Rome Pitching Key For Playoff Run

While focus on pitching may have disappeared in Atlanta, it's still very prevalent down on the farm - most notably with the Rome Braves who are headed to a playoff series with the Hickory Crawdad starting tonight.

There's a reason the Rome Braves are starting their playoff series with the Hickory Crawdads tonight. Pitching. For years pitching has been the primary reason the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed so much success, and if the Rome Braves are any indication, the trend could continue for a long time.

The Rome Braves had a very decent first half of the minor league season. They finished 36-33, 7 games behind Hickory. It was not a bad record considering the youth of the team.

But then several things happened that made you wonder if the Braves would be successful in the second half of the season. Dan Meyer (4-4, 2.87 ERA in 15 starts) and Matt Merricks (5-7, 2,82 ERA in 10 starts) were promoted to Myrtle Beach causing two openings in the Rome rotation. Brad David (15 saves) was also promoted forcing Manager Rocket Wheeler to look for a new closer. Finally, First Baseman Yaron Peters (.295 with 6 HR and 32 RBI) was also promoted to the Pelicans, creating a huge hole in the Rome lineup.

Miraculously, the Rome Braves had replacements pop up like they had made late season big league trades. Matt Wright, 2-7 in thirteen starts with Myrtle Beach, was demoted to Rome and stepped into the rotation. Ryan Ewin, out for most of the past two seasons with shoulder trouble, also joined the rotation. Jose Capellan, who started the season in Rome but went to the Gulf Coast League when he experienced some elbow pain, rejoined the team and split the fifth starter's job with Ewin.

Wright immediately became a huge force in the Rome rotation. He went 4-2 with an ERA of 1.56 in July, and then was unhittable in August, going 4-0 in six starts with an ERA of 1.15. When Capellan rejoined the team, he would start the game and have Ewin come in after the 3rd or 4th inning. The two combined for an ERA of 3.00 in the last month of the regular season.

The resurgence of Wright coincided with a huge turnaround for Blaine Boyer, who was 4-8 with an ERA of 4.86 on July 14. In Boyer's last nine starts, he was 8-0 with an ERA of 1.63. Boyer was a main reason the Braves were 21-9 in August, as he was 6-0 himself.

Last season Blaine Boyer was in the Macon Braves bullpen. He did well, going 5-9 in 43 relief appearances with an ERA of 3.07. Even though the Braves still see Boyer as a future reliever, they wanted Boyer to return to Low A ball in Rome and start so he could get significant innings. There is little doubt he has turned the corner, but you wonder if the Braves believe he might be better suited to remain a starting pitcher.

Wright and Boyer got on a roll starting in July, and Ewin and Capellan covered the fifth starter's spot effectively. Meanwhile, Anthony Lerew and Kyle Davies continued their consistent pitching all season. Lerew's numbers are simply staggering. He finished the season with a record that doesn't truly point out his dominance. Lerew was 7-6 in twenty five starts, but had an ERA of 2.38. Anthony's August numbers fit right in with the rest, going 2-1 with an ERA of 1.72.

Lerew has quietly become one of the Braves best pitching prospects, regardless of the level of competition. In his 51 career games (46 starts), Lerew is 16-11 with an ERA of 2.28 (4th in the league). It's hard to find a prospect who has that low of an ERA in that many minor league appearances.

Kyle Davies also had a record that did not reflect how well he pitched in 2003. He was 8-8 in 27 starts, but had an ERA of 2.89 (8th in the league) in 146.1 innings of work. Davies was also second in the South Atlantic League with 148 strikeouts. In August, Davies was 2-2 with an ERA of 2.01.

The starting pitchers were simply tremendous in August. Rome's starters were 17-3 with an ERA of 1.74. They allowed only 32 earned runs in 30 games. A sub-3.00 ERA would be great, but a sub-2.00 ERA over that long a period of time is almost unheard of.

The Rome bullpen wasn't bad either. Sung Jung, a 24 year old from Korea who was signed by the Braves in June of 2002, was great as David's replacement as the closer. The sidearmer finished with an ERA of 2.16 in 53 games and 18 saves. Efigenio Peralta also joined the club after starting the season in Danville, and went 4-2 with an ERA of 2.52 as a set up guy. And Fernando Tadefa, a 19th round draft choice in 2002, was the lefthanded specialist saving 5 games and having an ERA of 2.88. The Braves also got solid work from an outfielder turned pitcher, as Paul Weichard posted a 2.14 ERA in 22 games.

Pitching may have been the most important reason the Braves won 32 of its last 46 games, but it was not the only reason. Several Braves position players had solid seasons to help this club advance to the playoffs.

Perhaps the most unheralded member of the Rome team will be the first we mention. Wes Timmons was slated to be Rome's utility man when the season started, but that all changed after Cole Barthel got hurt in April Timmons, a shortstop in college at Bethume-Cookman, was asked to play a position he had never played. Wes accepted the challenge and played third base for the first time in his life.

Offensively, this base is a position where you need a lot of production. When Barthel went out, many wondered if Timmons would be able to handle the job on an everyday basis. But his bat was a main reason the Braves remained in the thick of the pennant race. Wes finished with a .282 batting average, 7 home runs, and 49 runs batted in. When Rocket Wheeler moved Timmons into the number two spot in the batting order, Rome was very productive.

Despite never playing third before, Timmons played defense like a veteran of the position. He committed only 10 errors in 121 games at third base. Timmons was a huge reason for the Braves success.

The two big names were very productive. Brian McCann battled through a hamstring injury in August, so he split time between catcher and the designated hitter. McCann finished the season with a .290 batting average, 12 home runs, and 71 runs batted in.

Jeff Francoeur was the main player fans were watching the season began, and the big boy did not disappoint. Francoeur finished with a .281 batting average, 14 home runs, and 68 runs batted in. He was also 2nd in the SAL with 147 hits and second in triples with 9. Francouer grew more patient at the plate as the season progressed, which made him a better all-around hitter.

Peters return to the Rome lineup was invaluable. The righthanded hitter went 24 for 87 (.276) with 5 home runs and 17 RBI in 25 games. Combining Peters with the lefty McCann and the righty Francoeur created a dangerous threesome in the middle of the Rome lineup.

Onil Joseph finished tenth in the league with a .296 batting average. He stole 32 bases, most of them becoming before an injury during the middle part of the season. But "OJ" is a spark plug at the top of the Rome lineup.

Ardley Jansen also missed a significant amount of time with a broken hand in midseason. Jansen finished with a .260 batting average, 3 home runs, and 29 runs batted in. Luis Hernandez provided spectacular, gold glove caliber defense all season long, and even contributed with a .231 average, 2 home runs, and 25 runs batted in.

Hernandez' defense is tremendous, and he was complimented up the middle by second baseman Jonathan Schuerholz. The former Auburn Tiger committed only fourteen errors in 133 games (103 at second base). However, the big story with Schuerholz is his tremendous progress offensively. He became a switch hitter last year in the Instructional League, and believe it would take a full season before he was productive from both sides of the plate. But Schuerholz put in long hours with Rome Batting Coach Bobby Moore and Roving Hitting Instructor Franklin Stubbs, and the results were positive. Schuerholz finished the season with a .251 average, 39 RBI, and 25 stolen bases. Not bad considering he wondered if he'd be able to hit .200 this season while learning how to become a switch hitter.

There should also be credit given to the tremendous leaders of the Rome Braves: Manager Rocket Wheeler, Pitching Coach Kent Willis, and Batting Coach Bobby Moore. All three did a great job of developing these kids and leading the charge for a playoff spot.

Good luck to the Rome Braves as they start their series with Hickory tonight in Rome.

GAME ONE:
WEDNESDAY AT ROME
Anthony Lerew 7-6, 2.38 vs. Jonathan Albaladejo (12-5, 3.11)

GAME TWO:
FRIDAY AT HICKORY
Matt Wright (10-2, 1.65) vs. Zach Duke (8-7, 3.11)

GAME THREE:
SATURDAY AT HICKORY
Kyle Davies (8-8, 2.89) vs. Pat O'Brien (6-4, 2.59)

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