A 140-game season that ended with four consecutive losses and a sub-.500 record didn’t exactly leave Augusta GreenJackets manager Lipso Nava thrilled Monday afternoon. But as his team walked off the field for the last time in 2012, he still found reason to smile for what he called a “positive” season.
“My whole purpose here was to get these guys better and give them a better understanding of the game,” he said. “For me, that’s the positives we can take out of this year.”
The GreenJackets, who finished the year with 69 wins, 70 losses and one rainout that was never made up, weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the final series of the season. They were carried by a young but talented pitching staff that proved to be the strength of the team.
“Ask any position player about any pitcher on this team and they’ll say they’re all clowns,” infielder Garrett Buechele said. “But they’ve got some good stuff on the mound. It’s a lot of fun to play behind them. In fact it’s a lot better to play behind them than try to get in the box and hit against them, that’s for sure.”
The GreenJackets pitching staff ended the season with the second-best ERA in the South Atlantic League. Of the four top arms – starters Clayton Blackburn, Kyle Crick, Edwin Escobar and Adalberto Mejia – none have turned 21 yet. But all four showed signs of potential.
“I feel like I learned how to pitch,” said the 19-year-old Crick. “(Pitching coach Mike) Caldwell taught me a lot, and then I think (catcher) Jeff Arnold coming in here was the best thing for this pitching staff.”
Crick was named the league’s pitcher of the week in June and posted a team-leading 2.51 ERA. Blackburn and Escobar also finished in the league’s top 10 in ERA, and Blackburn led the league with 143 strikeouts in 131 innings.
The pitchers learned from second-year manager Nava and Caldwell, in his first year as Augusta’s pitching coach.
Nava called the pitching staff the “heart and soul” of the team this season and made a promise to the pitchers and position players before the summer started.
“We sat them down in that first meeting and I said, ‘I’ll do anything on my behalf to get you guys out of here,’” Nava said.
That’s exactly what happened for closer Cody Hall, who was called up to the Advanced-A level after leading the South Atlantic League with 20 saves through July.
Blackburn, Arnold and outfielder Shawn Payne were also called up to San Jose in the final month of the season.
Payne, the only Augusta representative on the league’s postseason All-Star team, earned the spot with his consistent bat and speed on the base paths. The right-handed hitting Middle Georgia College product led the GreenJackets with a .309 batting average and stole 34 bases before being thrown out for the first time 3½ months into the season.
Though the GreenJackets struggled at the plate at times – they finished the year tied for the league’s worst batting average (.240) under first-year hitting coach Nestor Rojas – the offense did show a few surges.
The GreenJackets often came through in the clutch by winning a league-leading 30 games by one run, including back-to-back walk-off wins in June thanks to Buechele’s bases-loaded hit by pitch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game followed by Payne’s bases-loaded, two-out double in the bottom of the ninth the next night.
Just before the dramatic wins, the GreenJackets’ defense combined to break a South Atlantic League record by playing nine consecutive games of error-free ball.
Now that the season has ended the GreenJackets won’t stay in town for long. Some left after Monday’s game, while others will fly out today. Outfielder Brett Krill said his flight leaves Augusta at 6:30 a.m.
“The worst part of the season is saying all your goodbyes. You know this exact group of guys will never be together like this again,” Krill said. “It’s been a roller coaster of a season for us, but we’ll always remember all the positives.”
Augusta’s baseball fans will have to wait seven months before they’ll see another minor league game.
The GreenJackets’ 2013 season is tentatively scheduled to start at home April 4 against the Lexington Legends.