As the baseball dog days of August rolled around, nobody outside the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp locker room had this Southern League Double-A franchise ticketed for a champagne celebration.
The Shrimp were scuffling along with a 19-21 record in the second half of the season, absorbing a 13-0 thrashing by the Biloxi Shuckers on August 2 for their fifth consecutive loss.
It didn’t look like a team destined for postseason play. Yet there the Shrimp were at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville Thursday night, dousing each other in beer and champagne after defeating the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 5-2 to clinch the second-half SL Southern division title. It sets up a best-of-five series division playoff with the Blue Wahoos, starting September 6 in Pensacola.
Somehow, the Jumbo Shrimp flipped a switch the last four weeks, going 20-7 (including 6-1 in one-run or extra inning games) and evoking memories of the 2014 Jacksonville Suns, who won their last 10 regular-season games to win the division en route to the SL championship.
“That’s baseball for you, when you get hot, you get hot,” said Shrimp outfielder Austin Dean, who broke a 2-2 tie with a two-out RBI single in the eighth inning. “Hey, we have a lot of heart. This is a great team, and I said that from Day One. This [celebration] is awesome.”
But the Shrimp were far from great from April through July. A wrist injury sidelined Dean for two months and pitcher Dillon Peters, who was called up to the Miami Marlins Thursday and will start Friday night against the Philadelphia Phillies, was also on the shelf.
Things changed once Dean and Peters got healthy, as well as a Marlins’ trade with the Tampa Rays that sent leadoff hitter Braxton Lee, the SL’s leading hitter at .312, from Double-A Montgomery to Jacksonville on June 27.
“Getting Braxton was probably the best thing for this ballclub,” Dean said.
It also didn’t hurt that the Shrimp pitching staff, anchored by ace and former Jacksonville University standout Matt Tomshaw (12-6, 3.63), allowed two or less runs in 14 of their 20 August victories. As the grind of the season wore down Biloxi and the Mobile Bay Bears, the Shrimp persevered to the finish line.
“That’s baseball,” said Shrimp manager Randy Ready. “We had a lot of trust and belief in each other. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We talked about that all year.”
Jacksonville was clearly energized by last week’s doubleheader sweep of the Birmingham Barons, scoring three runs in the last inning to win the opener and getting a two-run homer to win the nightcap 5-3. Then it went on the road to Biloxi and took three of five games, including another doubleheader sweep to close out the trip Wednesday night.
They wasted no time, clinching the second-half title in their first opportunity. After closer Esmerling De La Rosa recorded the final out, the Shrimp formed a subdued handshake line on the field and went back to the locker room.
Following a short talk from Ready, the Shrimp went back out to the dugout and began spraying each other, along with owner Ken Babby and general manager Harold Craw, during a festive 20-minute celebration.
“Anyone who watched this team in the first half wouldn’t recognize this team now,” said Babby. “I think we have the best manager in minor-league baseball. Randy [Ready] is an exceptional leader.
“For some reason, this team decided they were for real and really showed they wanted to win the second half.”
In their first season after changing the name from Suns to Jumbo Shrimp, they made another important change. When all seemed lost, they became a championship team just in time.
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