Jacksonville Suns

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With the smooth crack of the bat and the sweet smell of hot dogs and cotton candy resurfaced in the Jacksonville air, the opening of baseball season is upon us. The Jacksonville Suns opened their 50th season against the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, the Huntsville Stars.

Following the 2011 season that saw many ups and downs, the Suns are looking to shine bright in 2012. The Suns, who finished last year .500 with a record of 70-70, are looking to build off the high notes of 2011.

Featuring an opening day roster that is composed of players 29 years-0f-age or younger, the possibilities are endless for this young, growing team.

“I really like the makeup of this team,” said Suns Manager Andy Barkett. “I believe this team is poised to make a run at a title this year.”

After a third place finish in the South Division of the Southern League of Professional Baseball, the Suns are looking to catapult to the top spot. To do so, they will have to replace key parts from the team of one year ago. Luke Montz, who led the team in home runs, RBI’s, on base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) has moved up to the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. The team leaders in batting average, wins and saves have also moved on.

The team is looking to guys such as Kyle Skipworth, who was drafted in the first round of 2008, to lead the team along with Kyle Jensen, Jaime Ortiz and new comer Shawn Bowman.

Skipworth, 22, was drafted out of Patriot High School in California and has a good feel for his pitching staff and the makeup of the team.

“We had a great team last year and we were very competitive in the first half finishing three games out of first,” Skipworth said. “In the second half we lost a lot of our bullpen and now a lot of those guys are back. We have a strong, healthy pitching staff and our offense should be good. I really think this years team is better than last years, we’re going to be good.”

Skipworth is one of the organizations top prospects and would currently be in his fourth year of college if he had elected to attend school. He was drafted ahead of former Florida State standout and current San Francisco Giant Buster Posey. Posey has already won a World Series title even with missing almost an entire year due to injury. Skipworth hopes he too can reach the pinnacle of professional baseball.

Along with this being the 50th anniversary of Suns baseball, it is also the 10th anniversary of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. The stadium was opened in 2003 and has seen the Suns win three league championships. As part of the anniversary celebration, the first 3,000 fans to arrive for opening night received a 50th anniversary golden suns coin on behalf of Underwood’s Jewelers, First Coast News 12 & 25 and 1010XL.

The Suns got a huge lift in their opener from 24 year old right hander Joey O’Gara. The 6’7” righty came out firing and shut down the Stars staying near perfect through six innings. The offense got a run in the first and plated another in the sixth on their way to a 2-0 victory. O’Gara’s line on the night was 6 2/3 innings pitched, allowing three hits and striking out two on the way to earning his first win of 2012. Dan Merklinger struck out eight Suns batters allowing only two hits and two runs in a losing effort.

In the first, Jake Smolinski and Kyle Jensen drew 1-out walks followed by an infield single by Shawn Bowman. Kyle Skipworth popped up to right field allowing Smolinski to tag up and score from third. Jensen later plated a run that proved to be all the Suns would need.

Peter Andrelczyk, A.J. Ramos and Evan Reed shut down the game and preserved the win for O’Gara. Reed got the save for the game allowing only one hit in a quick ninth inning.

The Suns and Stars locked up for another pitchers duel early in game two of their five game pitching series. Jose Alvarez and Tyler Thornburg both went five innings allowing a combined three runs. The Stars found themselves holding the lead at 3-1 through six innings. In the bottom of the seventh, pinch hitter Jose Duarte let off with a single, then Donnie Webb reached on an error giving the Suns two on with no outs. Jaime Ortiz then sent a rocket through the wind deep into the right field bleachers for a 4-3 lead.

Evan Reed came on again in the ninth to try and save the game. After a walk and a pair of hits that tied the game for the Stars, a sac fly gave them a 5-4 lead that after a slight scare from the Suns turned into their first win of the season. Josh Stinson got the win, Evan Reed recorded a blown save and a loss and Santo Manzanillo got the save.

The fans that braved the windy and gloomy weather were treated to post-game fireworks on a brisk, Jacksonville friday night.

In game three, the middle game of a five-game series, pitching stole the show yet again. Matt Montgomery of the Suns and Evan Anundsen of the Stars both allowed minimal damage while on the mound. The Stars eventually pulled through for a 3-1 victory.

The Stars struck quickly when a lead off walk to Kentrail Davis turned into a run giving the Stars the early advantage. Davis reached again in the third and scored once more for a 2-0 lead. The Suns struck for a run in the third but would not cross the plate for the rest of the game.

The Suns took to the field on Easter Sunday with redemption on their mind. The Suns got off to a fast start scoring three runs in the first. Shawn Bowman, Curt Smith and Jake Jefferies all had RBI’s.

The Suns early lead eventually disappeared but they were able to squeeze out another run for a 4-3 lead. Once again the Stars overcame their deficit and took their first lead in the eighth 5-4.

With one on in the eighth, pinch hitter Jose Duarte stepped to the plate to face Stars closer Santo Manzanillo who shut down the Suns in his earlier appearance in the series. Duarte crushed a Manzanillo fastball over the left field wall giving the Suns the 6-5 lead which they hung on to for the victory.

In the rubber match of the five game series, the Suns offense exploded for their most runs of the season on their way to a 7-4 victory and a 3-2 series win. The Suns avenged a 2-3 opening set with the Stars last season.

Next up for the Suns is a five game series against the Chattanooga Lookouts at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Joey O’Gara, who took the win in the Suns opener, is scheduled to start game one Tuesday against the Lookouts at 7:05 p.m.

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