GreenJackets open season on road

New season begins tonight in Savannah

Another season of Augusta GreenJackets baseball will begin tonight when they travel to Savannah to start a four-game series.


The San Francisco Giants’ Class A affiliate typically begins the year on an eight-game road trip and doesn’t play its home opener until the week after the Masters Tournament.

This year is no exception, and second-year manager Lipso Nava said he was optimistic about his team earlier this week as it prepared for the road trip.

“This will be a good experience for them,” he said. “For some it’s the first time playing with real fans in the stands. This is when they start to understand this is their life. This is their job. Development comes first here.”

Nava and his coaching staff, which include rookie hitting coach Nestor Rojas and pitching coach Mike Caldwell, will try to lead the GreenJackets back to the South Atlantic League playoffs. The 2011 squad struggled early but made a late surge to clinch a
second-half division championship on the final day of the regular season.

Nava said he hopes to see his team get off to a better start this year. Last season’s club won only two of its first eight games.

“We have a little bit more of a punch than last year and more speed,” he said.

The punch comes from the deep list of power hitters and strong arms sent to Augusta. Of the 28 pitchers and players who arrived this week, 19 are listed at 6-foot-2 or taller. Eight are at least 6-4.

Outfielders Chuckie Jones (6-3, 235 pounds) and Brett Krill (6-4, 220) fall into the power-hitter category, along with left-handed infielder Ben Thomas (6-2, 240) and switch-hitting catcher Joe Staley (6-1, 230).

Jones, a seventh-round pick, and Staley, eighth-round, were both taken in the 2010 draft.

“We definitely have the bats to put up some runs,” Staley said. “We’ve got guys who can hit for power and average. That combo, on paper, says we’re going to win some games. We’ll see.”

Past Giants hitting prospects have struggled in the large confines of a Lake Olmstead Stadium well known as a pitchers’ park.

If the bats fall silent, the Augusta pitching staff has the potential to carry the team with an arsenal that includes four top-10 draft picks.

Lefty Kyle Crick was taken as the 49th overall pick in last year’s draft.

Left-hander Bryce Bandilla, a fourth-round pick in 2011, and right-handers Chris Marlowe (fifth round) and Derek Law (ninth round) will also lead the pitching staff.

Nava said the team’s Opening Day start will go to Clayton Blackburn, a 19-year-old lefty who was taken in the 16th round of last year’s draft.

“It does mean a lot to me,” Blackburn said. “It means the manager has a lot of confidence in me out there.”

Backing up Blackburn will be an experienced defense, led by returning GreenJacket Carlos Willoughby. The middle infielder was named a South Atlantic League All-Star a year ago before running out of gas at the end of the season.

Garrett Buechele, son of former big leaguer Steve Buechele, will also play on the infield.

Shawn Payne, who played at Middle Georgia College, will roam the outfield along with Brett Krill, who helped UCLA reach the 2010 College World Series finals.

The GreenJackets will play their home opener next Thursday, April 12 for the start of another four-game series with the Savannah Sand Gnats.

Veterans, top draft picks fill GreenJackets 2012 roster