The team’s mediocre 32-37 record in the first half of the season – 14 1/2 games out of first place and better than only one of the Southern Division’s six other teams – was wiped away last week when the league reset the records to 0-0 after the all-star break. The team with the best second-half mark earns a spot in the postseason, and manager Lipso Nava said he thinks his group of prospects are up to the challenge.
“I think the potential is there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of having the right attitude and maintaining adjustments and learning how to play the game in a better way.”
The most obvious potential centers around the team’s starting pitching, including a pair of 19-year-old right-handers who have shown promise over the past month. Kyle Crick, the 49th overall pick in last year’s draft, and Clayton Blackburn, a 16th-round pick, struggled early in the season but hope to use what they learned in their first taste of full-season, professional baseball.
The two pitchers have spent their time in Augusta working with pitching coach Mike Caldwell, a big league veteran of 14 years with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers.
“They’ve been very receptive,” Caldwell said of his pitchers. “I think in the last four or five weeks I’ve seen a noticeable difference in quite a few of them on some little nuances of the game that they weren’t paying much attention to and didn’t think were really important earlier.”
Crick walked 14 batters in 15 innings over the first month of the season, then saw his ERA jump to 5.18 after a pair of rocky outings in May.
Blackburn didn’t get a win until his seventh start. He gave up seven earned runs May 3 before being pulled in the second inning of a start in Kannapolis, Md., and saw his ERA balloon to 5.85.
But the two prospects have shown short memories in bouncing back from the shaky starts.
Crick was named the league’s pitcher of the week in June. He entered the all-star break on a streak of 12 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
Blackburn took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Lexington, Ky., May 29 then won his next two starts. He finished the first half having allowed just one run over his last 23 innings.
“I’m pleased with both of them,” Caldwell said. “I think Blackburn has made some physical improvements, and I think Crick has made some maturity improvements.”
The two pitchers might look the same in a program – both skipped the chance to play college ball after wrapping up high school careers in Texas – but the similarities end on the mound.
Crick’s fastball has touched 98 mph this season and often overpowers his minor league competition.
Blackburn doesn’t have the speed but has used his command and off-speed arsenal to fool hitters. He struck out five times as many batters as he walked in the first half and his walks per nine innings ratio (1.82) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.16) at the all-star break both ranked among the top five in the league.
“I think Blackburn’s a little bit ahead of (Crick) mature-wise,” Caldwell said. “I just think Blackburn maybe had to learn how to pitch a little bit when he was younger. His velocity has increased and he really knows how to pitch.”
Though their pitching styles might be different, both Blackburn and Crick said they compete with each other on the mound.
Blackburn got the start Thursday when the second portion of the schedule opened in Savannah and earned a win after six innings.
Crick followed with a Saturday start that also got him a win after allowing just two hits over six scoreless innings.
Both pitching prospects will be on the mound at least once this week when the team returns to Lake Olmstead Stadium for a nine-game homestand starting today.