GreenJackets return for home-opener with winning record

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Professional baseball players, managers and coaches naturally get excited for the season’s first game in front of their home crowd. Judging by the Augusta GreenJackets’ performance on the road so far, the fans have reason to share the excitement.

MICHAEL HOLAHAN/FILE
“We’re playing good, fundamental baseball right now, and we’re excited about it,” second-year manager Lipso Nava said.

“It’s much too early to say that this team is the greatest or anything like that,” second-year manager Lipso Nava said. “But we’re playing good, fundamental baseball right now, and we’re excited about it.”

The GreenJackets won four of their first six games and return to Augusta for tonight’s home opener. They will take the field at Lake Olmstead Stadium with a winning record, and this will be the first time GreenJackets fans will get to see Nava and his team since the 2011 squad won a South Atlantic League Southern Division second half championship last fall.

That 2011 team struggled through the first half of the season but turned into a winning ballclub in time to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. This year’s squad hasn’t had any problems getting off to a hot start.

“Things kept rolling from what we were doing in spring training,” Nava said. “We were playing the same way over there in Arizona, and the guys have just been doing the same thing here.”

Unlike previous years, the GreenJackets have shown their main strength at the plate, as opposed to on the mound. Leadoff hitter Carlos Willoughby, a South Atlantic League all-star a year ago, started the season with a triple on the first Augusta at bat. Third baseman Jose Cuevas drove in seven runs through the first six games, and outfielder Shawn Payne, a product of Middle Georgia College, entered Wednesday’s game leading the team with a .427 batting average (8 for 19).

“It’s good to have guys with tools like that,” Nava said. “(Payne) has speed, and that makes everything more difficult for opposing teams.”

The GreenJackets will play tonight’s home opener against the Savannah Sand Gnats, who knocked Augusta out of the playoffs a year ago. The two teams started the 2012 season in Savannah and split a four-game series. They’ll play four more this week.

Right-hander Chris Marlowe, the San Francisco Giants’ fifth-round draft pick a year ago, will get the start tonight for Augusta. The Sand Gnats will counter with right-handed nondrafted free agent Rafael Montero.

Savannah’s roster includes several top New York Mets prospects, including 2011 ninth-round pick Alex Panteliodis, who is scheduled as the starting pitcher Friday night, and 2011 fourth-round pick Tyler Pill, Sunday’s scheduled starter.

Augusta’s top Giants prospect is right-handed pitcher Kyle Crick, who was the 49th overall selection in last year’s draft and is scheduled to pitch Saturday.

After the four-game series with Savannah, the Charleston RiverDogs will come to town for a three-game series starting Monday. First-year general manager Bob Flannery said his staff has planned several promotions, themes and giveaways throughout the homestand, prompting the team to issue a limited-ticket advisory earlier this week.

“With the great promotional schedule we have lined up for the season’s opening weekend, it’s not a surprise to us that availability is starting to become limited for certain seats,” he said in a statement released by the team. “We just want our fans to be able to enjoy our opening weekend, and we don’t want people to miss out on great seats that are going quickly.”

The first 1,000 fans at tonight’s game will receive a free magnetic schedule. T-shirts will be given to the first 1,000 fans Friday night.

Saturday’s game will stick with the season-long promotion of a postgame fireworks show.

CHANGING TIMES

THE PLAYERS: Most of last year’s team has moved on, and a new crop of San Francisco Giants took their places. The pitching staff includes last year’s 49th overall draft pick Kyle Crick, fourth-rounder Bryce Bandilla and fifth-rounder Chris Marlowe.

2010 draft picks Chuckie Jones (seventh round) and Joe Staley (eighth round) are also on the team.

THE STAFF: Though manager Lipso Nava and hitting coach Nestor Rojas return, pitching coach Mike Caldwell will make his Augusta debut tonight. The 63-year-old former big league pitcher led the American League in complete games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978 and posted a 22-9 record.

THE FRONT OFFICE: Nick Brown, general manager for the past seven seasons, left the team a week before the season started to pursue other career opportunities. Newly-hired assistant general manager Bob Flannery, who has four years experience as a South Atlantic League general manager, took over.

– Billy Byler,

staff writer



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