Augusta Playoff Preview

In the 2nd half, Augusta made winning the Southern division look easy, with a 13 game lead over the 2nd place team. Meanwhile, the first half champion Rome Braves struggled to 6th place. But the Braves dominated the first half. Who has the advantage in the first round of the SAL playoffs?

Augusta blew away the South Atlantic League in the 2nd half in 2006, but the playoffs can be very different than the regular season.  The GreenJackets went 53-16 in the 2nd half to finish the year 92-47.  The Rome Braves, who went 42-28 in the first half and finished 3 games ahead of the GreenJackets, struggled to a 29-40 record in the 2nd half.  But although Rome has just 12 players left from its opening day roster, it has been bolstered by recent call-ups from the rookie league which will make facing them much tougher.

Schedule:Game 1: Wed. 9/6, 7:05 PM, At Augusta; Expected Starters: Jairo Cuevas for Rome, Joe Martinez for Augusta.

• Game 2: Fri. 9/8, 7:00 PM, At Rome; Expected Starters: Ronnie Ray for Augusta, Adam Stanley for Rome.

• Game 3 (if necessary): Sat. 9/9, 7:00 PM, At Rome.  Expected Starters: Dave Mckae for Augusta, Jeff Lyman for Rome.(All times EDT)

Star Players: Augusta has one very obvious star, SAL MVP Eugenio Velez.  Velez finished with the league lead in average (.315), triples (20), and the 4th most stolen bases in the lead.  Corner outfielders Michael Mooney (.287/.355/.439, 38 SB) and Ben Copeland (.281/.368/.410, 30 SB) have also been solid throughout the year, and speedy Antoan Richardson (.292 BA, 66 SB) sets the plate for all of them.  Starting pitcher Dave McKae (1.80 ERA) has been spectacular since starting his season late in May, while fellow rotation mate Joe Martinez had the 2nd most wins in the league (15) with a 3.01 ERA.

Rome lost their best hitter, Kala Kaaihue, to a midseason promotion, leaving the team’s top hitter to be third baseman Eric Campbell.  Campbell led the team with 22 home runs and hit .296/.335/.517 on the year.  Catcher Cody Clark (.296 BA) was one of the team’s other leading hitters.  Rome’s pitching staff has been shuffled all season, with 18 different starters used this year, and 15 different players with saves (none with more than 4).  The best performing starter has been Adam Stanley, who had a 2.09 ERA in 7 games as a starter after putting together a 5.35 ERA as a reliever.

Team Strengths: Augusta is clearly a speed team, and will run around the bases a lot when they’re on base.  And they’re on base a lot, with the SAL’s 3rd best batting average (.271) and 4th best OBP (.338).  Augusta’s 244 stolen bases were 2nd best in the league, thanks to a starting outfield with 134 stolen bases on their own.  Pitching had been a strength all season as well, but it’s faltered as of late.  The team’s 3.26 ERA is 3rd best in the SAL.  However, the rotation has taken its’ hits.  Dan Griffin has been on the DL most of the year, and Sergio Romo broke his hand not long after keying a combined no-hitter.  The team also traded promising Shairon Martis, who had a 3.64 ERA, midseason.  But McKae, Martinez, Ronnie Ray and Ryan Shaver still combine for one of the toughest front four a team can face.

After losing Kaaihue and top starter Jo-Jo Reyes to promotions midseason, the Braves struggled to find an identity.  Their batting average (.254, 8th in the 16 team league) and OPS (.704, t-8th) define middle of the road.  Their 4.21 team ERA (12th) indicates a weakness, which has been depth in the rotation and a bullpen that has not found any defined roles this year.  But the Braves can outhit their opponents when their pitchers do find a groove, and at the end of the season, Kevin Gunderson has appeared to become the team’s closer, so the staff may be more settled than it was for most of the 2nd half.

Top Prospects To Watch: Ben Copeland was the top Giants draft pick (4th round) in 2005.  The rest of the team are guys a number of mid-round picks who have uncertain futures.  Velez is a touch old for the league after arriving as part of the Rule 5 draft.  Richardson could be the fastest player in the Giants system, while Mooney is a strong all-around outfielder.  Dave McKae has had a spectacular season, and might be the best healthy pitching prospect on this team.

Head-to-Head: Augusta won the season series with a record of 11-9 against the Braves, but the other stats aren’t so close.  The GreenJackets outscored the Braves 87-66, hit .266 compared to the Braves .246, and had a 2.83 ERA against Rome compared to Rome’s 3.83 against the ‘Jackets.  Meanwhile, McKae won all three of his starts against the Braves this season.

Outlook: Augusta is rolling into the playoffs, having won 14 of their last 16 games, while Rome went 6-6 in their last 12 games.  With Rome’s two top contributors promoted midseason, while Augusta’s losses in their rotation was offset by some depth, it’s unlikely the Braves will look any better than their 6th place 2nd half finish.  As long as Augusta doesn’t get ahead of themselves, they should be able to beat the Braves quickly.

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