The cure for a championship hangover? A great second half to build momentum heading into the playoffs. That's what the Asheville Tourists are hoping is the recipe for a repeat.
Sam Howard pitched six innings of scoreless relief and Luis Jean hit a rare homer Saturday as the Tourists edged Savannah, 2-1, to return to the South Atlantic League Finals.
Rehabbing right-hander Tyler Chatwood retired two batters and Jerad McCrummen struck out the final batter in the first. Howard (1-0), a 22-year-old left-hander, came on in the second, gave up three hits and struck out six without issuing a walk.
"Sam was really good tonight," Asheville manager Warren Schaeffer said. "He was pounding the zone, he was competitive, he was just good all-around. It was a pleasure watching him pitch."
Howard's effort would have been for naught if not for Jean, who slugged a two-run homer over the left-field wall at Grayson Stadium with one out in the eighth. It was the 21-year-old shortstop's first long ball since July 30, 2014 while playing for Rookie-level Grand Junction.
"Pretty sure it was the first pitch," Schaeffer said. "That was a huge at-bat for us. Jean, I think he's hit one ball out of the park in BP all year and had zero on the season during the game. The guys were loving it. It was just a huge at-bat for us."
The reigning SAL champs needed a strong second half just to return to the playoffs. After posting a .457 winning percentage in the first half, they clinched a Wild Card spot with a 40-29 second-half record.
"I'm so proud of the guys, they worked hard all year," said Schaeffer, who's wrapping up his first season with the Tourists. "Early work, it all pays off. It's not really a turnaround, it started in the second half. Down the stretch, it's been a playoff atmosphere for a long time. We were just trying to get in any way we could because we know anything can happen in the playoffs."
Asheville will square off in the Finals with Hickory, a team that went 7-2 against the Tourists during the regular season.
"Hickory is a really good team," Schaeffer said. "They beat us more than we beat them. ... We've just got to beat them three games. They have a good offense and good pitching, but so do we. It should be a good series."
In other SAL playoff action:
Hickory 1, West Virginia 0
Collin Wiles yielded four hits and three walks while striking out four over six innings as the Crawdads won the decisive third game in the other semifinal series. Luke Tendler plated the game's lone run with a fourth-inning sacrifice fly. Pirates No. 20 prospect Yeudy Garcia took the loss, despite striking out seven and giving up a run on four hits over 5 2/3 innings. Box score