For a club that not long ago seemed headed for a heartbreaking end to a long summer, the GreenJackets are suddenly making it known they do not intend to go out quietly.
With an 8-4 victory over the Savannah Sand Gnats before 3,377 fans at Lake Olmstead Stadium on the penultimate night of the regular season, the Jackets continued to erase the frustrations of a month-long slide and gathered more steam on the eve of the postseason.
And with tonight's regular-season finale vs. the Sand Gnats at The Lake comes one last chance for the Jackets to keep the momentum going into the South Atlantic League divisional playoffs, which open on Monday with Game 1 of a best-of-3 series in Macon.
"You'd better believe that this club is peaking at the right time," said Derrick Lankford, whose first-inning, two-run home run, along with Xavier Burns' solo shot in the fifth, sparked the Jackets to their second straight win and seventh in their last 10 games. "We know these last few games is our chance to finish strong and head into the playoffs on a high note, and tonight we did what we had to do to do that."
Lankford helped the Jackets build an early lead for starter John Grabow and, after the Sand Gnats (30-40) tied it at 3 in the top of the fifth inning, Burns hit his 13th home run of the season in the bottom of the fifth to give Augusta (33-37 in the second half, 68-73 overall) the lead for good.
Grabow (6-3) pitched six strong innings for the victory, as the Jackets added an insurance run in the sixth and three more in the seventh to finish it off.
"It's nice to know we're finally playing good, soud baseball again," said Jackets manager Marty Brown, whose club lost a season-high 12 straight games earlier this month. "They're not worrying anymore about the other team. I think they've realized that their only opponent is themselves."
"We're starting to play pretty good ball again at the right time," said Burns, who finished 2-for-4. "Now we can go into the playoffs with a lot more confidence in ourselves."
And there are personal goals to be reached, as well, as the season end tonight.
Though it will take a three-homer game tonight for Lankford to tie the all-time Augusta record for homers in a season -- 25, by Dick Barry of the 1962 Augusta Yankees -- the former 42nd-round draft choice further established himself as the most prolific power hitter in modern franchise history Saturday.
Lankford belted his 22nd home run of the year and second in as many nights, a two-run shot in the first inning off loser Emar Fleming (7-8). Morgan Walker's 15 home runs last season was the most in the franchise's 11-year history before Lankford shattered the mark in early August.
The franchise single-season RBI mark is even more within the 23-year-old Lankford's reach. With 89, Lankford needs a three tonight to tie Keith Raisanen, who drove in 92 runs for the Augusta Pirates in 1989.
"Everyone and their brother knows by now where I was picked (in the draft) and going in I probably wasn't expected to do well here," Lankford said. "For me to do what I've done this year is pleasing, but I'm not satisfied. I know I still have a lot of work to do, but to have a good year means a lot to me."
And with a big night on the basepaths, Victor Gutierrez all but wrapped up the SAL stolen-base title and further padded his all-time Augusta best stolen base total. Gutierrez stole three bases on Saturday to give him 60 for the season. Capital City's Alex Escobar, a shoo-in to claim the league's MVP award, was second in the league with 49 steals through Friday.
Last week in Savannah, Gutierrez eclipsed the previous Augusta single-season mark of 52, set by Derrick Swafford in 1995.
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