It should come as no surprise that a Bill Richardson-managed team is making a hard push for the playoffs once again in the South Atlantic League. After all, the Hickory skipper, who is in his third year at the helm of the Crawdads' dugout, reached the postseason in each of his first two slates with the team, including a Sally League-best 79-58 record in 2011.
This season, Richardson and the Crawdads finished third in the North Division's first half with a 36-33 record, nine games behind first-place Greensboro. Hickory entered Wednesday's game as one of five teams within four games of the top spot in the second stanza, with the Crawdads and Hagerstown tied for second at 24-21, one game behind the leading West Virginia Power.
As one of the youngest teams on the circuit, the Crawdads are battling "the wall" that many players face in the dog days of August. The Hickory roster includes several of the top prospects in the Texas Rangers' farm system, headed by catcher Jorge Alfaro. The native of Colombia turned 19 in June and has put together an impressive first full season in the professional ranks -- he was hitting .278 with three home runs and 28 RBIs through Aug. 7, yet was scuffling at the plate with a .143 norm during the first week of the current month.
"The Texas Rangers' philosophy of challenging some of these kids has obviously paid off," Richardson said. "It means a lot of work, especially at the beginning [of the season], because for them it's more of a field trip than a career until the second half of the season comes around. Right now, they understand what they've gotten themselves into, but they're accepting the challenges very well, even though they are three very different players."
An infielder in Colombia who caught the attention of scouts after catching in the Dominican Republic, Alfaro is an impressive physical specimen who has all the tools behind the plate. He has an outstanding arm and quick feet with a solid knowledge of how to work with pitchers. His bat also possesses the potential to be an above-average tool, with 24 of his 54 hits going for extra bases. Scouts believe he will hit for much more power as he continues to mature in the game, and his speed currently rates as above-average, as evidenced by his five triples.
"He's got a great physical presence, but he has a ways to go on some of the other things," Richardson said. "When he's feeling good, he doesn't do his maintenance work as well as he should, but he'll get it. He loves to play this game, and he does not want a day off. He's young and he has everything you want to see out of an elite receiver."
Alfaro missed nearly two months after suffering a hamstring injury during the second week of the season. Ironically, both second baseman Rougned Odor and shortstop Luis Sardinas also were sidelined earlier this year. Odor suffered a separated shoulder that cost him two and a half weeks in June, while Sardinas battled an ailing shoulder muscle in July. Both also have scuffled at the plate since the calendar turned to August, with Odor hitting .208 this month and Sardinas .167.
Even so, the infield combination has been impressive for the Crawdads. At 18, Odor is the youngest player in the SAL this season, but his maturity and natural strength exceed his age. In addition to hitting at a .261 clip, he has eight home runs and 33 extra-base hits. Defensively, he is sound at second base, and he saw some activity at shortstop during Sardinas' absence.
"Rougned is a freak because he's a kid who goes 100 percent every single play," Richardson said. "His numbers have been hurt by that a little bit, but the effort he puts forth is amazing. He has a lot of upside, a lot of heart and a great set of tools. He has the whole package."
Odor and Sardinas hail from Venezuela, with the latter looking every bit the part of the rich history of stellar shortstops from the South American country. Lean with fluid actions and quick feet, Sardinas has a strong arm, steady hands and above-average speed. He also shows excellent hand-eye coordination with the bat, resulting in a .296 batting average. Scouts also believe the 19-year-old Sardinas will get stronger as he matures, although his glove is expected to be his greatest asset.
"He was battling that tight lat and it took everything we could do to get him to stay out of the lineup for a few days in order to get healthy again," Richardson said. "He has the classic shortstop build with great reactions and tremendous anticipation. He's been able to add some weight this season, and he's going to make even greater strides as he continues to do that and gain experience."
Tourist trouble: Asheville's hopes for a SAL pennant became a little more difficult when the Tourists' top two hitters, All-Stars Will Swanner and Tyler Massey, were placed on the disabled list. Swanner's ankle injury could sideline him for the rest of the season, while Massey is expected to miss at least two weeks with an oblique injury.
Who'd have thunk it?: The Rome Braves had their franchise-best 13-game winning streak stopped earlier this week and maintain a 4 1/2-game lead in the South Division after finishing with a Minor League-worst 18-52 record in the first half. The R-Braves announced that playoff tickets will go on sale at State Mutual Stadium on Aug. 16, despite approximately 25 games still remaining on the schedule for all SAL clubs.
Big league vision: Outfielder Roderick Bernadina has shown in his first nine games at Delmarva why he is deemed one of the rising prospects in the Orioles' system. The cousin of Roger Bernadina of the Washington Nationals has hit .364/.400/.424 with three RBIs in 33 at-bats for the Shorebirds after the 19-year-old from Curacao opened the season in the New York-Penn League and also played three games in the Carolina League. "I see myself in the big leagues in two, three years," Bernadina told The Daily News. "I work hard every day. When I go to Curacao, I practice every day. I want to be a big league player."