On the field, there were the customary handshakes and hugs, but by no means could the scene be described as a celebration.
In the clubhouse, there were no cigars blazing and no champagne pouring because, for the Augusta GreenJackets, there was no sense of accomplishment.
"We haven't won a championship yet," said manager Billy Gardner after the Jackets defeated the Hickory Crawdads 7-4 on Sunday in Hickory, N.C., to win the South Atlantic League semifinal series.
"I guarantee these guys aren't satisfied just because they've made it to the finals. They're hungry for a championship. They'll celebrate when they win it all."
The Jackets begin their all-or-nothing quest for a title tonight in Fayetteville, N.C., in the opener of the South Atlantic League Championship series vs. the Cape Fear Crocs (Montreal Expos).
Games 2 and 3, if necessary, of the best-of-three series will be played at Lake Olmstead Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday. Games begin at 7:05 p.m.
"It feels great knowing we're going to the championship series, but we're not done yet," said center fielder Tonayne Brown, whose grand slam in the eighth inning on Sunday clinched the series against Hickory. "We want to finish it off with a ring."
Left-hander Greg Miller (10-6, 3.10 ERA regular season/1-0. 0.00 playoffs) starts Game 1 for the Jackets vs. Crocs right-hander Mark Magnum (10-11, 3.52/1-0, 2.25). Miller was 1-1 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts against Cape Fear this season, while Magnum was 1-1 with a 2.54 ERA in two previous starts with the Jackets.
Cape Fear, which finished with the league's second-best overall record at 75-65, won five of the eight regular-season matchups with Augusta. In those eight games, the Crocs batted .271 while the pitching staff posted a 2.72 ERA.
The Crocs are unbeaten in the postseason, sweeping the Hagerstown Suns -- who finished with the best record in the league -- in the divisional playoffs, then sweeping the Capital City Bombers in the semifinals.
In four playoff games, the Crocs are batting .336 as a team in the postseason while the pitching staff has allowed just five earned runs in 36 innings with an opponent's batting average of .173.
Outfielder Al Benjamin finished third in the league in batting with a .322 average to go with 10 home runs and 77 RBI. First baseman Thomas Pittman is one of the league's top sluggers, belting a club-high 22 home runs and driving in 97 runs, which tied for second in the league.
"It's not going to be easy, but we're playing very good right now," said shortstop Angel Santos, who had two key hits in Sunday's clincher and was outstanding defensively throughout the series. "We have a lot of confidence right now."
For several reasons, a championship would be especially sweet for the GreenJackets.
This is Augusta's first trip to the league championship series since 1995, when the Jackets swept the three-game series with the Piedmont Boll Weevils to capture the franchise's second title and their first since 1989.
Though they stumbled to the fourth-worst record in the league in the first half, the Jackets turned it around late in the season to win the second-half Southern Division title with a 40-30 record.
The team is in its first season as an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The Jackets and Pittsburgh Pirates ended an 11-year affiliation after last season. Ironically, Augusta had to get past the Pirates' new SAL affiliate, Hickory, to advance to the championship series.
"Winning this series after losing the first one at home and after coming from behind in Game 3 is another testament to the character of this ballclub," Gardner said after Sunday's victory
"We never die, and there's always someone on this club who steps up big. These guys are hungry to win this."
Brown, who hit just four home runs in 541 regular-season at-bats, and was batting .235 in the playoffs before his heroic slam on Sunday, also senses his teammates' desire to win a championship.
"We're all together on the same page right now and feeling very confident," Brown said. "We've been through a lot together, and I don't think anyone in here will be satisfied if we don't win it."
|Augusta vs. Cape Fear|
SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE FINALS
Where: J.P. Riddle Stadium,
Game time: 7:05 tonight
Probable starters: Augusta -- LHP Greg Miller (10-6, 3.10); Cape Fear -- RHP Mark Magnum (10-11, 3.50 ERA).
Tickets: Box $7, reserved $6, general admission $4, with $1 off for senior citizens, military and children under 12
Where: Lake Olmstead Stadium
Game time: 7:05 p.m. Wednesday
Probable starters: Cape Fear -- RHP Kristofer Tetz (3-3, 4.35); Augusta -- RHP Lance Surridge (9-6, 3.05).
Tickets: Box $7, reserved $6, general admission $5, military w/ID $4, children 4-12 $3
GAME 3, IF NECESSARY
Where: Lake Olmstead Stadium
Game time: 7:05 p.m. Thursday
Probable starters: Cape Fear -- RHP Trevor Wamback (6-3, 2.84); Augusta -- RHP Marty McLeary (5-6, 3.12) or RHP Jason Norton (9-6, 2.32)
Home game tickets are available at the GreenJackets office at Lake Olmstead Stadium, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. or call (706) 736-7889.
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