HICKORY, N.C. -- The decision by manager Billy Gardner to remove ace Jason Norton after five innings nearly backfired, but it could pay off with a ring in the end.
The Jackets defeated the Hickory Crawdads 7-4 in the decisive Game 3 of the South Atlantic League semifinals series on Sunday, and will meet the Cape Fear Crocs in the SAL Championship series beginning Tuesday in Fayetteville, N.C.
With Norton out of the game early on Sunday, he could possibly come back on three days' rest to pitch the title clincher of the best-of-three series vs. the Crocs at home on Thursday.
"I'll have to sit down and talk with (pitching coach) Larry (Pierson) about bringing back Norton in Game 3 if it comes to that, but that thought did not cross my mind," Gardner said. "We'll have to see. We could go with him, but right now, I'm not sure that will happen."
The 23-year-old Norton did not have his best stuff Sunday but was strong enough to toss five shutout innings. But he threw 90 pitches, and was pulled with the Jackets leading 2-0.
"I didn't feel that great tonight and struggled out there, so I wasn't surprised they took me out," said Norton, whose 2.32 ERA during the regular season ranked fourth in the SAL. "I don't know if the move was made with (the championship series) in mind. If they want me to go (Game 3), I'll be ready."
Hickory scored one run in the sixth inning off reliever Alex Lontayo and took the lead with two runs in the seventh off closer Mark Cisar, who finished the season tied for the league lead with 27 saves.
But the Jackets rallied to win it with a five-run eighth inning against Hickory closer Tony Pavlovich, a former GreenJacket and Pavo, Ga., native, to advance to the SAL Championship series for the first time since 1995.
Left-hander Greg Miller will pitch Game 1 of the series vs. Cape Fear on Tuesday with right-hander Lance Surridge scheduled to pitch Game 2 at home.
Leadoff man Carlos Leon and Alex Ahumada out of the No. 2-hole have been the ultimate tablesetters for the Jackets during their run to the SAL Championship series.
In the four previous playoff games entering Game 3 on Sunday, Leon was batting .368 (7-for-19) with five runs scored and two stolen bases. The 20-year-old switch-hitting second baseman was hitless in his first six at-bats vs. Hickory before collecting three straight hits in Saturday's 9-4 victory. The native of Venezuela batted .233 in 210 regular-season at-bats.
Ahumada was 2-for-3 in Game 1 vs. Hickory and 2-for-5 in Game 2 and is the Jackets leading hitter in the postseason with a .375 average entering Game 3.
Sure, it was the most important day in franchise history. And sure, the Crawdads had never won a playoff game before this season, let alone a series, and were just one win away Sunday from advancing to the SAL Championship series.
But manager Tracy Woodson decided against the Crawdads taking batting practice before Sunday's game.
Woodson said he was trying to treat Game 3 like any other game to alleviate some of the pressure on his young players. The club did not hit before Sunday games this season.
The Jackets and Cape Fear would have preferred to start the SAL Championship series today, but there will be an off day after all.
SAL president John H. Moss discussed the possibilities with the managers and GMs of the four semifinals clubs on Sunday. Capital City was the only club opposed to starting the championship without a day off.
Although the Crocs defeated Capital City in Game 2 Sunday to sweep the semifinals series, the decision to go with an off day stands.
Game 1 will be in Fayetteville, N.C. on Tuesday with Games 2 and 3, if necessary, in Augusta on Wednesday and Thursday.
|Championship Series(Best-of-3)Tuesday, Sept. 14|
Augusta at Cape Fear
Wednesday, Sept. 15
Cape Fear at Augusta
Thursday, Sept. 16
Cape Fear at Augusta, if necessary.