West Tenn won the first game of the best-of-five series, but lost three consecutive to the Suns, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Double-A affiliate and the team named "most talented" in all of Minor League Baseball by Baseball America in its recent edition.
The Suns, who housed top Dodger prospects like shortstop Joel Guzman, right-handed pitcher Chad Billingsley, first baseman James Loney, and third baseman Andy LaRoche, won the league's Southern Division title in the first half of the season. They finished the regular season with a combined 79-61 record, the fourth best in the Southern League.
West Tenn had the best overall record at 83-56 while winning the Northern Division title in both halves. They were in the driver's seat throughout much of the first half, but clinching the second half seemed unlikely when the team fell five games back of first place following a four-game sweep at Jacksonville in mid-August.
The Jaxx, however, went on to post a 12-8 record in their final 20 regular season games to win the half and cause play-by-play announcer Ron Potesta to shave his head in the process.
"No, no, no, you won't get that picture anytime soon," said a chuckling Potesta shortly thereafter.
Carlos Marmol allowed two runs in 5.2 innings on Saturday, but two runs were all the Suns needed to clinch the league's outright title. Backed by a strong outing from right-hander Justin Orenduff, Jacksonville won its third overall Southern League championship. The Jaxx were looking for their second overall and first since 2000.
West Tenn didn't go down without a fight. The Jaxx threatened in the ninth inning, sending the tying run to the plate before right-hander Jonathan Broxton recorded the save by getting a pinch-hitting Aaron Sisk to pop up for the game's final out.
Orenduff got the win in 5.1 innings, striking out seven with no walks. He gave the Jaxx plenty of chances, allowing seven hits as West Tenn stranded six on base--including runners in scoring position in both the second and fourth innings. The Jaxx finished the game 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Brandon Sing collected three hits and drove in the team's only run--an RBI double with no outs in the sixth inning to score Casey McGehee.
After Marmol left, the bullpen combined for 3.1 innings in relief. They allowed one run on two hits, both of which were surrendered by right-hander David Aardsma.
"We did everything we absolutely could do to win," Aardsma said. "We all came together as a team. We did a good job of holding them down, but they just happened to do a better job."
The Jaxx offense tallied seven runs in the series opener en route to a 7-4 victory. Afterward, the Suns' pitching staff allowed only two runs during the rest of the series. In Jacksonville's first-round playoff series against Birmingham, they surrendered just two runs in a three-game sweep of the Barons.
"Sometimes the pitchers hold the hitters down and you just can't score," Aardsma said. "The pitching staff could give up one run and you'd still lose, which is exactly what happened [in Game 2 of the series]. We made it tough on them in the ninth today, but they just happened to get us. They have a great ball club, but we hung around."
Attendance for Saturday's final Jaxx game of the year was 655--the lowest total of the post-season at Pringles Park, a stadium that averaged just less than 1,000 fans per night in five playoff games overall.
"In today's case, I think a lot of it had to do with the Tennessee (at Florida) football game tonight, and everybody preparing for that," Aardsma said of Saturday's crowd. "We had a good atmosphere nonetheless. Those that did make it out were up and excited."
So, there you have it: another season of Cubs minor league baseball is officially in the books. Many if not most of the Jaxx top prospects in 2005 will be destined for Triple-A Iowa and thus a bigger city, bigger crowds, and a freshly renovated stadium in '06. Some will even reach the major league level at one point or another next year.
As for the Diamond Jaxx organization itself, it appears the team plans to stay in Jackson through at least the 2006 season. The Jaxx front office will have the entire offseason to brainstorm and focus on what more (if any) they can do to bring attendance numbers up to at least the average level for a Double-A club.
They will also face the daunting task of showcasing a team with a more talented group of prospects than this year's Diamond Jaxx club, some of whom won championships at Class-A Lansing in '03 and Class-A Daytona in '04.
It may not be easy, but the Jaxx front office isn't ready to give up. And to borrow an opening line from an old Beach Boys song, "Wouldn't it be nice ... "