The club posted a league-best 44-25 record in the first half. They clinched the Northern Division at Mississippi on June 16, incidentally on a night when the organization's top prospect, Felix Pie, would go down for the remainder of the season after suffering an ankle injury while sliding into third base.
On Labor Day, the Diamond Jaxx also clinched the second-half Southern League Northern Division title with a 5-2 win over Mobile at Pringles Park in Jackson for their third straight victory.
Third baseman Casey McGehee hit his 31st double and drove in three runs in the win. The 2005 all-star recorded two hits--one of four multi-hit games in the final week of regular season play.
Not to be outdone from a pitcher’s standpoint, Jae-Kuk Ryu notched his 11th win of the season, allowing just one run in seven innings. He served up seven hits, struck out six and walked one.
Ryu (11-8) spent most all of last season pitching in relief, but started all 27 games of his regular season in 2005. He struggled through elbow problems in 2004, but eventually made his way up to Triple-A for post-season activity.
This season, the Korean native credits a great deal of his success to the refinement of his changeup.
“I’ve probably polished it more than any other pitch,” Ryu said. “Last year, I was throwing my fastball and curveball a lot. This year, I’ve tried to throw more changeups and it’s really worked for me. It’s really been all about the changeup this year.”
Ryu finished the regular season with three wins in his final four starts. He went seven innings in all three victories with a 2.14 ERA, finishing the regular season with a league-high 169.2 innings pitched.
“I feel I do much better as a starter,” Ryu added. “I also feel much better and more relaxed.”
Right-hander Andrew Shipman closed things out in relief on Monday, allowing only his fifth earned run of the year at home. Shipman notched eight saves in August and 15 total in the regular season.
With the win, the Jaxx closed out the second half 39-31, one game ahead of second place Carolina, who they’ll meet in a best-of-five playoff series starting Wednesday at Pringles Park. Should the series necessitate all five games, only the final two will be held in Raleigh, N.C.
The Jaxx finished the season with a 3.35 staff ERA, best in the 10-team league. Like Ryu, right-hander David Aardsma, who joined the club in June after coming over from San Francisco in the LaTroy Hawkins trade with the Giants, was one pitcher who contributed to the league’s best staff.
“We’re all excited to win the second half,” Aardsma said after the team's win on Monday. “It was big for us and definitely one of our goals all along. We wanted to be able to control our own playoff destiny. Hopefully, we’ll win those first playoff games and stay at home.”
Right-hander Randy Wells won 10 games for Class-A Daytona and earned a promotion back to West Tenn last week. Wells first joined the Jaxx for a brief four-game stint in June. A Florida State League all-star this season, he made his final nine appearances at Daytona from the team’s starting rotation. He was 10-2 with a 2.74 ERA there in 41 games, primarily from the bullpen.
Since re-joining the Jaxx, Wells has returned to the bullpen, where he says he plans to stay for the rest of the year.
“It takes a little getting used to going back to the bullpen,” Wells said.
“I’m trying to make the adjustment. I’ll be in the ‘pen the rest of the way here. I’ve always said I liked relieving better. I like it because I've never had quite as good a record as a starter. Learning how to pitch every year, it gets easier and easier as far as knowing what you have to do each time out.”
The Diamond Jaxx may continue to be without a familiar face when they open post-season play. Manager Bobby Dickerson has been away on personal leave while tending to his home in Laurel, Miss., an area severely ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Grady Little has been serving as interim manager in Dickerson’s absence and has liked what he's seen from the team so far.
“This West Tennessee club is very impressive,” Little said. “They do the little things well. I will be here for the upcoming playoff series against Carolina.”
With regards to the Jaxx first-round opponents, Aardsma added, “We know what kind of game we’re getting with Carolina. They’re not going to give you any free runs or free hits; you have to earn everything you get. You have to score runs off that team to win, and you have to do it by getting hits and playing baseball the way it's supposed to be played.”
“They’re the toughest all-around team we’ve played all year,” he noted.
Should the Jaxx win their series with the Mudcats, they'll meet the winner of the Jacksonville-Birmingham match-up in the league championship series. Jacksonville, the Dodgers' Double-A affiliate, won the Southern Division in the first half with a 38-32 record. Birmingham, a White Sox affiliate, won the second half with 46 wins.
Fittingly, the two teams closed out regular season play with a four-game series over the holiday weekend. Birmingham swept all four games.
Without looking ahead, Aardsma said, “I don’t think there's anything about either one of them that scares us. We’ve got a good team and we know what kind of players we have here. We’re a tough team, just as tough as any other. We also know what both of them are capable of and we respect that.”
The first pitch for game one of the best-of-five series with Carolina Wednesday is set for 6:35 p.m. CDT. The Jaxx finished the regular season 7-9 against the Mudcats.