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Suns Flicker, Future Never Brighter
- Updated: September 10, 2012
70 wins, 70 losses. Mediocrity in its clearest form: equal wins versus equal losses. If you were to glance at this record a month ago, you’d likely assume that fans had little to root for.
Oh contraire. If the new MLB Wildcard hadn’t tested your fervor and anxiety enough, wait until you discover how minor league baseball works in the Southern League. Ladies and gents, I present to you the 70 win, 70 loss, 1 and a half game out of the pennant chase, Jacksonville Suns.
Wait, how can this be? How can a team with that record be that …good? Well the answer is simple: The Southern League doesn’t follow conventional playoff wisdom. Nope instead of having one long, dragged out pennant race they went with the “Ah heck with it, we’ll divide the season in two. We will declare first half champions, and second half champions!” mentality. What’s better than giving every team two fresh starts in one season?
While perhaps they weren’t so casual in making such a proclamation, this playoff system does accommodate well for teams. This league is full of Double A affiliates of many franchises, thus there are constant roster overhauls. Stars can rise to AAA or even the Major Leagues at any given moment, changing the entire complexion of not just a team, but a playoff race.
Could you imagine the Angels losing Mike Trout to an advanced team affiliate on a whim? This would make the Majors merely a stepping stone, not the pinnacle of a player’s career. In the Southern League, they thrive on the knowledge that their stars come and go.
The Suns finished the first half of the season well out of first place with a record of 33-37. Flip that record around, and the Suns finished the second half, which begins immediately after the Double A All-Star game, with a 37-33 record. Only the 38-31 Montgomery Biscuits bested that record. The two teams battled furiously the final month of the regular season. Down the stretch, the Suns went 9-1 against the eventual Division Champions. If it wasn’t for the Biscuits great play against the rest of the league, the Suns may very well have been on their way to their sixth Southern League title.
Alas, it was not meant to be. But that does not mean the season was for not. No up in Jacksonville the fans and Braganites (a self-coined term for anybody who works for the Suns and their owner Peter Bragan, Jr) were wowed by power and outstanding pitching performances. Fans were treated to Suns Right Fielder Kyle Jensen clubbing homerun after homerun, Kyle Skipworth showing glimpses of his first round pick potential, and seeing recent Marlins call-up AJ Ramos shut down opponents in the ninth.
Suns Manager Andy Barkett alone was reason enough for fans to get excited. The fiery manager was ejected multiple times during the season and let it be known when he felt the umpires were in the wrong. Whether he was kicking up dirt, bumping umpires, or hiding bases (yes he once buried a base using the infield’s clay and pebbles after a missed call), Barkett was exactly what the fans craved and needed. He was the team’s very own Lou Pinella, a type of manager so rare that fans always keep a camera on hand for the chance of witnessing yet another brilliant performance by their skipper.
It was this enthusiasm that helped the team’s drive towards the post-season during the second half. Every player had a role to play and did so beautifully. Sure-handed defense from shortstop Chris Gutierrez helped pitchers, like newly acquired Brian Flynn, feel at ease when a grounder was hit over the pitching rubber. Third baseman Zack Cox, whom the Marlins acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline, showed power and discipline at the plate when the Suns needed it most. Outfielder Donnie Webb, a Rule 5 selection from the Indians, chased down fly balls and made countless spectacular plays that saved not only runs, but games. This team was built to compete into September, but the baseball gods deemed that this was not meant to be.
Perhaps there was more than just a “silver-lining” to this team. The 2012 season for the Suns may well only be a prelude to the greatness they will achieve next season. Up and coming stars such as Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna, and Adam Conley will soon be working their way north from Jupiter, perhaps with championship swagger in tow. The Hammerheads are only one win away from being crowned champions of the Florida State League. Blended with new talent and a strong fanbase, the Suns on and off flickering of 2012 may lead to a bright summer for Jacksonville’s boys of summer.