(JACKSONVILLE, Fla.) - With first-half title implications at stake, the Huntsville Stars and West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx both lost Sunday, setting up a playoff that will be decided at Joe Davis Stadium, Tuesday night, in the opener of a six-game series.
The Stars lost in Jacksonville, 4-3, after a nearly 3½-hour rain delay. Shortly before that game ended, the Chattanooga Lookouts defeated West Tennessee, also by a run.
Three batters deep into the start of the game, Jamie Hoffman crushed Donovan Hand's first pitch over the left field wall for a 3-run homer that gave the Suns all the momentum to carry them to victory. Gabriel Gutierrez's looping 2-out single in the 4th pushed Shane Justis across the plate, providing Jacksonville with the needed insurance run.
The Stars and Diamond Jaxx each finish at 41-29 in the first half. Steve Hammond (7-3, 3.25), who pitched 7 innings, gave up 4 hits, and left with a 3-1 lead in last year's Game 5 of the Southern League Championship Series vs. Montgomery, will start in Tuesday's playoff game. Ryan Ketchner (5-2, 3.57) is the scheduled starter for West Tenn.
Ketchner is 1-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 11 1/3 innings over two starts vs. the Stars this season.
The Chattanooga Lookouts played the spoiler role at Pringles Park as they jumped out to a 5-0 lead and hung on for a 5-4 win. Thomas Collaro had a 3-run homer to lead the Lookouts. Shaun Cumberland and Chris Valaika drove in a run each to help lead the way.
Ben Jukich (7-2) had a perfect game thru 3 2/3 innings of work and wound up going 6 2/3 innings, allowing 4 runs on 8 hits with a walk and 8 strikeouts.
As the rains which fell from the start of the ballgame continued to fall in the 6th, the Stars mounted their only rally. Alcides Escobar singled with one out to end a stretch of 12 batters in a row retired by starter Jesus Castillo. Escobar stole second and scored on a long single off the wall in right field by Angel Salome. Matt LaPorta moved Salome to third with another single and Cole Gillespie drew a walk to load the bases.
Freddy Parejo then bounced a bad-hop single past DeJesus at shortstop into left field for a two-run single that trimmed the lead to 4-3. A throwing error on the play by Matt Berezay in left field allowed Gillespie and Parejo to advance but they were stranded when Guilder Rodriguez flied out to end the inning.
Hand pitched 6 innings, allowing 4 runs (3 earned) on 5 hits and a pair of walks. He retired the last seven batters he faced and was followed to the hill by Mike Jones, who loaded the bases in the 7th before Jamie Hoffmann grounded out to Mat Gamel to end the threat. Juan Sandoval finished the game in the 8th, retiring the Suns in order.
Castillo grabbed the win to improve to 5-3. He was followed by Travis Schlichting, who retired the side in the 7th and worked out of trouble in the 8th after Salome singled with one out and LaPorta was hit in the back by a pitch.
Zach Hammes retired the Stars in order in the 9th for his 2nd save.
The Stars, who were 29-11 at one point into the season, and had a 5-game lead on May 14, finished 12-18 down the stretch, their bullpen losing 11 of 14 games.