For most of the past decade, Rome has struggled during the first half while fielding young and talented teams in their first full seasons of the professional ranks. The 2013 slate has been somewhat different for manager Randy Ingle's club, which entered Wednesday's game in third place in the Southern Division with a 35-29 record, three games behind first-place Savannah.
A few players, particularly a handful of top prospects, have experienced the typical ups and downs. Shortstop Jose Peraza has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to improve his .310 on-base percentage to employ his blazing speed more effectively. Third baseman Carlos Franco has battled at the plate with a .232 average while committing 16 errors in 58 games. On the mound, Mauricio Cabrera has struggled with his control while going 1-4 with a 5.04 ERA in 14 starts.
Taking the pressure off those young and promising players are the R-Braves' three SAL All-Star selections. Josh Elander, who was drafted in the sixth round in 2012 out of TCU, has made a nice transition from behind the plate to left field while ranking among the SAL leaders in numerous offensive categories, including extra-base hits (first, 36), RBIs (second, 58), hits (second, 80), total bases (second, 141) and doubles (thirrd, 22).
Second baseman Levi Hyams, a 19th-rounder out of Georgia in 2012, is hitting at a .321 clip and playing some of the league's best defense at the keystone. Shae Simmons, a 22nd-round selection last June out of Southeast Missouri State, succeeded on his first 18 save opportunities and leads the circuit by five while posting a 2.22 ERA and allowing only 16 hits in his first 28 1/3 innings.
"Those guys have been huge for us," said Ingle, who guided Rome to the playoffs in 2012 after finishing the first half with a Minor League-worst 18-52 record. "They're professionals on and off the field. They're consistent with their approach every time they take the field and have been a big reason why we've played well for most of the season."
In many ways, Hyams personifies the hard-nosed, gritty approach that typifies an Ingle-managed team. An excellent defender with good range and soft hands who started at second, third and short in college, Hyams has been an ideal No. 2 hitter by taking pitches when Peraza is on base and working deep into counts. He is proficient at executing the hit-and-run and can also drive the ball on occasion.
A product of a Georgia program that has graduated numerous players to pro ball over the years, Hyams feels he was mentally prepared for the challenge prior to signing with the Braves last June.
"At Georgia, we had guys get drafted when I was younger and they'd come back and work with us in the fall," Hyams said. "What they told me is exactly the way it is. They'd say, 'In college, you play this many games and you have days in between when you can rest. In pro ball, you play every day and you really have to lock in. If you're not doing so hot, you have to learn how to flush it.' This is my first full season, and I'm working hard to maintain my weight and stay healthy while getting my rest. If you don't get your rest, you come out the next day and you feel like you got jumped by a bunch of guys."
Hyams also credits roving hitting coach Don Long with helping the second baseman make a few minor adjustments at the plate in order to have more success. By raising his hands prior to loading, Hyams is able to get in the slot quicker and make the proper adjustments to the oncoming pitch. The results have been impressive. In fact, in the eight games since the SAL All-Star rosters were announced, Hyams has hit safely in seven, including five two-hit outings.
"A couple of things Don showed me have sent my hitting upward," Hyams said. "I also worked hard to build up my strength during the offseason to help avoid fatigue as much as possible. Sometimes you have to fight through it, especially maintaining a consistent and aggressive approach in order to stay relaxed. I've also found that I can't let my temper get in the way."
Streaking Drive: Greenville's Cody Koback extended his hitting streak to 19 games before it came to an end June 9. Koback, who hit .338 (26-for-77) during the stretch, tied teammate Mookie Betts for the longest hitting string in the SAL so far this season. Betts, who had a 19-game streak from May 5-25, has reached base in 35 straight games, which is the longest such stretch in the league this year.
Double dip for the 'Dads: Hickory entered Tuesday's doubleheader at Hagerstown with a half-game lead over the Suns in their battle for first place in the Northern Division. The Crawdads extended that advantage to 2 ½ games with six remaining in the season's first half by sweeping the twinbill, 6-2 and 1-0. Hickory's Joey Gallo hit three home runs in the opener before pitchers Andrew Faulkner and Cody Kendall combined to shut out the Suns in the nightcap.
Allie gets another handful: For the third time this season, West Virginia's Stetson Allie drove in five runs in a game, this time victimizing Delmarva in the first game of a doubleheader on June 11. Allie continues to lead the SAL in RBIs with 61, three ahead of Rome's Josh Elander.
Agosta Leads Augusta: Right-hander Martin Agosta was named the SAL Pitcher of the Week after he tossed seven shutout innings while allowing two hits and two walks and striking out 10 batters on June 7 versus Lexington. Agosta, who has put together three scoreless outings this season, ranks second in the league with 81 strikeouts and sixth with a 2.19 ERA.