Pitching and defense are the keys to any championship team in professional baseball. Not surprisingly, that mixture has served the Savannah Sand Gnats well. Through games of Aug. 5, the Sand Gnats owned the best overall winning percentage (.645, 71-39) in the South Atlantic League after taking the Southern Division's first half by 4 1/2 games over Asheville with a 44-22 mark.
In no part of the game have the Sand Gnats been better than on the mound. The team leads the SAL with a 2.99 ERA while also ranking first with 14 shutouts and 10 complete games. Savannah also has allowed the fewest hits on the circuit, surrendering only 869 in 948 1/3 innings.
"We've been throwing the ball well," said Savannah pitching coach Marc Valdes. "We are definitely a team that is fastball-heavy. We have some good young arms that are here and some guys who have already moved up. We're excited about the guys we have now and hope to continue with the strong pitching performances that we've had so we can go into the playoffs hot."
Seven Sand Gnat pitchers were selected to the SAL All-Star Game. Four -- Kevin McGowan, Robert Coles, Tim Peterson and, most recently, Dario Alvarez -- have received promotions. Valdes says dealing with the constant adjustments has been a challenge, but credits many of the newcomers for making the smooth transition and contributing immediately while Savannah continued to win games.
One of the constants in the rotation all season has been John Gant, a late addition to the All-Star team who was born in Savannah before moving to New York and later to Florida. Drafted in the 21st round out of high school in Wesley Chapel, Florida, in 2011 and signed to an above-slot deal, Gant ranks second in the league with two complete games, fourth with 10 wins and third with a 2.55 ERA. The Mets were intrigued with Gant's athleticism and projectable frame as well as the sinking action on his 89-91 mph fastball.
"He's been fantastic," Valdes said. "He's very deceptive because he comes at you from a different arm angle up top and he hides the ball very well. He has three pitches and he throws them at any time in the count, regardless of whether he's ahead or behind. And to have three pitches that he can throw when behind, especially off-speed pitches, is a big asset for him. He also locates his fastball on both sides of the plate, which has contributed to his success."
Off the field, Gant is often seen with fellow starter Robert Gsellman, who was drafted in the 13th round in 2011 out of a Los Angeles-area high school. Gsellman leads the SAL with four complete games and ranked second on the circuit with a 2.45 ERA.
"Gant and Gsellman tend to compete and feed off one another, and it's fun to watch them push themselves while rooting for each other," Valdes said. "Robert has done a great job of attacking the zone with his fastball. His fastball command is outstanding for a 21-year-old kid. When he misses, he misses down in the strike zone. He doesn't leave many balls up in the zone. He's been working very hard on his changeup and is starting to throw it when behind in the count."
One pitcher with the magic touch has been Robert Whalen, who earned the win in each of his first six outings. Whalen was drafted in the 12th round out of Haines City, Florida, in 2012 after impressing the Mets with his fastball command and a curveball that is considered to be one of the best in the organization. Whalen missed more than two months in the middle of this season after suffering a cut on his hand that later became infected. The right-hander returned to the rotation in late July and notched wins in his first two starts to improve to 6-0 with a 1.65 ERA.
"He's got electric stuff," Valdes said. "He has a fastball that moves and cuts, along with a curveball, slider and a changeup that he's developing as well and is becoming a good out pitch for him. He's going to be exciting to watch in the Mets organization in the near future."
Other pitchers have had similar success. Miller Diaz, a right-hander from Venezuela, also has been a force in the rotation despite missing six weeks midway through the campaign with a strained elbow. Diaz was 6-1, 2.14 in his first 12 outings (10 starts) and earned multi-inning saves in the two games he did not start. Akeel Morris garnered All-Star honors and has emerged as the Sand Gnats' top closer. In his first 31 games, Morris was 4-0, 0.74 with 12 saves in 13 opportunities.
"These guys are enjoying playing together and it's fun to watch, Valdes said. "The challenge now comes in getting those guys who are playing in their first full years through the rest of August. Some guys may hit a wall, but they're having a good time and competing well. Our team is well-balanced with good pitching, steady defense and timely hitting. We're looking forward to seeing how far that takes us."
Power matches first-half wins: Erich Weiss doubled in the go-ahead run in the fourth inning and tripled and scored the first of three tallies in the sixth to lead West Virginia to a 6-1 win over Lexington on Aug. 4. The victory improved the Power's second-half record to 20-22 and equaled the team's first-half win total with 29 games left to play. "It's unbelievable how much we've improved," Weiss told the Charleston Gazette. "We've noticed how much effort we need to put into each game and carried that through the second half."
Hickory's homers: The Crawdads continue to pace the SAL in home runs with 108 through Aug. 5. Second baseman Travis Demeritte and right fielder Nomar Mazara top the circuit with 23 and 19, respectively. Demeritte put his power on display July 31 in a 10-1 win at Savannah, going 3-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs.
Harvey hurt: The Delmarva Shorebirds lost their top pitcher when the Baltimore Orioles announced on July 31 that Hunter Harvey was being shut down. "Hunter saw our doctors and he has an issue with his elbow and so he won't be pitching any more the rest of the season," Baltimore's vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette told the Associated Press. "He's had a good year and he has distinguished himself as a top young pitcher. And he needs a rest period." Harvey was 7-5 with a 3.18 ERA in 17 starts with 106 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings.