The Rome Braves are closing in on an achievement they haven’t accomplished in 12 years -- winning the first half of the South Atlantic League season.
The Braves finished the first half of the 2006 season in front with a 42-28 record. This year’s team has two series left before the midway point of the season. They’re on the road for a five-game series against the Greenville Drive, which began Monday, then they’re back at State Mutual Stadium for a three-game series against the Lexington Legends beginning Friday at 7 p.m.
Before Monday’s matchup with Greenville, the Braves owned a 1½ game lead over the Augusta GreenJackets.
Rome is coming off of a 1-2 series loss to the Kannapolis Intimidators, who occupy the top spot in the Northern Division. The game they won against the Intimidators -- a 5-4 victory -- was a prime example of the team’s ability to win big games, and was the seventh one-run victory they Braves have won this year. Austin Bush hit a game-winning RBI single to right field in the bottom of the ninth inning for the win.
“It’s a great feeling,” said manager Rocket Wheeler. “Especially when you walk off. As long as you can win the one-run ballgames, you’ve got a good chance. If you go out and win the series, and that’s what we try to do is win the series, we go from there.”
Shortstop Riley Delgado said the game signified what the team tries to do every night.
“This game defined what we’re about -- just grinding at-bats and trying to piece things together,” he said. “Our pitchers are doing a good job of keeping us in the ballgame, and offensively we’re scrappy, and we’re trying to fight through situations and just do our thing.”
The Braves have a good chance to maintain their lead as Greenville occupies last place in the Southern Division. The GreenJackets will finish out the season with a series against the West Virginia Power (fourth place in the Northern Division) and the Asheville Tourists (sixth place in the Southern Division).
If the Braves win the first half of the season, they qualify for the South Atlantic League playoffs. They would play the winner of the second half of the season in a best-of-three series. If the Braves manage to win both halves of the season, they would play the team with the next best overall record. While the Braves have only been to the SAL playoffs four times in their previous 15 seasons, they have won the SAL championship two of those times -- their inaugural season in 2003 and in 2016.
The 2016 team featured pitchers Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Ricardo Sanchez, and pitching continues to be a strong point for this year’s team. The Braves are sending four pitchers to the All-Star game at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, North Carolina, home of the Greensboro Grasshoppers on June 19. Bruce Zimmermann, Kelvin Rodriguez, Freddy Tarnok and Walter Borkovich will be joined by Delgado and center fielder Drew Waters.
“We have really good team chemistry, and we’ve really started to hit our stride,” said Zimmermann, who leads the SAL in strikeouts with 89. “We’ve been playing pretty well the entire season. I feel like everything is clicking at the right moment. We’re going to try to keep playing the way we’re doing it, and we’ll see how it pans out, but I’ve got a good feeling about the guys that are behind me every time I go out there.”
Another big part of the Braves’ success is all members of the are big contributors. If it’s not Bush walking off for the win, it’s Zimmermann striking out 11 against the GreenJackets, or Izzy Wilson hitting a two-run shot against the Fireflies, or William Contreras getting four hits with a home run against the Crawdads.
“We have a different contributor every night,” Wheeler said. “Bushy tonight with the walkoff, Lugbauer hits a three-run homer to give us the lead. All throughout the first half, everybody has contributed to us winning. Not only on offense, but on defense, and our pitching has been outstanding.”
Wheeler credits his coaching staff with making sure his team is ready to go every night. Batting coach Bobby Moore has been with the during their entire duration, and pitching coach Dan Meyer was on the Braves’ inaugural roster, along with players including Jeff Francouer, Kyle Davies and Brian McCann.
“Dan Meyer has done a great job with those guys,” Wheeler said. “Bobby Moore and Anthony Nunez (bench coach) do a great job getting the guys ready to go out and hit. We just prepare the kids to go out and play the game, and when you have good coaches behind you getting these guys ready, it’s great to see the outcome, especially when you win.”