Dramatic highs and lowly slumps have once again shaken the South Atlantic League this season with two of the worst performing teams earlier in the year now meeting in a fight for the top spot.
The Rome Braves, who finished dead last in the Southern Division’s first-half race with a dismal 18-52 record, won eight of their first 10 games after the all-star break and have become the top second-half team. The Augusta GreenJackets, the second-worst in the division in the first half, have made a similar turnaround and sat just 2.5 games behind the Braves as the two teams opened a four-game series in Rome, Ga. Monday night.
“It’s going to be a clutch series,” Augusta manager Lipso Nava said. “It’s not going to be easy. They’ve won some games, and we have some momentum, too.”
Rome entered the showdown on a seven-game winning streak. The GreenJackets had won four in a row, including a three-game sweep over visiting Hickory this past weekend.
Nava said he hasn’t downplayed the importance of this series when speaking to his players.
“We just have to play well knowing that this series is that important,” he said. “We have to keep playing the way we know we can.”
UP AND DOWN: The GreenJackets’ postseason hopes looked much more bleak only a week ago when the team limped into town having suffered a five-game losing streak on the road that sent them as far down as fifth place in the division standings.
The team returned to Augusta without Nava, who was granted a short break from the team to join his family in the celebration of his daughter’s graduation from high school in Venezuela. With San Francisco Giants coordinator of minor league instruction Shane Turner in the dugout, GreenJackets first-year hitting coach Nestor Rojas took over and steered the team to two wins during Nava’s three-game absence.
Nava missed Augusta’s games on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He also missed the start of Saturday’s game but arrived at the stadium in time to reclaim his usual spot in the third base coach’s box by the bottom of the third inning.
The GreenJackets, shutout through the first two innings, responded with a three-run third in a 6-3 win over Hickory.
THE BIG THREE: Though much of the attention put on the GreenJackets starting pitching rotation has centered around first-round pick Kyle Crick and 16th-rounder Clayton Blackburn, another potential ace has joined the two 19-year-old Texans as a reliable arm in Augusta.
Paul Davis, a middle reliever earlier this season, has blossomed into a dominant starter recently. The 22-year-old right-hander has lasted seven innings in three of his last four starts, including a shutout effort in Sunday’s win.
Crick and Blackburn, two of the team’s most reliable arms throughout the year, have also seen plenty of recent success.
Blackburn has lost just once in his last 12 starts, while Crick has allowed no earned runs in six of his last eight outings.
LOOKING AHEAD: The GreenJackets will return to Lake Olmstead Stadium Friday for a four-game series with the Charleston RiverDogs.
Though the two teams are separated by just 143 miles, they’ve only met five times this season. Augusta took two of three in Charleston, S.C. during the first road trip of the year, but the RiverDogs got their revenge the next week by winning both games at Lake Olmstead Stadium during a rain-shortened trip to Augusta.
Of the GreenJackets final 29 regular season games, 12 of them will be against Charleston.