South Aiken High School product Andrew Faulkner was more than 2,000 miles away from home when he finally took the mound July 4 for his first professional baseball game.
As a reliever pitching for the Texas Rangers' affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League, he quickly retired the first two batters he faced, then looked up to see the one batter standing between him and a chance at a perfect inning in his pro debut.
The batter was North Augusta High School graduate Jackson Whitley.
"I didn't realize it until he was in the batter's box," Faulkner said. "I probably faced him 40 or 50 times since we were 7 years old and there he was again."
The two prospects were each drafted in June and shipped off to Arizona once they signed. Whitley was well into his third week as a regular starter for the Angels' rookie ball affiliate. Faulkner won the first of what could be many matchups when he induced a grounder to retire Whitley.
Faulkner, who helped South Aiken reach the Class AAAA Lower State semifinals this spring, won't see a heavy workload this summer as the Rangers go easy on an arm that's been throwing live since the high school season started in March.
"They're definitely taking it easy on me," he said.
The rookie league schedule includes two more meetings between Faulkner's Rangers and Whitley's Angels, including July 31 in Surprise, Ariz., and Aug. 14 in Tempe, Ariz.
INDEPENDENT ALL-STARS: A pair of former high school stars from the Augusta area were named Atlantic League All-Stars on Friday as the independent league announced the results of its online fan voting.
Greenbrier High School product James Shanks and Hephzibah High School alumnus Lloyd Turner will play on opposi ng teams in the Atlantic League All-Star Game. Shanks, a designated hitter for the York Revolution, will play for the league's Freedom Division squad, while Turner will represent the Camden RiverSharks at second base as part of the Liberty Division squad.
"I'm having a decent season," Shanks said. "It'll be good for me this year because the game is here, and it'll be in front of the hometown fans."
Former Augusta GreenJackets pitcher Mike Loree, now with the Long Island Ducks, will join Turner on the Liberty Division roster.
The league's all-star game is scheduled to be played in York, P a., on Wednesday.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Before Shanks started thinking about playing in the all-star game, he and his York teammates have spent the weekend trying to win a first-half division championship.
The Revolution met Lancaster in the final series of the first-half with York trailing the Barnstormers by half a game. Lancaster took the first game on Friday to increase its lead. A doubleheader Saturday and one final game today will determine the first-half champion.
Shanks, who entered the series ranked among the top 15 in the league with a batting average over .300, is still playing minor league ball at the age of 32. He said his experience has helped him prepare this season for the a pennant race that has come down to the final series.
"It is a grind every day," he said. "Baseball is the hardest sport to play, because it's every day. You have to learn to stay mentally and physically prepared. That takes time."
HOMER HAPPY: Former Augusta Christian slugger Josh Whitaker spent last week flexing his muscles for his Single-A Burlington Bees squad. He homered in four consecutive games entering Saturday's play to take the Midwest League lead in slugging percentage at .559.
His homer Wednesday was a walk-off grand slam to give the Bees a 4-3 win over Quad Cities.
"It was really high off the bat," Whitaker told The Burlington Hawk Eye. "I wasn't sure if it was going to carry or not. Thank goodness it did."
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound first baseman hit five home runs and tallied 15 RBI in his first eight games in July, the most in all of minor league baseball.