Spend any time around the Greensboro Grasshoppers and it becomes readily apparent that the players who comprise the Marlins' Class A affiliate are a close-knit group. Race, nationality and length of service on the squad do not create barriers, which is why they've become one of the most successful clubs in the South Atlantic League this season.
Outfielder Austin Dean is usually one of the players right in the middle of the good-natured bantering found around the batting cage and in the clubhouse. The 2012 fourth-round pick out of Klein Collins High School in Spring, Texas, says the atmosphere helps keep everyone loose as the players prepare to make the most of their opportunities once the games begin later that evening.
"We're all playing great, and we have a really good chemistry on this team," Dean said. "This is the best team in the South Atlantic League, in my opinion. Players have gone up and down from our team, and everybody who comes in new, we try to teach them our way of doing things. We don't have any negativity here; we just try to have fun and everybody likes each other."
The approach is paying dividends, both for the team and for Dean. The Grasshoppers own an overall record of 68-41 (.624) and won the Northern Division first-half crown with 10 straight victories leading up to the All-Star break to catch the Hagerstown Suns. They are in the midst of the race in the second half as well while ranking second in the SAL with a team batting average of .285 and fifth with a team ERA of 3.70, despite playing their home games in hitter-friendly NewBridge Bank Park.
Dean has been one of the catalysts for Greensboro while hitting second in the lineup for most contests. Through July 29, he ranked sixth on the circuit with a .324 batting average. He hit .384/.470/.515 in his first 26 outings in July and put together a hitting streak of 16 games between June 28 and July 13, going 27-for-67 (.403) over that span. The left fielder also owns an ongoing 16-game road hitting string.
"My hitting coach [Frank Moore] and the organization's hitting instructors have helped me out so much," said Dean, who missed three weeks in June with a torn ligament in a finger and a broken nose. "I've learned to slow everything down and stay patient so I can stay true to my zone where I can hit the ball."
As smooth as his performance at the plate has been, Dean admits to having struggled at times since making the move to left field after signing with the Marlins. An infielder in high school who saw activity at every position except shortstop, Dean has worked hard to improve his reads in the outfield. He credits much of his improvement to his coaches, adding that more work remains to be done.
"It was a tough adjustment because I had no idea how to play outfield," Dean said. "Tarrik Brock was our outfield coordinator my first two years and he helped me out a lot, and now we have Lance Johnson, who has taught me a lot as well. I'm learning something new all the time. I feel like my outfield play is progressing a lot, but there is still a lot to learn. Arm strength is the biggest thing I'm trying to build right now along with improving my ability to read the ball and come up firing, especially on plays at the plate."
Though Dean will continue to hone his skills in all areas of the game, he admits he's looking forward to seeing what the end of the campaign holds for the 'Hoppers. Greensboro has already clinched a playoff berth by winning the first half yet wants to continue to play at a high level in order to have momentum come September.
"What we did at the end of the first half was unbelievable," Dean said. "Everything had to go the right way. We know that whoever comes in hot at the end [of the season] is the team that's probably going to win it."
The heat is on: The Northern Division is on the verge of having another hotly contested race in the second half. Entering action July 30, Hagerstown led Greensboro by one game, Hickory by two and Kannapolis by four. The Crawdads own the SAL's longest active winning streak at four games after sweeping Delmarva in a series that ended July 29. The Shorebirds suffered their first four-game series sweep of the season in the process.
Giolito two-time award winner: For the second time this season, Hagerstown's Lucas Giolito has been recognized as the SAL Pitcher of the Week. The 16th overall pick in the 2012 Draft, Giolito surrendered a leadoff single to Kannapolis' Adam Engel to open the game July 25, then retired the next 18 Intimidators he faced. He worked six innings and struck out seven, improving to 6-2 with a 2.34 ERA in 16 starts this season.
Graeter's grrrreat! Asheville catcher Ashley Graeter homered in the eighth and ninth innings to lead the Tourists to a walk-off, 10-8 victory over Charleston on July 29. Graeter led off the eighth with a long ball to pull the home team within two at 8-6. Raimel Tapia then opened the bottom of the ninth with his eighth blast of the year before Graeter came up with runners on second and third to crush the game-winning blast, his eighth homer of the campaign.
Whalen of an effort: Savannah right-hander Robert Whalen improved to 6-0 with a 1.65 ERA in six appearances (five starts) after limiting Lexington to two hits and two unearned runs over seven innings in an 8-3 victory July 29. Whalen appeared in four games during the first month of the campaign before missing more than two months with an infected right hand he suffered after getting cut.