The 2016 season resembled a roller coaster in a lot of ways for the Gwinnett Braves, but in between all the highs and lows, the fast start and the setbacks, the managerial changes and the numerous roster moves, history was made in the eighth season at Coolray Field.
Despite posting the lowest winning percentage (.455) of a full-season division winner in Minor League Baseball history, the G-Braves won the International League South Division for the first time since the club moved to Georgia in 2009 and earned the franchise's first trip to the Governors' Cup Championship Series since Richmond won the Cup in 2007.
Gwinnett fought its way into the postseason by winning 11 of its final 20 games, including a winner-take-all season finale at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte on September 5. The G-Braves then knocked off the IL West Division Champion Columbus Clippers in four games of the Governors' Cup Semifinals, capturing Games 3 and 4 in thrilling fashion at home.
Even though the G-Braves' season came to an end in the Governors' Cup Championship Series with a 3-1 series loss to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Gwinnett defied the odds all season and persevered through team records in roster moves (274) and players used (77).
But perhaps the biggest change occurred in the manager's office, where John Moses steered the club through the final 79 games. The first-time skipper took the reins on a two-game basis from May 17-18 when the Atlanta Braves dismissed Fredi Gonzalez and called on G-Braves' Opening Day manager Brian Snitker to fill the vacancy. After Rick Albert was in charge for 23 games, Moses was promoted from hitting coach to full-time manager on June 14 and directed the club down the stretch.
"You kind of expect maybe the manager to go up, but to lose a pitching coach and a manager at the same time, I don't think I've seen that before," Moses said of the change in Atlanta that also saw pitching coach Marty Reed be elevated to the Major League club's bullpen coach. "They [Snitker and Reed] truly deserved it, but it's been an up-and-down season for us. You take the good with the bad and you figure it out, and as long as I'm communicating with everybody and being honest, I think that was all they were looking for from me."
Relying on the veteran presences of pitcher Kanekoa Texeira and infielder Sean Kazmar Jr., in their third and fourth years respectively with the G-Braves, Moses was able to keep his focus on the product on the field and not necessarily worry about the clubhouse in the times of roster turnover.
"Those guys, along with Blake Lalli and Matt Tuiasosopo, kept that clubhouse pretty straight. They'll play the music every once in a while, but I let them police it out there. They came to me with any problems, but for the most part, they held down the fort for us," Moses said.
Behind a talented group of young pitchers, Gwinnett stormed out to its best 13-game start in club history (10-3) and spent all of one day in April with at least a share of first place in the IL South. Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, Casey Kelly and Tyrell Jenkins made up a fearsome quartet of starters in April, combining to go 7-3 with a 1.88 ERA.
Blair, Gwinnett's Pitcher of the Month for April, was the first of that group to earn a promotion to Atlanta on April 24, beginning a six-month long caravan of players between Coolray Field and Turner Field.
Over the next two months, Gwinnett struggled to a 23-34 record, spending the majority of the eight-week stretch in second place.
Just as the team got off to a hot start and cooled down in May, Rio Ruiz did the same. The 22-year-old third baseman, who played in a team-high 131 games, hit .310 in his first month in Triple-A before slumping in early-May. But the left-handed hitter rebounded to lead the club with 62 RBIs, 61 walks and 126 hits. By season's end, he'd be named Gwinnett's "Player of the Year" by the Atlanta Braves.
"All it is really, is getting a good pitch to hit and not missing it," Ruiz said in May while mired in a slump after his hot start. "We all know this game; you have to stay even-keeled and not get frustrated or even too high."
Ruiz, Atlanta's No. 15 prospect according to MLB.com, embarked on a season-best 11-game hitting streak in mid-June and found his way on base safely in 17 straight games from June 9-27. He hit .310 in June, while providing solid defense at the hot corner all season.
Alongside Ruiz, 19-year-old infielder Ozzie Albies, Atlanta's No. 2 prospect and one of the highest-regarded players in all of Minor League Baseball, injected some youthful enthusiasm into the G-Braves' roster when he was promoted on April 30.
The switch-hitting phenom showed flashes of offensive and defensive brilliance, but hit just .248 over 56 games on his Triple-A debut before being returned back to Double-A Mississippi on June 30.
"I think he has adapted well," Moses said of Albies in late-June. "One thing he has to learn is that there are a lot of guys here that know what they're talking about. It's important for him to listen and put those instructions to use."
The Curacao native's transition to Triple-A was helped by the veteran voice of Dominican-born Emilio Bonifacio, himself a switch-hitter, and one of Gwinnett's shining stars in 2016. The fleet-footed Bonifacio led the International League with 37 stolen bases, ranked eighth in batting (.298) and tied for 10th in triples (5). He was Gwinnett's Player of the Month in August and earned the club's "Most Valuable Player" award in a pre-game ceremony on September 3.
"The one thing about Emilio is that you don't have to coach him. He's been around long enough to know how to play the game," Moses said. "When he gets on base, I let him do what he wants to do. We have quite a few Latin guys on the club and he takes control of those guys. He shows them the right way to play and those guys definitely learned from him."
Cuban-born Ronnier Mustelier flanked Bonifacio on a regular basis in the outfield, and was Gwinnett's lone representative at the Triple-A All-Star Game in Charlotte on July 13. He finished the season with the 13th-best batting average in the league (.291) and was the club's Player of the Month for June (.333, 12 RBIs).
The G-Braves' biggest pitching performance of the year came on June 30 at Louisville, as Rob Wooten, Matt Marksberry and Jose Ramirez combined to toss the second no-hitter in team history. The trio struck out 11 batters, led by the then-30-year-old Wooten, who fanned a career-high eight over 6.0 scoreless innings in just his second career start.
Wooten would go on to earn the club's "Most Valuable Relief Pitcher" award on September 3 and be named Gwinnett's "Pitcher of the Year" by the Atlanta Braves on September 9. Serving as the G-Braves' swingman all season, Wooten went 3-5 with a 3.58 ERA and one save in 35 games (6 starts).
After the no-hitter, Gwinnett went 5-5 into the All-Star break in mid-July, sitting just a half-game out of first place in the IL South. Following an eight-game losing skid that sandwiched around the three-day break, the G-Braves matched a club record with seven straight wins from July 20-27, vaulting back into first place in the division.
A talented group of young relief pitchers summoned from Double-A Mississippi helped Gwinnett right the ship in the dog days of summer. Jason Hursh, Stephen Janas and Bradley Roney combined to post a 1.78 ERA in July, while a pair of starters, also promoted from the M-Braves, made their presences' felt as the G-Braves fought for a playoff spot.
Chris Ellis and Rob Whalen, ranked as Atlanta's No. 16 and 21 prospects respectively, came up with big performances when it mattered most in Gwinnett.
Though Ellis went 4-7 with a 6.52 ERA in 15 regular season starts, he saved his best outings for last, going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA (0 ER in 13.0 IP) in two postseason starts. In Game 3 of the Semifinals against Columbus, he didn't walk a batter in 7.0 innings while allowing only three hits and striking out eight.
The right-hander one-upped himself in Game 2 of the Championship Series at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, holding the RailRiders to no hits over 6.0 innings.
Whalen made just three starts for Gwinnett, but posted a 1.93 ERA before being called up to Atlanta on August 3. He and Ellis were two of 25 different starting pitchers used by the G-Braves this season, creating challenges for Reed and later Mike Alvarez, who came to Gwinnett with Albert in May and remained as the club's pitching coach for the rest of the season.
"The way Mike handles the pitchers, he's been outstanding," Moses said. "We talk all the time about the starters and the relievers during games and he's done a great job with them, even though we've sent so many up and gotten some back. He's probably had more of a brunt of it than I have, but he communicates well and helps us a lot."
Of the 25 starters that pulled on a G-Braves' jersey this season, 15 also started for Atlanta. That list included ace Julio Teheran (who rehabbed with Gwinnett on August 14), Matt Wisler, Williams Perez, John Gant and Lucas Harrell.
Those who remained in the season's final five weeks helped Gwinnett go 16-19 to catch Charlotte for the divisional crown. Kazmar Jr. and Lalli helped navigate the waters for the G-Braves, coming up with clutch hits down the stretch and into the postseason.
From July 14 through the end of the regular season, Lalli led the International League with a .350 average and hit a team-best .533 in the four-game Semifinal series win over Columbus. After tallying the game-winning RBI in Game 4 with an eighth-inning sacrifice fly, he had his contract selected by Atlanta and returned to the big leagues for the first time since 2013.
Without Lalli in the lineup, Kazmar Jr. picked up the slack, hitting .387 and leading the IL with three home runs and eight RBIs in the G-Braves' eight playoff games. The club's "Most Competitive Player" for the third season in a row, Kazmar Jr. played in 93 regular season games while battling multiple injuries. But he was the steadying presence, both in the clubhouse and on the field, for Moses and the G-Braves when they needed him most.
"I told those guys when I got the job, that the clubhouse was theirs," Moses said in reference to Kazmar Jr., Lalli and others. "They would treat it with respect and not get carried away. When you have that veteran group out there, I couldn't ask for anything better than that."
Ultimately, not even the red-hot bat of Kazmar Jr. could propel the G-Braves to their first ever IL title. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's pitchers allowed runs in just three of the 36 innings in the series, earning shutout victories in Games 3 and 4 at Coolray Field. After taking Game 1 by a 7-4 score at PNC Field, Gwinnett lost three straight games as the RailRiders captured their second Governors' Cup championship.
Kazmar Jr., who came to Gwinnett in 2013 as a minor league free agent and has played over 350 games for the club over the last four seasons, knew if he and his teammates could qualify for the postseason, anything could happen.
"Once we saw how the division was unfolding and that everyone was in the race, we started to think, 'Why not us?'" he said in a MiLB interview after beating Columbus in Game 4. "We knew that if we could get into the playoffs and got hot that we could go on a run. We've been able to get wins when we needed to. I've been doing this since 2004 and anytime as a competitor you can go out there and win in the playoffs, it means a lot."