Savannah, GA- The players erupted in cheers as pitcher Tim Peterson blasted a left field shot, hitting the forest-green metal-plated outfield with just one bounce. In the Class-A South Atlantic League, the pitchers do not hit in regular season games in favor of the designated hitter, so pitchers rarely hit -- even during batting practice. Though early on Monday, some of the pitchers decided to wield the lumber, seeing who could best who during their last regular season BP.
As expected, when asked about the mood in the clubhouse, second-year Manger Luis Rojas says that it's "loose." You don't have to ask him though. The hoots and hollers of teammates as Peterson celebrated his batting-practice knock on that hot early morning said as much.
The post-season has arrived in Savannah, and the Sand Gnats will take another step toward their first South Atlantic League Championship in 17 years. This young group, averaging at just over 22 years old, will head to Augusta to take on the Class-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, the GreenJackets, on Wednesday, September 4th for game one of the best-of-three divisional series.
Skipper Luis Rojas knows there will be some extra pep in each player's step; some are playing in their first professional play-off, while others are returning to the post-season after last year's run with the New York Mets Class-A Short Season Brooklyn Cyclones. The little bit of anticipated adrenalin is what Rojas refers to as the "extra ingredient."
The approach, however, will stay the same. "There will be a little bit of a rush of adrenalin," Rojas says. "(It's) probably going to make things more exciting, But, it's still the same game, and we're trying to keep it the same nine innings we've played all season," adds Rojas. The Gnats will use the same preparation that elevated them to the post-season.
The Gnats punched their ticket to the play-offs back in June, winning the first-half pennant on the backs of outstanding hitting by swarming opposing pitchers with hoards of base runners. First-round pick C Kevin Plawecki led the way, ranking atop the league in doubles most of the first-half. In front of him in the lineup was the always-on-base, 1B Jayce Boyd. Just after representing the Gnats in the SAL All-Star Game, both Plawecki and Boyd were promoted to Class-A Advanced St. Lucie.
The second-half team had to adapt to stay afloat in the SAL. This team, instead, enjoyed success with their dominant pitching (ranked second in team ERA and complete games), opportunistic and patient hitting (led the league in walks at 534), and solid defense (ranked second only to Augusta).
On Wednesday, the Gnats look to send their most dominant pitcher, league-leading-15-win RHP Gabriel Ynoa, to the mound in game one at Lake Olhmstead Stadium in Augusta. The right-hander will have a tall order, likely going up against GreenJackets RHP Martin Agosta, who led Augusta starters with a miniscule 2.06 ERA over 18 games.
Friday, the Gnats LHP Steven Matz will do his best to quiet the GreenJackets bats as the teams move the series to Historic Grayson Stadium for game two. The southpaw has enjoyed a breakout year with Savannah, with a team-leading 2.62 ERA-- good enough for the league's top ten. Friday should see Augusta hurler RHP Kendry Flores, who has yet to allow a run to Savannah hitters in his two lone starts against the Gnats.
If the teams split the first two games, a third and final series game will be played at Historic Grayson Stadium on Saturday. The Gnats will look to RHP Luis Cessa to decide their fate. The workhorse has notched 130 total innings for the Gnats this season, while enjoying major success at home, winning six games with a 2.27 ERA while pitching at Grayson Stadium.
The Gnats hope that Mets' first-round pick OF Brandon Nimmo will continue his hot August, driving the ball and working smart at-bats. The 20-year-old batted .324 for the month of August and drew 27 walks -- good for second in the league. OF Maikis De La Cruz, who has hit .328 against Augusta this year, should play his part in creating runs and plating runners. 3B Cole Frenzel and OF Eudy Pina should also figure into the equation, as they lead the Gnats in RBI. Newcomer and native Colombian 2B Dilson Herrera was acquired in trade with Pittsburgh and has brought his 60 RBI talent with him.
Although Rojas anticipates all of his players contributing to get the job done, he says, "Our catchers can really be the deciding factor here." C Albert Cordero and C Jeff Glenn have handled duties behind the plate for the second half with outstanding results.
Cordero and Glenn have been on the same page with pitching all year, earning their battery mates on the bump a league-leading 1.17 WHIP. The catchers' ability to call the right pitch at the right time and establish trust has helped to keep opposing hitters off the base paths, altogether. Cordero has yet to allow a passed ball on the season, and both catchers have kept mistakes at a minimum, combining for just eight errors.
The All-Georgia match-up will begin on Wednesday in Augusta, with 50 youngsters all looking to make an impact early in their careers. Nothing comes easy in the post-season, and the Sand Gnats will have to make every at-bat count, execute every play, and take nothing for granted. If everything clicks, and the pieces fit just right, these young players could compete to bring a league championship back to the City of Savannah.