By Steve Kolbe
The Jacksonville Suns (15-15) reached the .500 mark for the first time since the eighth game of the second half, slipping past the Mississippi Braves 2-1 on Sunday afternoon at the Baseball Grounds.
Before many were in their seats on the sunny afternoon, Braves leadoff hitter Todd Cunningham hit his first home run of the season off of Suns starter Graham Taylor to give Mississippi the early 1-0 edge. It was the lone mistake that Taylor made in the game. The first three Braves batters of the afternoon each reached base, but Taylor settled down and allowed just four total base runners (three singles and a walk) over his last six innings of work. The Braves have hit just 31 home runs on the season, fewest in the Southern League, but blasted four in the series against the Suns.
In a game dominated by the starters, the Suns had trouble solving Braves right hander Zeke Spruill, with just two singles over the first four innings. In the fifth, Curt Smith and Danny Pertusati each singled to start the inning. After Graham Taylor grounded into a force at third, Jake Smolinski singled to left field with Pertusati scoring from second base to tie the score 1-1. After going hitless in the Suns four game series against the Blue Wahoos, Smolinski collected at least one hit in his three games against the Braves.
In the Suns eighth inning, it was all about the sacrifice. Two days after driving in all five of the Suns runs, Donnie Webb once again found himself in the center of the offense. He led off the eighth with a double, when Braves left fielder Tim Smith made a diving attempt on the ball only to come up empty handed. Jake Smolinski gave himself up when he dropped down a sacrifice bunt, with Webb hustling to third base. Chris Gutierrez continued the unselfish play with a sacrifice fly to left, with Webb coasting home to give the Suns a 2-1 lead and the win. For Gutierrez, it was his first RBI of the season against Mississippi.
Graham Taylor allowed one run on five hits over his seven innings of work in the no-decision. In his last three outings, the lefty has surrendered only two runs in 18 innings. Josh Schmidt (5-3) pitched the eighth inning on Sunday to win for the second time in his last three appearances. He also tossed an inning last week in a victory at Pensacola. Suns closer A.J. Ramos entered the game in the ninth and gave up a single and a walk, but he struck out Cunningham to end the game and earn his 13th save of the season. Ramos rebounded from a tough loss in game two of the series, when he was nicked for five runs in the ninth in the Braves 8-5 comeback win.
Braves starter Zeke Spruill (6-10) pitched a complete game in the loss. He allowed two runs on seven hits, and the only extra base hit he allowed was an eighth inning double to Donnie Webb.
Jeff Dominguez and Danny Pertusati each finished with two singles for the Suns. Chris Gutierrez saw his 15-game hitting come to an end, but he drove in the game-winning run with a sacrifice fly for his 30th RBI of the season. Gutierrez batted .340 (19-for-58) during the streak.
The Suns have won seven of their last nine games, with five of the victories by a single run. Jacksonville claimed the season series over Mississippi by winning five of the nine meetings. The Suns have won back-to-back series for the first time since early June. The Braves have dropped eight of their last 10 games, and currently reside in the basement of the South Division.
The Suns begin a five-game series against the Tennessee Smokies on Tuesday night with the first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m.. RHP Matthew Neil (1-5, 5.59) is expected to take the mound for the Suns. Jacksonville has taken both previous series from Tennessee this season, winning five of the eight games.