Just as the Augusta GreenJackets starting pitchers have started to heat up, a proven catcher has arrived in town to join them.
Jeff Arnold, the defensive-minded catcher who served as a leader on last year’s squad, returned to Augusta this week in time for an eight-game homestand that starts tonight at Lake Olmstead Stadium.
“He’s going to help a lot,” manager Lipso Nava said of the Louisville product. “He was our mainstay last year.”
Arnold started the season with the Advanced-A San Jose Giants and hit .455 with four doubles in 33 at-bats. But the 24-year-old prospect only played in a third of San Jose’s games.
“The organization thought he could get more experience and play every day by sending him back here,” Nava said.
Arnold’s arrival coincides with a recent improvement among Augusta’s starting pitchers. The six-man rotation fueled a slow, team-wide start that included a division-leading 112 walks allowed in April. Over the span of the team’s first 22 games, only twice did a starter pitch well enough and long enough to get the win.
But starting pitchers won two of the past three games, thanks to quality outings from Kyle Crick and Edwin Escobar.
“It is nice to see this now,” Nava said. “Whenever your starting pitcher can give you five or six innings, the bullpen doesn’t take on as much pressure and you don’t have to use as many pitchers in a game. That can only help you.”
Clayton Blackburn will try to repeat the effort of his fellow starters tonight when he takes the mound still looking for his first win. The 19-year-old right-hander was knocked around for the first time last week when Kannapolis tagged him for seven earned runs on eight hits in 1⅔ innings.
“After that I sat down with my pitching coach (Mike Caldwell), and he showed me some things,” Blackburn said. “In the first inning I only gave up two hard-hit balls, so it was just one of those things. It can be hard as a starter when that happens and you have to wait six days to get back out there. I’m ready to go.”
The loss was a first for a teenager who had never suffered such a lopsided defeat as a pro. He allowed only four earned runs in 12 outings last year in rookie ball, posting a 3-1 record with a 1.08 ERA. Though he has yet to get the run support to earn a win this season, he managed a 2.95 ERA with a team-leading 20 strikeouts in April.
“It’s going to be interesting to see him out there again and see what he does. He knows what he has to do to bounce back,” Nava said. “He’s young, but he’s a mature kid.”
Blackburn will face a Greenville Drive team trying to catch the GreenJackets in the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division standings. The Drive (14-17) swept a four-game home series against Rome and sit a half game behind Augusta (14-16)
with both teams trying to climb out of the bottom half of the division.
The Boston Red Sox affiliate took two of three games from the GreenJackets in a rain-shortened series in Greenville three weeks ago. The final game was postponed and will be made up as part of a doubleheader Friday.
Jason Garcia (0-1, 4.57) will take the mound for Greenville tonight. The 19-year-old right-hander started the season in the bullpen but will make his third start.