Times were tough in the first half for the Rome Braves. Yet, after posting a dismal 18-52 record to place last among all full-season clubs, manager Randy Ingle's squad has turned things around in the second half -- again -- to become one of the hotter teams in baseball.
The R-Braves reeled off their ninth straight victory July 31 and concluded the month atop the South Atlantic League Southern Division standings with a 25-14 record, four games ahead of second-place Asheville. Rome jumped out to a strong start after the All-Star break by winning 11 of its first 14 contests before falling into a slide reminiscent of the campaign's initial two-and-a-half months that included only five triumphs in a 16-game span.
"These guys proved they didn't want to revisit what they went through in the first half," Ingle said. "We've played well as a team for the most part in the second half. It really hasn't been a few guys getting really hot. Our success has been timely hitting and timely pitching from just about everybody on the team."
Offensively, first baseman William Beckwith has been the team's best hitter in the second half, batting .321 with six home runs and 35 RBIs in 37 games. Second baseman Ross Heffley (.311 in July), shortstop Elmer Reyes (.297) and outfielder Robby Hefflinger (.293) have added the most consistency to the lineup over the past month. The bullpen has been a strength as well, particularly with the performances of Ronan Pacheco, David Peterson, Wilson Rivera and Ian Thomas.
Rome has also received strong assistance in the rotation from left-hander Alex Wood. The second-round pick in June out of the University of Georgia has been gradually increasing his workload on a per-start basis, including his five-inning performance versus Savannah on July 29 when he earned his first professional victory while limiting the Sand Gnats to one run and two hits. In fact, in his last three outings, Wood has surrendered a combined three hits and one run in 13 innings.
"I couldn't be happier," said Wood, who is 1-2 with a 1.80 ERA in seven starts. "This is what I've always wanted to do, and to be able to pitch for the Atlanta Braves after going to school at Georgia is like a dream come true."
Wood was considered a potential pick on the first night of this year's Draft but was still on the board when the Braves were on the clock in the second round. According to Atlanta scouting director Tony DeMacio, the Braves emerged feeling as if they had obtained two first-round-caliber selections, a fact that thrilled Wood as well.
"It was special when the Braves called my name," Wood said. "I knew I was in the mix with Atlanta on the first day of the Draft, and they decided to go in a different direction and select [Lucas] Sims, who's a great guy. They called me Monday night after the first round was over and said they wanted to get me with the 85th overall pick. It all ended up working out great."
After signing for a reported $700,000, Wood spent a week at the Braves' Spring Training complex in Orlando before reporting to Rome for the start of the season's second half. Having not pitched in a game since the Southeastern Conference Tournament in late May, Wood worked his way back gradually with impressive success. He has allowed only 14 hits in 25 innings while striking out 19 batters and walking seven. Opponents are hitting him at a .163 clip.
The Braves want to be careful with the workload on Wood, who underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after his arrival at Georgia and red-shirted as a true freshman. He served as the Bulldogs' Friday night starter during his two seasons on the field, including an impressive showing last spring with a 7-3 record and a 2.73 ERA in the nation's toughest division. Despite employing an unusual delivery that includes a short, backward hop, Wood has a hard fastball with good movement in the mid-90s along with a solid changeup.
In addition to improving his breaking ball, Wood says the primary goal is to gain experience, which he hopes includes more winning during the season's final full month.
"I'm working on throwing a curveball and becoming more consistent with it," Wood said. "I'm also trying to be more consistent with my overall command, especially in the strike zone. I loved my time at Georgia, but I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing right now. This is a fun team to be a part of, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens the rest of the way."
Another worst to first? West Virginia is putting together its own worst-to-first performance in the Northern Division. After placing last in the first half with a 23-47 record, the Power moved into the top spot by themselves for the first time this season with a 4-2 victory over Hagerstown on July 31. "We work probably harder than any other team in this league, and it's showing right now," second baseman Dan Gamache told the Charleston Gazette.
The workhorse: Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz continues to show promise as a potential workhorse at higher levels. The Astros prospect moved to the top of the victories list in the SAL on July 31 after a 9-6 win at Asheville, going five innings while equaling his season high with eight strikeouts. The supplemental first-round pick from 2010 currently paces the circuit with 22 starts and 126 innings while ranking fifth with a 3.07 ERA.
Anderson ablaze: There may not be a hotter pitcher in the SAL than Asheville left-hander Tyler Anderson, who tossed a seven-inning complete-game shutout at Charleston on July 29 while limiting the RiverDogs to three hits. The victory improved the Rockies prospect's league-leading ERA to 2.49, and his won-lost record stands at 9-2. In five starts in July, the 2011 first-round pick out of the University of Oregon went 3-0 with an 0.85 ERA.
Honoring the past: The Delmarva Shorebirds welcomed four former players from the Negro Leagues to Arthur W. Perdue Stadium on July 28. Jimmy "Beady" Bland, Luther "Luke" Atkinson, Al Burrows and Pedro Sierra signed autographs and informed fans of their days playing baseball in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.