A first-year manager and a bunch of prospects in their first year of full-season pro baseball arrived in Augusta in April with the ultimate goal of simply improving their game.
After claiming a South Atlantic League Southern Division second-half title and making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Augusta GreenJackets exceeded expectations.
“This was my dream as my first year as a manager – to make it to the playoffs and experience what it is,” rookie manager Lipso Nava said. “Everybody proved to themselves that it’s a different kind of baseball that’s played (in the playoffs).”
Playoff baseball appeared an impossible goal early in the season when the GreenJackets stumbled to start the year. Rafael Rodriguez, the 18-year-old Dominican prospect who signed with the Giants for $2.55 million, was among the players assigned to Augusta to start the season, but the team struggled early to establish an offensive identity.
The GreenJackets quickly fell to the bottom of the league in team batting average and lost 18 of its first 26 games, including a 15-2 drubbing in Lexington that went down as Augusta’s worst loss in more than two years.
A week later, pitching coach Steve Kline caused a stir in the league when he made contact with home plate umpire Carlos Torres during an on-field argument. Kline was suspended 15 games and fined $500 by the league office.
The GreenJackets wrapped up the first half of the season 8.5 games out of first place. They finished fifth in the division out of seven teams with a 31-39 record.
Despite the sub-.500 first half, Augusta made its mark in the South Atlantic League’s All-Star Game. Carlos Willoughby, Adam Duvall, Shawn Sanford, Taylor Rogers and Stephen Harrold joined Kline in representing Augusta on the Southern Division squad.
First-year hitting coach Jose Flores left the team for personal reasons during the all-star break. Assistant coach Nestor Rojas took over some of Flores’ duties, along with Nava, who was the hitting coach in Augusta for the past three seasons.
Eleven games into the second half of the season, the GreenJackets had continued their downward spiral, suffering a three-game sweep at the hands of first-place Savannah July 1-3 that put them a season-worst 13 games below .500.
After a closed-door meeting and heated speech from San Francisco Giants director of player development Fred “Chicken” Stanley, the GreenJackets turned their season around, posting a season-high 11-game winning streak and erasing a 7-game deficit to take over first place in the league’s Southern Division.
On Aug. 21, Duvall matched a 13-year-old franchise record with his 22nd home run of the season.
A week later, Sanford put the GreenJackets into a tie for first place late when he became the first pitcher in the history of the South Atlantic League to take a perfect game into the ninth inning in a 1-0 win in Greenville.
Sanford was named the league’s most outstanding pitcher the next day. Duvall was named the league’s top third baseman.
As the GreenJackets braced for the final days of the pennant race, they lost six key contributors in a two-week span that nearly wrecked the season. Relievers Harrold, Justin Schumer and Austin Fleet and outfielder Ryan Lollis were called up to Double-A Richmond, while Josh Mazzola and Ryan Scoma were lost to injuries.
After entering the final day of the regular season 1.5 games out of first, the GreenJackets beat Rome, then waited as last-placed Lexington swept first-place Savannah in a doubleheader to give Augusta the second-half division title.
Duvall’s three-run homer in the playoffs made the difference in a Game 1 win in Augusta to give the GreenJackets a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three divisional playoff series against the Savannah Sand Gnats. With the help of a rehab start from two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, the Sand Gnats won Games 2 and 3 in Savannah to eliminate the GreenJackets.
Nava sat in the visitor’s clubhouse at Historic Grayson Stadium and reflected on the whirlwind season in his first year as a manager.
“I’m really happy with the effort. The guys gave me all they had,” he said. “It was a long season and we lost a lot of people for good that went up to the next levels but this is what it’s all about. I’m really proud of my team and my guys.”
Nava said he will return to his native Venezuela in the offseason to serve as an assistant coach for a local team. Both Nava and Kline said they expect to return to Augusta next year.
The GreenJackets finished the regular season 70-68 - the seventh consecutive year they posted a winning season.