For the second time in as many years, manager Mike Boulanger has piloted the Augusta GreenJackets to the South Atlantic League playoffs.
The GreenJackets' quest for a second championship in three seasons as a Boston Red Sox affiliate begins today with the opener of a best-of-three SAL divisional playoffseries on the road against the Asheville Tourists.
But as Boulanger chases his first title in seven seasons as a minor-league skipper, the 52-year-old baseball veteran can't help but wonder whether this will be his swan song with the organization.
With the the recent firing of Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, and the likelihood that embattled general manager Dan Duquette's tenure with the club also is nearing the end of the line, the possibility of a shake-up throughout the Boston farm system isn't out of the question.
"I'm not worried about it, but there's always that possibility," said Boulanger, who won his 400th game as a minor-league manager Aug. 28 vs. the Tourists at home. "All I can do is focus on what we've got to right now, which is continue to develop players and try our best to win a championship."
After winning the first-half Southern Division title to clinch the franchise's seventh straight postseason berth, the Jackets (74-65) begin the divisional playoffs with their hopes riding on a pitching staff that finished tops in the league with a 2.93 ERA.
Right-hander Rene Miniel (8-4, 2.73 ERA), who blossomed in the second half to emerge as one of the top starters in the league, will take the mound in tonight's opener against Asheville right-hander Matt Roney, who finished 8-10 with a 4.98 ERA in 23 starts.
The series then shifts to Lake Olmstead Stadium for Game 2 on Wednesday, as left-hander Mauricio Lara (7-6, 3.02) will face right-hander Scott Dohmann (11-13, 4.32).
Game 3, if necessary, will be Thursday at The Lake, with Augusta right-hander Mat Thompson (9-10, 3.22) scheduled to face righty Chris Buglovsky (8-10, 4.08).
With Monday's regular-season finale rained out in Asheville, the Jackets dropped five straight games on the season-ending road trip. The skid came on the heels of a stretch when they won six out of seven.
Augusta had won nine of the first 12 meetings with the Tourists this season before dropping three straight at McCormick Field to close out the year.
For Boulanger, there was no doubt Miniel would start the playoff opener.
During his next-to-last start of the regular season against Asheville on Aug. 25 at home, Miniel turned in a masterpiece, working seven no-hit innings before coming out of the game after reaching his pitch limit. He struck out nine and walked only one.
The Tourists ended the Jackets' bid for a combined no-hitter against reliever Joe Troilo in the eighth inning, but the Jackets held on to win 5-1 and give Miniel his eighth victory of the year.
"Rene's just been outstanding, especially in the second half," Boulanger said of Miniel, who is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 8 1/3 innings vs. Asheville this season. "He's always had great stuff, but the difference now is his command. He's an awfully good-looking prospect. No question he's the guy I want out on the mound to open the playoffs for us."
Roney has fared well against the Jackets, going 1-1 with a 2.81 ERA in three starts.
But the Tourists (68-71) enter the playoffs minus their best player.
First baseman Rene Reyes, named the league's most valuable player, suffered a season-ending injury last week.
Entering the final day of the regular season, Reyes was leading Lexington's Tom Whiteman in the race for the batting title, hitting .322 to Whiteman's .319.
Reyes also hit 11 home runs, drove in 61 runs and stole 53 bases in 128 games for the Tourists, who clinched the second-half title with a victory over the Jackets on Sunday and a pair of Columbus losses in a doubleheader against Charleston, S.C.
The series winner advances to face the winner of the Northern Division series between Lexington and Hagerstown in the best-of-five SAL Championship Series, beginning Saturday.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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