HICKORY, N.C. -- His name was on the lineup card every day for five months, but he was little more than an afterthought for the GreenJackets in the South Atlantic League playoffs.
Until Sunday, when Tonayne Brown came to the plate in the biggest game of the season and came through with the biggest hit of his career.
With the Jackets' hopes fading fast in Game 3 of the SAL semifinals vs. the Hickory Crawdads, the ultimate lift came courtesy of their 22-year-old center fielder.
Brown belted a grand slam in the eighth inning off reliever Tony Pavlovich to lift the Jackets to a 7-4 victory at L.P. Frans Stadium, sending Augusta to the SAL Championship series for the first time since 1995.
"I knew we'd somehow pull this one out, and I'm just thankful I was able to do something big in that situation to help this ballclub," said Brown, who had just four home runs in 541 regular-season at-bats, and was batting .235 in the playoffs before Sunday.
"It's a great feeling to know we're going to the championship series, but we're not done yet. We want to finish it off with a ring."
In their first season as a Boston Red Sox affiliate, the Jackets will face the Cape Fear Crocs in the best-of-three SAL Championship series. Cape Fear closed out the Capital City Bombers 10-1 on Sunday.
Game 1 will be Tuesday night at J.P. Riddle Stadium in Fayetteville, N.C., with Games 2 and 3, if necessary, scheduled at Lake Olmstead Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday.
"This was another testament to the character of this ballclub," said manager Billy Gardner, whose Jackets won the final two games of the series in Hickory after losing Game 1 at home.
"We never die and there's always someone on this club who steps up big. These guys are hungry to win this. Tonight proves how badly they want it."
The Jackets jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning against Hickory ace and former GreenJacket John Grabow on an RBI-triple by Angel Santos and an RBI-single by Game 2 hero Tony DeRosso. On Saturday, DeRosso's grand slam helped the Jackets rally to force the decisive game on Sunday.
With ace right-hander Jason Norton on the mound, the lead seemed like money in the bank. Despite five shutout innings from the 23-year-old Norton, he was not sharp and had thrown 90 pitches, prompting Gardner to go to his bullpen early.
The move backfired in the sixth inning when relievers Alex Lontayo and Dan Giese struggled, allowing Hickory to cut the lead to 2-1.
Then in the seventh, things quickly got worse with the Jackets' bullpen ace on the mound.
SAL all-star catcher Humberto Cota -- who began the season in Charleston, S.C., before coming to the Pirates organization in a trade with Tampa Bay -- gave the Crawdads a 3-2 lead on a two-run home run in the seventh off closer Mark Cisar.
"It would have been difficult to get over losing this game," said Cisar, who finished tied for the league lead with 27 saves. "But I knew we weren't out of it. I knew somebody would bail us out."
Turns out it was his roommate.
"After that inning, I told Mark not to worry, that we were going to get him some runs," Brown said. "I'm glad we could do it for him because Mark has meant a lot to this team this season."
With Pavlovich in, leadoff man Carlos Leon started the eighth with a single and moved to second when Alex Ahumada was hit by a pitch.
Santos then stroked an RBI-double and, after the Crawdads walked DeRosso intentionally to load the bases, Brown took center stage.
"He's my roommate and we've gotten to be pretty close," Cisar said. "I had a feeling he'd do something, and he really came up big. I'm happy for him."
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