“He looked at me and he started clapping saying, ‘Championship team. Championship team,’” Wheeler said. “I looked at him and said, ‘You bet.’”
That bet seems as good as any as the Braves wrap up the first half of the South Atlantic League season today with the final game of a series against Lexington at State Mutual Stadium.
Rome goes into the three-day SAL All-Star break with the first half title, a lineup that includes three of the top ten batters in the league and a pitching staff that has consistently caused frustration for opposing teams.
“The character of this team is very good because there hasn’t been a particular guy that has carried the team. The team has carried the team,” Wheeler said when asked about clinching the Southern Division first half championship last week.
“I know one thing — these kids have busted their tail ends for this first half and they deserve that.”
“We’re always picking each other up on defense or offense and staying positive,” first baseman Austin Bush said. “We want to be there for our pitchers on the field and make some plays for him. You want to get on base to help the next guy in the order. It’s always about doing your part and doing the best you can.”
Jean Carlos Encarnacion has come on in the last two weeks and was leading the team and tied for third in the league with 73 hits and 39 RBIs prior to Saturday’s game. He went 5-for-5 against Greenville on Wednesday with a career-high four RBIs and a triple shy of the cycle.
The third baseman, along with Riley Delgado and Drew Waters, are all hitting over .300 and are just a portion of the power Rome has had at the plate this season.
Wheeler said hitting coach Bobby Moore and bench coach Anthony Nunez has helped bring everybody on the team above the Mendoza Line and keeping their development on schedule.
Waters and Delgado are both headed to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the SAL All-Star Game on Tuesday. Waters, the 19-year-old outfielder from Woodstock, leads the league with 20 doubles and has six home runs.
Pitching coach Dan Meyer said the crop of pitchers he has this season contains shades of the 2016 staff that included guys like Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint. That team went on to win the SAL Championship.
“This team reminds me a lot of our 2016 team in that the chemistry is good. They care. They want to win. They’re coachable. They’re a good group of guys who pull for each other, and that’s what you need,” Meyer said.
“To not only get better but to win while doing it is fun. It makes it easier for us, and to watch a kid put it all together and be successful, it’s nice and it’s fun to watch.”
Bruce Zimmermann has been the ace for the Braves this season and will join relievers Freddy Tarnok, Walter Borkovich and Kelvin Rodriguez in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. The group represents a big part of Rome’s success during the opening half of the season.
“Our bullpen all around has been great. I mean, there’s not a guy down there that I don’t trust,” Meyer said. “They’ve all thrown the ball real well. They get outs when they come in, and they’re a great group of guys. They’re everything I could ask for.
Zimmerman (7-3, 2.67 ERA) leads the league in strikeouts (94) and is second with a 1.07 WHIP, while Tarnok has gone from playing shortstop in high school a little more than a year ago to settling in on the mound.
The Riverview, Florida, native worked his ERA down to 0.88 prior to his appearance Friday night when he ran into a rough outing and had his ERA go up to 1.42. He still is 3-0 so far this season.
“To put the numbers up that he has in the first half against guys that are 3 or 4 years older than him is amazing,” Meyer said.