Pensacola, Fla. – On a day complete with a military honor, the Blue Wahoos could not have choreographed a better way to end the final Sunday of their regular season.
The skies had cleared. The team had just produced a seventh-inning rally. The Blue Angels buzzed above the ballpark in an eighth-inning return home.
And the game closed out amid a cheering crowd.
With a focus moving to a bigger feat, the Blue Wahoos broke a tie game with a trio of runs, then had their bullpen finish the final two innings of a 6-3 victory against the Mississippi Braves at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
It ended the scheduled portion of the Blue Wahoos season with a 79-57 record, which equates into the best winning percentage (.581) in franchise history. The team won 81 games in 2016 with a longer season and lower win percentage.
The Blue Wahoos will now turn attention to Tuesday’s Game 1 of the Southern League South Division series at the Montgomery Biscuits that begins a chance to repeat as league champions. The second game and deciding game, if necessary, in the best-of-three series will be in Pensacola where this team has been so embraced.
“Our players respond to the fan base here,” said Blue Wahoos manager Kevin Randel, whose team unfurled a “Thank You Pensacola” banner in front of the pitcher’s mound before the game. “We have great fans. It’s just a good relationship between the players and fan base.
“It’s fun to play in front of during the game. (Fans) get loud, our guys like the moment and we appreciate playing here and we are very fortunate.”
Sunday’s win put a bow on an eventful finale that began with the Blue Wahoos honoring two Pensacola servicemen who survived the horrors of enemy capture during the Vietnam War on the 50-year commemoration of the return of U.S. prisoners of war from North Vietnam.
The POW-MIA day at the stadium honored 94-year-old U.S. Navy captain Allen Brady and 85-year-old U.S. Air Force colonel Ed Hubbard, both of whom had planes shot down in combat and spent years as a POW.
The two Pensacola residents threw out ceremonial first pitches, along with retired U.S. Navy Admiral Kyle Cozad, the President/CEO of the National Naval Aviation Museum Foundation located at Naval Air Station Pensacola. A decorated officer, Cozad has been confined to a wheelchair since a home accident in 2018 and received a loud ovation with his first pitch.
For Brady, at age 94, it was his first pitch since 1959.
“That was also my last pitch,” he said, smiling. “That was the last time I played baseball. This was the first time in my life ever doing something like this. My wife said, “Now, don’t try to throw a strike.’ I said, I’ll be lucky if I can just get it there.”
The commemorative event was sponsored by the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, which also sponsored a giveaway of hundreds of T-Shirts honoring the day. A few weeks earlier, the foundation sponsored the Ted Williams Bobblehead Night to honor the Hall of Fame slugger who trained at NAS-Pensacola during World War II.
Blue Wahoos pitcher Luis Palacios, the team’s likely Game 1 playoff starter Tuesday, caught the ceremonial pitches. The team also wore special commemorative patches for the 50-year commemoration of “Operation Homecoming” that happened on March 28, 1973.
While pitching has been the Blue Wahoos’ strength in the final stretch of the regular season, this team ended its regular season by setting team records in batting average, runs scored, hits, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging (OPS).
“This is the best hitting team I’ve been a part of,” Randel said. “Obviously, we have a little different look now in the lineup. But for that second and third month of the season we were really, really good. We did kind of everything.
‘“We’re a little bit different now. We are grinding our way on the mound. We are grinding our way in the (batter’s) box, but we are still finding ways to win.”
Sunday was prime example of that.
The Blue Wahoos made the most of six hits to get their six runs. After the M-Braves got two runs off Blue Wahoos starter M.D. Johnson in the first inning, Nasim Nuñez led off the Blue Wahoos in the bottom of the inning with a walk and two stolen bases before scoring when Paul McIntosh was caught in a rundown on a designed steal attempt of second.
They took a 3-2 lead when Nuñez, a switch-hitter, connected on his first homer batting righthanded with a wind-aided shot that carried over a leaping attempt by M-Braves right fielder Jacob Pearson.
With game tied in the seventh, Bennett Hostetler led off by reaching on an error. Jake Thompson singled. Cobie Fletcher-Vance had an RBI single. A second run scored on a double play, then Fletcher-Vance scored on a passed ball.
Zach McCambley relieved starter M.D. Johnson with two outs in the fifth, pitching 1.1 innings with three strikeouts to up his record to 4-0.
Blue Wahoos closer Dylan Bice struck out the side in the ninth to seal the win and earn his third save.
The first 500 fans through the gates received special t-shirts to commemorate the POW-MIA Day.
In addition, the Blue Anchor Belles, a military spouse singing group which has performed at previous Blue Wahoos games throughout the season, performed the National Anthem.
Tuesday’s playoff game against Montgomery will be available through an audio broadcast beginning at 6:30 p.m. on BlueWahoos.com and the MiLB First Pitch app. Montgomery's video broadcast will also be available on a live stream on Bally Live and MiLB.tv. The first pitch will be at 6:35 p.m. at Riverwalk Stadium.
Here is how the schedule shapes up for the Southern League playoffs in both divisions. Each series is a best-of-three. The Blue Wahoos have home field advantage in the first round and championship series, if they advance.
All home playoff games will start a half-hour earlier at 6:05 p.m. Tickets will be a one-price, best available seat for $20 if purchased in advance, $22 day of game. The ticket will include a voucher for a free hot dog, chips and soft drink.
Blue Wahoos Southern League Playoff Schedule
MONDAY – Off Day
TUESDAY – Game 1 at Montgomery Biscuits, 6:35 p.m., Riverwalk Stadium, Montgomery. Ala.
WEDNESDAY – Off Day
THURSDAY – Game 2 vs. Montgomery, 6:05 p.m. at Blue Wahoos Stadium
FRIDAY – Game 3 (if necessary) vs. Montgomery, 6:05 p.m. at Blue Wahoos Stadium
SL Championship Series (If Advancing)
SEPT. 23 – Off Day
SEPT. 24 – at Tennessee Smokies-Chattanooga Lookouts North Division Winner
SEPT. 25 – Off Day
SEPT. 26 -- Game 2 vs. TNS/CHA, 6:05 p.m. at Blue Wahoos Stadium
SEPT. 27 – Game 3 (if necessary vs. TNS/CHA, 6:05 p.m. at Blue Wahoos Stadium