Blue Wahoos’ Season Ends 10-3; Smokies Win Southern League Championship

September 27, 2023

The Blue Wahoos’ acclaim-filled 2023 season, which included several club records, ended Tuesday one last feat short of complete.

Unable to contain the Tennessee Smokies’ power-laden lineup, Pensacola’s quest to repeat as Southern League champions was dashed in the Smokies’ 10-3 win to sweep the short series at Blue Wahoos Stadium and claim their first league title in 45 years.

A year after the Blue Wahoos celebrated on the field at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee to produce their first outright championship, the Smokies got their turn in Pensacola.

After the Blue Wahoos’ Nasim Nuñez lined out for the final out Tuesday, a sensational leaping catch by Smokies second baseman Matt Shaw – the Chicago Cubs’ top pick of the 2023 Draft just three months ago – the players rushed from the visitors dugout.

They took a picture in front of the pitcher’s mound, then huddled in the dugout for simultaneous sprays of champagne before carrying the party into the visitors clubhouse.

Tennessee won the first game 8-4 Sunday with a similar hitting show. The Smokies’ bats stayed hot after the bus ride to the Gulf Coast. In both games in this best-of-three series, they jumped to an early inning lead and kept expanding it.

The last time Tennessee hoisted a championship trophy, the 1978 team was named the Knoxville Sox, the affiliation was with the Chicago White Sox and Tony La Russa was manager, before his Hall of Fame managerial career in Major League Baseball.

It was a long time coming for the Smokies and they lingered on the field to savor it.

But the Blue Wahoos had a season to remember as well.

Their 79-57 record in the regular season was the best winning percentage (.581) in the team’s 11-season history. It included a franchise record 10-game winning streak.

The team set club records in seven offensive categories, including batting average (.250) and home runs (163) — the seventh-most homers in league history.

But against the Smokies this year, the Blue Wahoos ran into a formidable foe.

The Smokies began the post-season with 14 of the Chicago Cubs’ top 30 prospects – many of whom were added in the final month of the season. That talent was reflected in how they swept two playoff series, outscoring Chattanooga and Pensacola by a combined 26-9.

Tuesday night, Smokies starting pitcher Cade Horton was as dominant as advertised. The Cubs’ No. 2 overall prospect, their top draft pick in the 2022 MLB Draft from the Oklahoma Sooners, twirled five strong innings to pick up his second postseason win.

The 22-year-old righthander, who started the 2022 season as the Sooners’ third baseman before leading Oklahoma to a runner-up finish as pitcher in the College World Series, continued his strong season.

He gave up just one hit and one run with three walks and four strikeouts in five innings. Horton is a finalist for the Minor League Baseball pitching prospect of the year.

After Blue Wahoos starter Luis Palacios retired the Smokies lineup in order in the first inning, he was hit hard the rest of way. It was reminiscent of Sunday’s first game, when Evan Fitterer struggled with location and the Smokies pounced for big hits and rallies for a quick knockout.

Palacios, who had been strong in the last several starts, including a playoff win last week against Montgomery, lasted only three innings, giving up six hits and four runs. The biggest blow was a 3-run homer in the third inning by B.J. Murray after the Blue Wahoos had tied the game on a sacrifice fly by Norel González in the second inning.

Murray’s homer left the bat looking like the a flyout, but with the wind blowing out to right field, the ball carried over the wall and the hit triggered more run production the next several innings.

Five Blue Wahoos relievers followed. The Smokies blew open the game in the sixth inning, getting four runs against Dylan Bice and from that point the outcome seemed a formality.

The Smokies had 13 hits, including five for extra bases. The Blue Wahoos had just four hits in the game.

Many of the fans stayed and clapped as the players left the dugout and began the off-season. The focus now shifts to spring training in February and the 2024 season, which begins at home on April 5 against the Mississippi Braves.

by Bill Vilona


Comments are closed.