripping wet Aquino through catcher Chad Tromp who translated for him. “It was an amazing and wonderful year.”

Pensacola first baseman Gavin LaValley and Aquino hit back-to-back home runs to left field in the top of the eighth inning to take the lead for the first time in Friday’s Southern Division playoff game, 4-3.

For LaValley it was his second homer in two games after not hitting one since July 7. The 22-year-old was 4-for-14 in the series with two homers and three RBIs. He finished the season with 20 homers, including his first half with the High-A Daytona Tortugas.

“It feels good to win the playoffs,” LaValley said. “That’s all that matters. It’s the ultimate goal.”

Meanwhile, Aquino set the Pensacola franchise record with 18 homers in a season, surpassing outfielder Juan Duran who blasted 17 in 2014.

Down, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Jacksonville rallied when left fielder Austin Dean hit a two out, ground ball single up the middle to drive in catcher Rodrigo Vigil to tie the game, 4-4, and send it into extra innings.

It didn’t seem to matter to Jacksonville that Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida’s east coast and requiring the Jumbo Shrimp to play as the home team in Game 3 of the playoffs on Pensacola’s home field. If needed Game 4 and 5 were scheduled to be played in the Biloxi Shuckers’ MGM Park. The Jacksonville team is waiting out the hurricane in Pensacola.

Pensacola won the last three games of the final series with Jacksonville and then swept them in the playoffs, 3-0.

“They had a lot of things they were thinking about,” Kelly said. “But they weren’t about to let us win this game.”

Kelly said he told his team to expect ups and downs in the best-of-five playoff series against Jacksonville.

It was the second championship for Pensacola Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly in his 25th season coaching minor league baseball. His other championship came in 1996 with the Washington Nationals Double-A affiliate Harrisburg Senators in the Eastern League. Kelly, who has managed in the Cincinnati Reds organization for 12 years, has taken nine different teams to the playoffs.

The Blue Wahoos, which have played in the Southern League playoffs for three straight years, finally won a Southern League title. It is the first Reds’ Double-A affiliate to win a championship since the Chattanooga Lookouts earned a Southern League championship in 1988.

Besides Aquino another hero of the game was the little used left-handed reliever Andrew McKirahan, who threw two innings for the first time for Pensacola in 10 appearances this season. The 27-year-old missed the 2016 season following his second Tommy John surgery.

The southpaw retired all six Jumbo Shrimp batters he faced, including getting Braxton Lee, who won the Southern League batting crown with a .309 average, to bounce out to second base in the bottom of the 12th inning. McKirahan picked up the win to finish 1-0 with Pensacola.

“That’s the first time I’ve gotten the last out of the season,” said McKirahan, who like many of his teammates experienced his first championship. “I’ve been a reliever all my life and that’s how you dream it up.”

Also instrumental in Pensacola’s first championship was Josh VanMeter, who Kelly played at all four infield positions and left field to keep his clutch hitting in the lineup. VanMeter was 7-11 in the first playoffs of his professional career for a .636 batting average with a homer and four RBIs.

“We had a roller coaster season,” VanMeter said. “It feels great to win it in front of our fans.”

Lee, who was 2-14 in the playoffs, singled to center field to drive in second baseman Alex Yarbrough in the seventh inning to go up, 3-2.

Jacksonville took the lead for the first time in 35 innings against Pensacola when Yarbrough singled in third baseman David Vidal for a 1-0 lead in the second inning. The Jumbo Shrimp tacked on another run to go up, 2-0, when catcher Rodrigo Vigil hit a sacrifice fly to left field to drive in shortstop KC Serna.

Pensacola starting pitcher Austin Ross helped himself out at the plate nailing a line drive to center field with the bases loaded and one out to drive in Aquino to trail Jacksonville, 2-1 in the fourth inning. Pensacola third baseman Arismendy Alcantara then hit a sacrifice fly to short center field that scored shortstop Blake Trahan to tie it, 2-2.

Ross couldn’t stop smiling after the Blue Wahoos won the Southern League championship, which was his first, too. He worked 6.2 innings and gave up three runs on seven hits and three walks. He finished the year 9-0 with a 2.00 ERA, and has now won his last 18 games in a row. The seven-year minor league veteran last loss on July 5, 2016 with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

“(Manager) PK (Pat Kelly) is awesome,” Ross said. “He’s the best I’ve ever played for. You don’t get to the playoffs very often. It’s tough to win. I’m glad to finish it here.”

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