John Norwood clubbed a triple and home run to knock in three runs, and the Jacksonville Shrimp scored three runs in the eighth inning to post a 5-2 win over the Pensacola Blue Wahoos on Thursday night at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
But of bigger importance for Jacksonville was that with the win, it clinched the Southern League’s South Division second-half title, thus bringing playoff baseball to the city for the first time since 2014. That was when the Jacksonville Suns not only won the second-half title but also captured the league championship when it won three consecutive games over the Chattanooga Lookouts for its fourth Southern League title in a 10-year span.
When Esmerling De La Rosa induced Shed Long to pop out to second base with two runners on base to end the game, there was little celebration other than Austin Dean getting drenched with two buckets of water while doing a postgame interview. The Shrimp planned to do more celebrating once inside their clubhouse.
The Shrimp, 38-28 in the second half, 68-68 overall, needed just one win in the Pensacola series to finish ahead of both Mobile and Biloxi, both of whom needed Jacksonville to lose all five games in its series and for either the BayBears or Shuckers to win all five in their series against each other.
The win means Jacksonville and Pensacola could play 10 consecutive games against each other. The Blue Wahoos won the first-half title and thus will host the first two games of the best-of-5 South Division playoffs beginning next Wednesday. Jacksonville would then host the third game on Friday, Sept. 8, as well as games Saturday and Sunday, if needed. Chattanooga will play Montgomery in the North Division playoff with that winner taking on the South Division winner in the league championship series.
The second-half title completes a Shrimp turnaround from both last year and the first half this season. A year ago, Jacksonville finished with the worst overall record in the South Division at 63-76. In the first half this season, the Shrimp’s 30-40 record was the worst in the division.
Shrimp owner Ken Babby who purchased the team from the Bragan family two years ago, gave credit to the Shrimp team and coaches and parent club, the Miami Marlins.
“Shrimp manager Randy Ready and his coaching staff, the players and the Miami Marlins organization have christened the Jumbo Shrimp as an exciting brand of baseball on the field this season, and we congratulate them on a great achievement that continues the legacy of Jacksonville baseball,” Babby said. “The spirited and record-setting crowds this season are creating a special atmosphere at the Baseball Grounds, and we look forward to hosting them for affordable family fun this September.”
In the title-clinching win Thursday, a game that was delayed 35 minutes by a shower passing through the ballpark, Shrimp pitcher Chris Mazza and Pensacola’s Deck McGuire matched pitches through six innings. Both allowed a run in the first inning and one more over the next five innings. Mazza allowed just two base runners (a pair of doubles) over five innings after the first, and McGuire retired 15 of 16 batters after the first frame.
The one batter McGuire didn’t retire was Norwood, the reigning Southern League player of the week. Norwood broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth inning with his 19th home run this season, fourth most in the league.
The Shrimp put together a three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning to secure its biggest win of the year. Dean drove home the go-ahead run with a single, and Norwood followed with a triple into the gap in right to bring home the final two runs.
The teams will meet in the second game of the series at 7:05 p.m. Friday, with Shrimp left-hander Matt Tomshaw (12-6, 3.63) going against Pensacola’s Jose Lopez (7-1, 2.34).