Just when manager Scott Little was feeling the GreenJackets had finally started to put it together, that they were truly in a position to win the second-half race in the South Atlantic League Southern Division, his world was turned upside down.
His top starter, all-star closer and most-improved middle reliever - Paul Ah Yat, David Daniels and Brian O'Connor - were gone. So was talented young shortstop Luis Figueroa. All got the call up to advanced Class A Lynchburg last week, just as the club was about to close out a most challenging road trip in grand style.
The Jackets went 6-2 on the trip against the league's best club, Charleston, W.Va., and the top hitting club in the league, Hickory. They were in first place. And Little, the six-year minor-league managing and coaching veteran, was finally beginning to feel like this was the year he captured an elusive divisional championship as a skipper.
That feeling hasn't changed despite the many changes for Little, who took over at midseason when Whitey Richardson was promoted to manage at Lynchburg.
"It's tough to lose the type of guys we lost, but that's what (the minor leagues) is all about," said Little, whose Jackets were 21-19, 1/2-game ahead of Macon heading into Saturday's games. "Honestly, I think we could actually be a stronger club overall. I think the guys we got in return are more than capable of keeping this thing going in the right direction."
Joining the Jackets for the stretch run is an experienced trio from Lynchburg - starting pitcher Derek Bullock, reliever man Rick Paugh and shortstop Derek Swafford. Reliever Jess Siciliano, the Pirates ninth-round draft choice in 1996 out of Rockland (N.Y.) Community College was promoted from Erie (short-season Class A) when struggling outfielder Corey Pointer was sent down to Erie.
Bullock went 2-4 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 games with the Jackets in 1996. The 25-year-old Paugh, who opened the year with the Jackets, going 1-1 with three saves and a 1.72 ERA, spent time at Lynchburg and Class AA Carolina this season, and is in his fourth year with the Pirates organization. Swafford, who hold the Jackets club record with 52 stolen bases for the SAL champs in 1995, missed most of May and all of June with an injury, and was batting .250 for the HillCats this season.
"They're all going to help us a lot," Little said. "I really don't think we're going to miss a beat once these guys settle in here and get it going. Our pitching is still strong and our offense could actually get better."
"I think we were all sitting around at first feeling sorry for ourselves when the guys got promoted," Jackets pitching coach Scott Lovekamp said. "We lost three of our best pitchers, and that's hard to overcome. I think Scott's a great manager and I felt bad for him, because so often minor league managers are judged by wins and losses. I think he deserves a chance to move up to a higher level, and I think winning a division would definitely help his cause. But I feel real good about the guys we got back. I think we still have a great shot at winning the division. It's going to be OK."
JACKETS BUZZ: First baseman Carlos Rivera hit home runs in three consecutive games against Charleston (W.Va.) and Hickory July 25-29. He had a 10-game hitting streak snapped in the final game of the road trip July 31 in Hickory. He was ninth among all Pirates farmhands with a .289 average through July 30. ... First baseman/designated hitter Garrett Long, 10th in the organization with a .285 average, was finally finally activated July 30 after missing three weeks with a pulled hamstring. ... Right-hander Neal McDade (9-3) is second in the Pirates organization with a 2.84 ERA. Right-hander Carlos Alvarado is sixth in the organization with a 3.49 ERA, lefty Michael Chaney is eighth (3.55) and righty Aaron France is ninth (3.56) through July 30.
AROUND THE SAL: Macon first baseman Steve Hacker was named SAL Player of the Month for July, posting a .348 average with 11 homers and 24 RBI during the month. Braves left-hander Bruce Chen, winner of six straight decision, took his first loss in six weeks in a 5-3 Delmarva victory July 26. He had allowed just 14 earned runs over his last 64 innings. ... Piedmont outfielder Errick Williams, the University of Texas, star running back is struggling in his bid to play both sports. Williams went 1-for-44 with 16 strikeouts in 12 games July 5-22 as his average plummeted to .207 in his first 32 games with the Boll Weevils. ... Capital City right-hander Grant "Goose" Roberts, the starter for the Southern squad in the SAL All-Star Game, threw six hitless innings but got a no-decision July 25 after leaving with a 2-0 lead. Roberts, the New York Mets' top low-level prospect, lowered his ERA to 2.29, second best in the league. ... Savannah center fielder Peter Bergeron reached base safely in 24 straight games July 4-29.
ALUMNI: Right-hander Bronson Arroyo, 8-6 with a 3.52 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 1352/3 innings for the Jackets in 1996, won three straight starts for Lynchburg July 18-30 to improve to 9-4 with a 3.12 ERA, the fourth-best ERA in the Carolina League and third best in the organization. ... '96 teammate Jason Phillips threw a onehitter against Wilmington (N.C.) in Game 2 of a doubleheader in a Lynchburg win July 24. He also struck out 10 batters in a win over Winston-Salem July 29 to tie for first in the Carolina League with 131 strikeouts.
LOCALS: Former Evans High School star Tony McCladdie is back in baseball, signing a minorleague contract with the New York Mets at the end of spring training. McCladdie, drafted by the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays last June, was released by the Rays in March. The former prep catcher is playing second and third base for Pittsfield (Mass.), the Mets' New YorkPenn League (short-season Class A) affiliate, is batting .254 with no home runs and 13 RBI and nine steals in 118 at-bats since joining the club to open the season on June 17. He batted .295 with 21 RBI last season for Tampa Bay's Gulf Coast League (rookie) affiliate last season. ... Former North Augusta star Vic Radcliff continues his torrid second-half pace for Lansing, the Midwest League (advanced- Class A) affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The outfielder, who converted from shortstop this season, is now batting .284 with two homers and 28 RBI. He has hit safely in nine of his last 12 games through August 1.