Whatever hope remained for Scott Little when the day began was all but gone by the second inning. Whatever chances the Augusta GreenJackets had of winning a division championship on merit were crushed just as quickly.
On a night when they desperately needed a victory to keep those title hopes alive and gather postseason steam, the Jackets were done before they knew what hit them.
With a cloud of dust in their wake, the Macon Braves put the biggest of hurts on the Jackets' championship aspirations. The Braves' 18-4 pummeling Friday night before 2,640 fans at Lake Olmstead Stadium and a local TV audience virtually killed any chance of Little getting what he so desperately wants - an outright division championship, not just the automatic ride to the South Atlantic League playoffs the Jackets wrapped up on Wednesday.
"What now?" said Little, tongue-in-cheek. "We just have to write this one off. Our secret plan was to lull (Macon) into a false sense of security going into the playoffs."
"Seriously, tonight was one of those nights where obviously nothing was working," added the Augusta skipper, who was ejected in the fourth inning after he vented his frustrations on home plate umpire Chad Sexton. "It's frustrating, but it's over now. Macon is a very good ballclub, and nights like this are going to happen."
With four Augusta errors in the first four innings and some heavy-duty slugging by Macon, the debacle was on. The Braves pounded out 18 hits - Steve Hacker went 2-for-4 with a three-run home run, his SAL-leading 33rd, and four RBI, and Glenn Williams went 3-for-6 with his 14th homer, a three-run shot in the first, with five RBI - and made one heckuva statement that they are indeed the class of the league.
In three innings, Jackets starter Derek Bullock (2-4) allowed seven runs (five earned) on five hits to take the loss. Macon starter Bruce Chen, named the SAL's most outstanding left-handed pitcher earlier this week, improved his record to 12-7, allowing two runs on four hits in five innings, with a walk and six strikeouts.
Charles' Rice's 10th home run of the year, a mammoth 425-foot blast in the first inning that nearly hit the scoreboard in right-center field, was Augusta's lone highlight.
"It's just as important to us to win the second half as it is to them," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "We're going tp play each other in the playoffs regardless, but you'd still like to win (the division). It's a great accomplishment, and I think it means a lot to both ballclubs."
Now, the Jackets must somehow stop the bleeding in time for the postseason.
"We've just got to get back to playing good baseball like we have been," Little said. "It's time to take some of the pressure off, and just get ourselves headed back in a positive direction for Monday."
Regardless of the outcome of the final two games, the Jackets will face Macon in the Southern Division playoffs. The best-of-three series begins Monday night in Macon. Games 2 and 3, if necessary, will be played Tuesday and Wednesday at The Lake.
In the SAL's complicated playoff format, the club with the second best overall record in the division gets a playoff spot when a team wins both halves. Since the Braves also won the first-half, Augusta clinched a playoff spot by virtue of their overall mark, even if Macon takes the second-half crown.
Heading into the final regular-season series, the 34-year-old Augusta skipper made it clear that backing into the postseason wasn't enough for him. His philosophy may have changed a bit after Friday, as the Braves stormed to a 11/2 -game lead over the Jackets in the second-half race for the Southern Division championship.
With two games left against the mighty Braves to end the regular season, the Jackets must do what now seems improbable. They must win both games against two of the Atlanta Braves' top young pitching prospects - Rob Bell (13-7, 3.80 ERA) tonight and Jason Marquis (14-9, 4.35 ERA) in Sunday's finale - to truly call themselves champions.
"I think we're going to de-emphasize the importance of winning the division outright now," Little said "I may have placed too much pressure on them because it was such an important goal to me. What happened tonight was probably my fault."
NOTES: Jackets infielder Boomer Whipple pitched the ninth inning, allowing two hits and two runs (one earned). It was his second relief appearance this season. ... Friday's game was broadcast live on WRDW-TV 12. ... During the latest road-trip, the Jackets added two pitchers - right-handers Matt Duff and Franklin Bravo. Duff was signed by the Pirates out of the independent Frontier League, where he was among league leaders in ERA for the Springfield (Ill.) Capitals. Bravo, who opened the year in the Jackets bullpen, rejoins the club after a long rehab stint in Bradenton, Fla. ... Jackets pitching coach Scott Lovekamp celebrated his 39th birthday on Thursday. ... Takashi "Bert" Shimada, a Japanese sports writer for Nikkei, Tokyo's version of the Wall Street Journal, was at The Lake Friday, working on a series of stories on minor league baseball in the U.S.