BY MATT LaWELL
JACKSON, Tennessee | Some Jackson Generals spread out in front of locker stalls and some paced circles around a crowded clubhouse and some just walked out, the slow burn of the moment too much to take in after three hours already filled with adrenaline. The Generals had just shut out the Jacksonville Suns on the road and wanted to find out whether they would wrap up the Southern League North Division that night or some other night the rest of the week.
So they opened computers, turned on iPods and iPhones and plugged in cords to speakers to follow another baseball game still on the field almost 400 miles away.
And then they waited, “sitting around the clubhouse with a bunch of computers on,” manager Jim Pankovits says.
The Generals played so well during the first half that with close to a week remaining before the all-star break, they had eliminated every team in their division except for the Huntsville Stars. On June 11, a Monday night and the start of the last week of the first half, the Generals had a magic number of three — meaning any combination of three Generals wins or three Stars losses would mean a first-half division championship and a postseason berth — and plenty of time to whittle it to zero. They shut out the Suns, 8-0, and heard news that the Mobile Baybears rallied for six runs in the sixth and seventh innings to beat the Stars, 6-5, in the first game of a doubleheader.
“A lot of it got into your eyes and a little maybe trickled down to your mouth. For the most part, it just wound up in your hair.” — Mariners pitching prospect Danny Hultzen on what happens to champagne and beer during championship celebrations
“When we came into the locker room, Huntsville was losing 1-0, so we were in good shape,” says Danny Hultzen, then the ace of the Generals rotation. “But they ended up scoring, so we ended up waiting there another 45 minutes.”
The second game went to the eighth — an extra inning for minor league doubleheaders — where the BayBears promptly loaded the bases and the Stars walked in the winning run. Magic number? Zero.
“We sprinted out of the locker room and into the dugout and started shooting all the champagne,” Hultzen says.
“The Jacksonville front office asked that we not celebrate in the clubhouse,” Pankovits says.
“We would have wrecked it,” Hultzen says.
The celebration started on the field, all champagne bottles and cans of beers. “A lot of it got into your eyes and a little maybe trickled down to your mouth,” Hultzen says. “For the most part, it just wound up in your hair.” You can only spray teammates with drinks for so long, though. The celebration moved in short order to the team bus, where a 13-hour ride north to Tennessee waited.
“It was a party,” radio broadcaster Chris Harris says.
“We were all pretty riled up after the win,” Hultzen says.
“The celebration only lasted about two hours,” Pankovits says. “Then everybody passed out.”
The Generals finished the first half seven games up on every other team in the division, the best team in the league over 70 games, their ticket to the playoffs already punched. But the Generals who will play for the Southern League championship later this season will be a markedly different team than the one that shut out the Suns to win the division. Of the 13 players on the field that night, only seven are still on the roster. Shortstop Nick Franklin, reliever Bobby LaFromboise and closer Carter Capps are all up with the Tacoma Rainiers. Second baseman Gabriel Noriega is down with the High Desert Mavericks and first baseman Jharmidy De Jesus is down with the Clinton LumberKings. Leftfielder Chris Pettit is up with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, but not before the Mariners released him and the Rockies signed him.
“The guys who’ve been here a few years say the first-half teams and the second-half teams are pretty different,” Hultzen says.
And Hutlzen would know now. After a dominant first half for the Generals — an 8-3 record with a 1.19 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and 79 strikeouts over 75 1-3 innings — the Mariners sent him up to the Rainiers, too. Like Franklin, LaFromboise, Capps and plenty of others, he will be somewhere else, his eyes and hair clean of champagne, after Labor Day when the Generals take aim at the league championship.
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Time for minor league trivia. The Generals have won one championship — back in 2000, when they still played as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx — during their 15 seasons in the Southern League. What league mainstay did they beat in five games for the crown? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Down three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning on the last day of the first half, the Generals strung together an early rally and scored four runs to grab the lead from the Chattanooga Lookouts, then added an insurance run in the eighth for a 7-5 win. The Generals knocked only two hits during that four-run fifth — the rest of the inning was filled with a throwing error, a sac bunt and a passed ball — but one of them was a three-run homer from third baseman Leury Bonilla, his first of the season. Left-hander Mauricio Robles pitched two innings of scoreless relief to pick up his first win.
Jackson closer Carter Capps pitched the last four outs for the Generals to pick up his ninth save of the season. Since that afternoon, Capps continued to dominate Southern League batters with 19 saves, 72 strikeouts, a 1.26 earned run average and a .212 batting average against over 50 innings. With a fastball that registers close to 100 mph on radar guns, the Mariners promoted him from the Generals to the Tacoma Rainiers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League on July 28. For those who are curious, no is not the brother of former Major League closer Matt Capps.
Want the answer? The Diamond Jaxx edged out the Jacksonville Suns a dozen years ago for that lone championship. That team featured 17 former and future Major Leagues, including a 20-year-old center fielder named Corey Patterson and a 19-year-old fireballer named Carlos Zambrano.
And in random statistical news, the game started six minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter lined out to first. Mary Humphrey sang the national anthem in 1 minute, 32.8 seconds. Even though we were still full from a Memphis dinner the night before, we snacked on barbecue, baked beans and mac and cheese up in the press box, and we had to split the famous Richo burger — a pound of ground beef, grilled peppers and onions, bacon and cheese on a pretzel bun. It was delicious. Our guts hated us.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.