The Atlanta Braves brought up 12 players from the Gwinnett Braves’ roster for their Major League debuts this season before right-handed starting pitcher Ryan Weber got his chance, but his patience was rewarded, as he has capitalized on the long-awaited opportunity.
Weber went 0-1 with a 3.26 ERA (7 ER in 19.1 IP) in his first three big-league starts for Atlanta after the Braves called him up the day after the G-Braves’ season ended on September 7. He delivered a quality start in his first outing despite a 5-0 road loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on September 8, and he produced his longest start at any level this season on September 19 against the same team.
“I still pitch to my strengths,” Weber said after the game. “I knew I had to be a little more fine because they had already seen me and just mix my pitches more than what I did last time.”
The 25-year-old held the Phillies to one run on two hits with two walks and five strikeouts in 7.0 innings, which is the deepest he had pitched into a game since he threw 7.0 frames on August 3, 2014 against the Mobile BayBears while with Double-A Mississippi.
He took a no-decision in a 2-1 win for the Braves over Philadelphia in what was his third career Major League start and sixth consecutive start between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett.
“I was just pounding the zone early and often,” Weber said. “Thank God my curveball finally came around, and my changeup was really working tonight, and it was down.”
Pitches low in the strike zone that induce ground balls have been a staple of Weber’s repertoire throughout his career. He entered 2015 with a 2.63 groundout-to-airout ratio, and he led the Gwinnett staff with a 2.20 ratio (min. five starts). He also recorded 15 of his 21 outs on September 19 by way of groundout or strikeout.
“I’m doing the same thing I was doing down there,” Weber said. “A 90 mph sinker is a 90 mph sinker in the minor leagues or here, and I know they’re going to hit a ground ball.”
Weber began the season with Mississippi and pitched primarily out of the bullpen. He was 0-2 with a 2.73 ERA (8 ER in 26.1 IP) in 11 appearances, including three starts for the M-Braves through May 25. He made his Triple-A debut on May 17 in a spot start for Gwinnett and tossed 5.0 scoreless innings with two hits allowed, a walk and one strikeout in a home game the G-Braves lost 7-4 to the Louisville Bats.
The St. Petersburg, FL native rejoined the G-Braves full time on May 27 and again spent most of his time as a reliever with an occasional spot start until the end of the season. He went 6-3 with a 2.21 ERA (18 ER in 73.1 IP) in 27 outings (six starts) for Gwinnett, overall. He moved into the starting rotation on August 25 and made three starts to close the minor league season, going 2-1 with a 2.81 ERA (5 ER in 16.0 IP).
Those numbers combined with support from Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed helped Weber believe he would have success at the highest level, he said.
“Marty told me, ‘You can go up there; you can do it. Just be yourself, and you know you have the capabilities to do it,’ ” Weber said. “I thank Marty a ton for giving me that confidence.”
The Braves drafted Weber in the 22nd round pick in the 2009 June free agent draft, and he spent most of his time as a reliever with 76 relief appearances in his 139 career outings from 2009-14 were in relief. He went 25-28 with a 4.21 ERA (223 ER in 476.2 IP) and 4.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio (362 SO/82 BB) across his first six professional seasons.
He improved on all of those numbers this year. Combined at three levels this season, Weber was 6-6 with a 2.50 ERA (33 ER in 119.o IP) and a 4.53 strikeout-to-walk rate (68 SO/15 BB) in 41 outings (12 starts), including his three starts for Atlanta.
“I’m just locking into my routine and just dialing in to what I need to do to go out the next time and pitch well,” he said.
Saturday, September 19 was a special night for 14 of the top players in the Atlanta Braves’ organization who were invited to Turner Field to be recognized as the club’s Minor League Pitchers and Players of the Year. The group, including players from each level and affiliate of the organization, received a tour of the clubhouse, watched batting practice from the field and mingled with some of the current Braves’ Major Leaguers prior to accepting their awards in a pregame ceremony.
For Woodstock, GA native and Mercer University (Macon, GA) product Brandon Barker, the Pitcher of the Year for Advanced-A Carolina, the night was more than just a chance to reflect on a breakout season, it was the opportunity to live out a childhood dream.
“When I was in college and growing up, I always dreamed of playing for my hometown team, the Braves,” said Barker. “I grew up a fan, so being out here is a great experience. I mean, it’s just awesome. I never thought I’d actually be on the Braves’ field.”
Barker earned that chance to step out on the Turner Field playing surface by asserting himself as one of the top pitchers in the Braves’ organization in 2015. He went 12-10 with a 3.25 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 146.2 innings, leading all Braves’ farmhands in wins and strikeouts and finishing sixth in the system in ERA. The 23-year-old made 27 starts across three levels, advancing from Class-A Rome all the way to Triple-A Gwinnett by season’s end.
His best numbers came with the Carolina Mudcats, where he went 8-5 with a 3.00 ERA and eight quality starts in 17 total starts to earn the club’s Pitcher of the Year award.
“It’s a great honor to be here, and I’m happy that the Braves gave me the award for Carolina,” said Barker prior to the September 19 ceremony. “It’s such a surreal experience coming out here and seeing the locker room, seeing all the facilities and being on the field with everybody, it’s just a great experience.”
Selected by Atlanta out of Mercer in the 16th round in 2014, Barker made his professional debut that same season, going 5-2 with a 3.96 ERA in 14 games, five starts between Rookie-level Danville and Rome. He returned to Rome to open 2015, going 3-4 with a 3.48 ERA in eight starts.
A promotion to Carolina followed, but it wouldn’t prove to be his highest rung on the organizational ladder. Barker went on to make two spot starts for the G-Braves, facing the Charlotte Knights on July 5 at Coolray Field and the Norfolk Tides on September 2 at Harbor Park.
“To be honest, no,” said Barker when asked if he thought he’d reach the Triple-A level this year. “But I knew that if I just worked hard and took it day by day and did what I could on my end, that things would hopefully work out and I’d get my chance.”
His first chance with Gwinnett produced mixed results as he took the loss in his Triple-A debut on July 5. Barker held the potent Charlotte offense to two runs over his first four innings, but was saddled with two more runs after his exit with one out in the fifth. Over 4.1 innings, he yielded four runs on four hits, walked three and struck out an impressive seven batters. Barker exited in a 2-2 game, and the G-Braves went on to lose by a narrow 5-4 margin.
“The first game that I came up, I was a little nervous, just because I didn’t know anybody that I was playing with,” admitted Barker. “I’m from Woodstock, so it’s not too far away. I had a lot of friends and family there. So I was a little bit nervous the first time. But the second time I went out there, I knew I’ve already been there and thought I could do the job. I just did the best that I could, and it turned out well.”
The next time the G-Braves tabbed him to start on September 2, the club was in the heat of a playoff chase. Following a 6-2 win in game one of a rain-soaked doubleheader at Harbor Park in Norfolk, VA, Gwinnett trailed the Tides by 3.0 games for first place in the International League South Division. Only six games remained in the regular season.
Barker helped keep slim postseason hopes alive by throwing 5.0 innings for the victory, holding the Tides to two runs (one earned) on five hits, walking one and striking out three. The G-Braves swept the twinbill with a 7-2 win, cutting Norfolk’s division lead to 2.0 games. That damp September night proved to be the last start and win of Barker’s tremendous 2015 campaign.
Ending his second season with success at the highest level of the Atlanta Braves’ system will give Barker plenty of confidence heading into 2016, but the right-handed starter is stopping short of worrying about which level he’ll open at next year.
“It’s just a great way to end the season so I can work hard in the offseason and have a good Spring Training, and hopefully — you know what, it doesn’t matter what team I break camp with, I just want to have a successful season.”
Two key contributors who helped the Gwinnett Braves push to one game out of a playoff spot were able to catch a glimpse of where their Major League dreams might become reality when they received honors shortly before Saturday’s game between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field.
Right-handed starting pitcher Tyrell Jenkins earned the Braves’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, and center fielder Mallex Smith received the Braves’ Minor League Player of the Year award during a pregame ceremony that honored players from each level of the Atlanta Minor League system, including Gwinnett Pitcher of the Year Manny Banuelos and Gwinnett Player of the Year Adonis Garcia.
“It’s pretty cool, actually,” said Jenkins, who is Atlanta’s No. 4-ranked prospect according to MLB.com. “When they called me and told me, I couldn’t stop smiling for like 10 minutes. It was just awesome.”
The 23-year-old Jenkins and 22-year-old Smith both began the season at Double-A Mississippi but were promoted to Gwinnett before the Triple-A All-Star break. Jenkins was 3-4 with a 3.57 ERA (18 ER in 45.1 IP) in nine starts for the G-Braves, while Smith batted .281 (78-for-278) and stole a team-high 34 bases in 69 games with Gwinnett.
“It’s just a blessing,” said Smith, the Braves’ No. 13 prospect according to MLB.com.” You can’t really ask for this, it’s something that just happens over the course of time. Every day you wake up and try to get ready to go and perform and just be the best you can possibly be. I just feel like if you go out there and put your best foot forward daily, things happen. The Lord just found mercy on me to bless me with this. It’s just an honor, unbelievable.”
The Braves acquired both players in offseason trades. Jenkins joined right-handed starter Shelby Miller as part of a package in a November 17 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals in return for outfielder Jason Heyward and right-handed reliever Jordan Walden. Smith was part of a five-player deal with the San Diego Padres on December 19 that sent outfielder Justin Upton to the Padres.
Jenkins overcame two lat muscle injuries in the past three years that had kept him from making more than 19 starts in any of his first five professional seasons. He started a combined 25 games between Mississippi and Gwinnett in his first year as an Atlanta farmhand, going 8-9 with a 3.19 ERA (49 ER in 138.1 IP) that was the fourth-lowest among qualified pitchers in the Braves’ system. His 88 strikeouts also were the fifth-most of any Atlanta minor leaguer.
“Just to be able to come back and be able to have a full season, whether it was (Pitcher) of the Year or not, I was just happy to make it through the season knowing that the whole surgery held up and everything,” Jenkins said. “Just to win that adds on to kind of let you know what people saw I did or what they thought of my year, and it’s pretty special. I’m glad to be here.”
After he led all of Minor League Baseball with 88 stolen bases in 2014, Smith had a blistering start to his career in the Braves’ system. He batted .340 (70-for-206) with 23 steals in 57 games for Mississippi before he received his promotion to Gwinnett. He finished the season with a combined .306 batting average (148-for-484) that ranked fourth among Atlanta farmhands, while his 57 total steals led the organization.
“Mentally, I improved a lot, just going through my ups and downs,” Smith said. “Being traded, I had to get over that mental hump. Adjusting to a different organization, adjusting to different rules. Just trying to better yourself and just make sure you’re not disobeying the rules, just trying to get along and figure out your way. It helped out a lot.”
All of the award winners had the chance to be on the field for batting practice, which allowed Smith to meet outfielder Cameron Maybin, who was also a member of the San Diego organization up until the 2015 season, and outfielder Michael Bourn, who Smith admired during Bourn’s first tenure with the Braves from 2011-12.
“It’s a different feel seeing them up close and personal than on TV,” said Smith, a native of Tallahassee, FL. “It feels more real.”
As for his time in Gwinnett, Smith said it was fun to be part of a team that had a chance to reach the playoffs until the penultimate day of the season after it was in last place its division when he arrived on June 24.
Jenkins spent much of the final three weeks of the season on the Gwinnett disabled list because of arm fatigue, but he was thrilled to be able to come back to make one more start on Sept. 4 to prove to himself and the organization he was healthy and ready to embark on an offseason of preparation for a 2016 season that could see him back in the dugout at Turner Field.
He said it would be particularly special if he could accomplish that goal alongside Smith, his friend and roommate during road trips with Gwinnett.
“We’d always talked about always going up to Atlanta together and being together,” Jenkins said. “If he does something wrong I’ll let him know, and if I do something wrong he’ll let me know. We really looked out for each other this year.”
Smith admitted it would be fun to rise to the big leagues together, but he said he also understands all they can do is put themselves in positions that make that dream a possibility.
“When the time is right, we’ll come,” Smith said. “Until then, we’re going to prepare and get ourselves ready to be up here.”
Atlanta Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia had never hit more than nine home runs in any of the three seasons since the Cuba native has played baseball in the United States, but this year he has received his first chance to play in the Major Leagues and gone on a power surge.
The 30-year-old Garcia hit three home runs in 87 games to begin the 2015 season with the Gwinnett Braves, but he blasted eight in his first 45 big-league games.
“The difference is just coming up here and being a little bit more prepared,” he said through translator Alex Cotto. “We’ve worked on my swing a little bit, not too much, but I’m looking for a good pitch to drive, and the results are coming through.”
His homers have come in key situations, as well. His first career Major League long ball came in his third game after Atlanta recalled him from Gwinnett on July 25. He took St. Louis Cardinals’ right-handed starter Michael Wacha deep for a solo shot to lead off the sixth inning on July 26 that was the go-ahead run in a 3-2 victory.
Garcia then hit a game-tying solo homer in the top of the ninth inning the following night against left-handed reliever Zach Britton to give the Braves a 1-0 lead over the Baltimore Orioles, although Baltimore came back to win the contest 2-1 in 11 innings.
His third blast was a “walk-off” two-run shot against right-hander Ryan Vogelsong that beat the San Francisco Giants 9-8 in the 12th inning on August 3. He even homered against the organization that signed him as a non-drafted free agent on April 28, 2012 when he hit a solo homer off of New York Yankees’ right-handed reliever Branden Pinder.
Garcia’s first career pinch-hit homer was his eighth in the big leagues this season, overall. He launched a three-run blast over the left-field wall on Sept. 12 at Turner Field off of New York Mets’ righty reliever Tyler Clippard to pull the Braves into a 4-4 tie.
“It was a good feeling, as with most of the other players on the bench, they are preparing themselves in case that moment comes when they”ll be called,” Garcia said after Atlanta ultimately lost the game 6-4. “From the fourth inning on, me and a few the other guys were working out in the cage and keeping an eye on the pitcher who may be coming in. When my time was called, I was glad I was able to come through.”
Garcia also drove in three runs the following day in a 10-7 loss to the Mets. He batted .270 (43-for-159) with nine doubles, 17 runs scored and 18 RBIs while playing third base and left field across his first two big-league stints. Atlanta purchased his contract from Gwinnett on May 18, and he got two pinch-hit at-bats, going 0-for-1 with a walk and a strikeout. The Braves sent him back to Gwinnett on May 22, and he continued to work at the Triple-A level until he received the call back to Atlanta little more than two months later.
“Gwinnett, it was good because I played every day,” Garcia said. “It prepared me and just got me going because without Gwinnett I wouldn’t be here. It helped me establish myself and get well-prepared for what I was going to encounter (in the big leagues).”
He led the team with 47 RBIs and was second on the club with 94 hits at the time of his recall. He also helped carry the G-Braves’ offense through April. He batted .328 (22-for-67) with five doubles, one home run, nine runs scored and 10 RBIs during the first month of the season, which earned him the Gwinnett Player of the Month award for April from the Atlanta Braves.
Garcia also received the Gwinnett Player of the Year award from Atlanta after he hit .284 (94-for-331) with 17 doubles, a triple, 43 runs scored and five stolen bases for the G-Braves in his first year with the Atlanta organization.
“I’m very proud. I’m very appreciative, too, of the opportunity to work with the coaches and the players who were there,” said Garcia, who the Braves signed as a minor league free agent on April 4 after the Yankees released him three days earlier. “The coaches spent a lot of time with me, and I’m very appreciative of that. I’m grateful for the award.”
Atlanta Braves’ infielder Daniel Castro has had many new experiences in the first 20 games he has played in two stints in the Major Leagues this season, and he added an entire batch of highlights in what was perhaps his best game on Friday, September 11.
The 22-year-old Mexico native, who started 88 games at shortstop for the Gwinnett Braves in 2015, played second base on Friday for the second time with Atlanta and fourth time, overall, in his 131 games this season among Double-A Mississippi, Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta. He also hadn’t homered in his first 445 at-bats combined among the three clubs.
However, he lifted a 2-2 pitch in the fifth inning during his third at-bat against New York Mets’ left-handed starter Steven Matz over the left-field wall at Turner Field for his first big-league home run. It was also his first homer of any kind since August 29, 2014 with Mississippi.
“It felt great, but I wasn’t trying to hit a home run,” Castro said through translator Alex Cotto. “I was down in the count, I was just trying to make contact and it just so happens that’s what happened.”
The solo shot accounted for the only run in Atlanta’s 5-1 loss, and Castro received the ball afterwards to have as a keepsake.
“I’ll just save it and put it away and just always have it there as a remembrance of what happened,” he said.
After his home run, Castro went back to his second base position the following inning and made a dazzling, diving play up the middle to rob Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada of a base hit.
“I feel good,” Castro said. “I contributed with the home run, as well as with my defense.”
Castro said he originally signed with Atlanta as a second baseman in August 2009, but he moved primarily to shortstop this season with Jace Peterson at second in Atlanta and No. 1 prospect Jose Peraza at the same position in Gwinnett.
Castro joined Gwinnett on May 8 for his Triple-A debut after he batted .389 (35-for-90) in 23 games with Mississippi to begin the year. His first stint with the G-Braves lasted until June 17 when Atlanta called him up for his Major League debut. He pinch hit in the seventh inning that night and notched his first big-league hit, a single off of right-handed reliever Junichi Tazawa, in a 5-2 home win over the Boston Red Sox.
Castro returned to Gwinnett the next day and remained as the G-Braves’ primary shortstop until Atlanta brought him back to the big leagues on Sept. 1. He hit .302 (16-for-53) with two doubles, a home run, three RBIs and 10 runs scored in his first 20 games for Atlanta. He batted .268 (83-for-310) with nine doubles, 36 RBIs and 19 runs scored in 89 games for the G-Braves.
“I had a good time there and worked hard,” Castro said of his time in Gwinnett. “It prepared me.”
Sat: LHP Greg Smith (6-6, 2.55 ERA) vs. RHP Hector Noesi (3-4, 3.51 ERA), 7:05 p.m.
Sun: RHP Victor Mateo (3-3, 6.03 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Drabek (7-10, 3.66 ERA), 2:05 p.m.
Mon: RHP Jake Brigham (3-1, 4.95 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Penny (7-9, 4.26 ERA), 12:05 p.m.
The Gwinnett Braves enter their final series of the season still in contention for the International League South Division title, although they will need some help to get it. The G-Braves won three of four games in a road series Wednesday through Friday against the division-leading Norfolk Tides to cut the Tides’ lead in the standings to 2.0 games. While Gwinnett plays the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, for three games at Coolray Field, the Tides will travel for a three-game set against the Durham Bulls. The Bulls are last in the four-team division at 72-69 but have won 13 of their last 16 games, overall, including a two-game sweep of the G-Braves on Monday and Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Gwinnett will have to sweep the Knights and hope Norfolk is swept by Durham to win the division outright by the final scheduled day of the regular season. If Norfolk is swept and the G-Braves win two of three against Charlotte, the Tides and G-Braves would have a one-game playoff to determine the division winner. Gwinnett could also pull even with Norfolk if it sweeps Charlotte and the Tides lose two of three at Durham.
The G-Braves have struggled against Charlotte this season. They are 7-13 vs. the Knights so far despite outscoring Charlotte 90-88. They were swept in the teams’ most recent meeting during a three-game series at Charlotte from August 24-26, but Gwinnett also swept the Knights in a three-game set in their last meeting at Coolray Field from July 24-26. Norfolk has gone 12-7 against Durham this year, including 6-2 in games played in Durham.
Pitching: G-Braves’ pitchers have a combined 3.95 ERA against the Knights this season, which is better than Charlotte’s 4.10 mark. Gwinnett also has a 3.20 team ERA for the season that ranks as the third-lowest in the 14-team IL. Charlotte ranks 10th with a 3.79 team ERA. The trio of G-Braves’ starting pitchers lined up to pitch in this series are a combined 2-2 with a 4.56 ERA against Charlotte this year in six appearances (four starts). The probable starters for the Knights have gone a combined 4-2 against Gwinnett this season with a 2.66 ERA in seven starts.
Noesi shut out the G-Braves across 6.0 innings in his only start against them on August 26 at Charlotte, a 3-1 win for the Knights, but they lost right-handed starter Erik Johnson, who holds the league lead with a 2.39 ERA, to the Major Leagues when the White Sox called him up on September 1. Johnson was 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts against Gwinnett. Smith has had the most success against Charlotte of the three starters Gwinnett will send to the mound. He is 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in three outings (two starts), including a 7.0-inning performance on August 12 when he held the Knights to one run in an 11-1 victory at BB&T Ballpark.
The Charlotte pitching staff has fewer walks (421-to-465) and more strikeouts (1,062-to-963) than Gwinnett, but the G-Braves hold a slight advantage in saves (43-to-42) and have allowed fewer home runs (77-to-99).
Hitting: Gwinnett also had the third-highest team batting average of any team in the league at .259, while Charlotte is seventh with a .255 mark. The G-Braves also hold an offensive advantage in head-to-head matchups this year. Gwinnett hitters have batted .270 against Charlotte pitching, and the Knights have hit at a .261 clip. The Knights have slugged 17 home runs to Gwinnett’s seven, which mirrors a trend throughout the season for the G-Braves. They have hit 48 homers on the year, which is 20 fewer than the previous franchise low of 68 in 2001 and 2006, and the lowest of any team in the IL since the Tidewater Tides hit 43 in 1980. The Knights lead the league with 134 home runs.
Charlotte outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo has done much of the damage in the power department against Gwinnett this season. He has batted .268 in the 11 games he has faced G-Braves’ pitching this year to go with four home runs, which are the most of any opposing player this season. Outfielders Cedric Hunter and Mallex Smith have been answers for Gwinnett, however. Hunter has batted .329 and belted three homers with 16 RBIs against the Knights, and Smith has hit .328 and stolen 10 bases in the 15 games he has played in against Charlotte.
Both teams are among the league leaders in stolen bases. Gwinnett is second in the league with 159 steals, and Charlotte baserunners have swiped 121 bases, which is good for third in the IL. The G-Braves are at the bottom of the league in both walks (352) and strikeouts (715, more than 140 fewer than the next closest team in that department). Charlotte is tied for eighth in the league with 455 walks, but the Knights strike out more often than any IL team with 1,142 on the year.
G-Bites: The G-Braves got right-handed starting pitcher Tyrell Jenkins back from the disabled list on Friday, and he threw 1.2 scoreless innings at Norfolk. Left-handed reliever Mitch Lambson was sent to Double-A Mississippi to make room for Jenkins on the roster…Outfielder Mycal Jones also rejoined the team on Thursday after a stint at Mississippi…Right-handed relievers Danny Burawa and Brandon Cunniff both received promotions to the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, which was the first day Major League rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players. Shortstop Daniel Castro joined them, as well, for his third stint in the big leagues this season…The G-Braves have clinched their first winning record since 2011 when they went 78-65…A playoff appearance would be the team’s first since their inaugural season in Gwinnett of 2009. They went 81-63 to take the IL Wild Card spot.
Thurs: RHP Victor Mateo (2-2, 5.47 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Wright (8-0, 2.41 ERA), 6:35 p.m.
Fri: LHP Greg Smith (6-4, 2.39 ERA) vs. RHP Elih Villanueva (3-3, 4.36 ERA), 7:05 p.m.
Sat: RHP Jake Brigham (3-1, 5.19 ERA) vs. LHP Mike Belfiore (5-11, 5.61 ERA), 7:05 p.m.
Sun: RHP Ryan Weber (4-3, 2.31 ERA) vs. RHP Terry Doyle (2-1, 3.24 ERA), 2:05 p.m.
The Gwinnett Braves and Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, will engage in a four-game battle at Coolray Field that features the top two teams in the International League South Division. The Tides lead the division by 3.0 games over the G-Braves, but both teams enter the series on three-game losing streaks.
The G-Braves lost every game of their three-game road series against the Charlotte Knights, and the Tides lost a home game to the Toledo Mud Hens on Monday before the Durham Bulls swept a two-game set from them at home. Gwinnett is also in contention for the IL Wild Card spot, but the Columbus Clippers have won their last three games to extend their advantage over the second-place G-Braves to 4.5 games.
The Tides have not been to the Governor’s Cup Playoffs since they won the division in 2005, and Gwinnett’s last trip to the postseason was in 2009 as the Wild Card team. The G-Braves and Tides have eight games remaining against one another. They will complete their season series with four games from Sept. 2-4, including a doubleheader on Sept. 2. The teams have split their first 14 meetings with seven wins apiece.
The G-Braves have closed the gap on the Tides in the division from 8.0 games at the end of July. Gwinnett has gone 15-10 so far in August, while Norfolk is 11-15. The G-Braves’ record for the month is the second-best in the league behind the Syracuse Chiefs (17-7). Gwinnett has gone on its hot streak thanks to an offensive surge that includes a league-high .294 team batting average through those 25 games despite nine home runs, which is tied with the Buffalo Bisons for the fewest in the league during that stretch.
Pitching: The series also includes two of the top pitching staffs in the league. Norfolk has the second-best team ERA in the league at 3.08, and the G-Braves are close behind in fourth with a 3.19 ERA. The Tides have allowed the fewest runs in the league with 435 and is tied with Columbus for the most saves with 44. Gwinnett relievers have 41 saves, which are tied for third in the league with three other clubs. The Tides and G-Braves are also tied for the fewest hits allowed with 1,043. Neither staff has struck out an abnormally high number of batters, but they have also limited the number of home runs they have allowed. Norfolk hurlers are ninth in the IL with 922 strikeouts, and the G-Braves follow in 10th with 911 whiffs. The Tides have given up the fourth-fewest home runs with 67, and the G-Braves have allowed 72, the fifth-fewest.
G-Braves’ lefty Smith has given up one earned run or fewer in five of his six starts since he rejoined the starting rotation on July 28, and his 2.39 ERA (28 ER in 105.1 IP) for the season is the second-lowest among qualified pitchers in the IL. He leads the league with a 1.12 WHIP. Brigham and Weber both entered the rotation during Gwinnett’s series at Charlotte. Baltimore right-hander Wright will open the series with his first start of a Major League rehab assignment with the Tides. Wright has bounced between Norfolk and Baltimore this season. He last pitched on July 31 and tossed a scoreless 1.0 inning of reliever vs. the Detroit Tigers.
Hitting: Gwinnett holds a slight advantage offensively with a 2.62 team batting average that ranks second in the IL. Norfolk is fifth with a .260 mark, although the Tides have outslugged the G-Braves with 70 home runs on the season compared to a league-low 45 for Gwinnett. The G-Braves are on pace for a franchise-low 49 homers, which would also be the fewest for any team in the IL since the Tidewater Tides hit 43 in 1980. Gwinnett has also yet to homer off of a Norfolk pitcher this season. Despite their even head-to-head record, the Tides have hit eight home runs against the G-Braves and outscored them 48-35. Norfolk has batted .256 in its games against Gwinnett this season compared to a .230 batting average for the G-Braves in those contests.
G-Braves’ outfielder Cedric Hunter opens the series on a team-best 20-game hitting streak that is also the longest in the IL this season. He surpassed Austin Romine of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for the top spot on Wednesday with a second-inning double into right-center field. Hunter has batted .345 (29-for-84) with four doubles, two triples, two of his team-leading 11 home runs, 16 RBIs, which padded his team lead to 65, and nine runs scored during that stretch. Hunter’s streak is the longest active hitting streak in Triple-A and is tied with Franklin Gutierrez of the Tacoma Rainiers for the longest Triple-A streak of the season.
Outfielder Dariel Alvarez and first baseman Christian Walker have been stalwarts for the Tides, offensively. Alvarez is third in the IL with 141 hits, third in total bases with 217 and fifth in RBIs with 72. Walker is fifth in the league with 46 extra-base hits and 200 total bases. Overall, Norfolk’s bats have slowed in August. The team has combined for a .241 batting average that is the third-lowest in the league through their first 26 games of the month.
G-Bites: The G-Braves lost significant contributors in the last week, as the Atlanta Braves’ traded outfielder Eric Young, Jr. to the New York Mets on Saturday before they called up catcher Christian Bethancourt and right-handed pitcher Sugar Ray Marimon on Monday. Young had batted .248 (58-for-234) with 23 stolen bases in 67 games for the G-Braves after Atlanta outrighted him to Gwinnett on June 11. He was also Gwinnett’s June Player of the Month. Bethancourt hit a team-best .327 (66-for-202) with four home runs, 19 doubles, 31 RBIs and 25 runs scored in 52 games after he began the season with Atlanta. Marimon is in his fourth stint with Atlanta. He had gone 5-4 with a 3.31 ERA (30 ER in 81.2 IP) in 17 appearances (14 starts) for Gwinnett…Among those moves, outfielder Eury Perez rejoined the club when Atlanta optioned him on Monday. Left-handed reliever Hunter Cervenka and catcher Braeden Schlehuber were promoted from Double-A Mississippi, while outfielder Mycal Jones was sent down…The G-Braves will play a two-game series on Monday and Tuesday at Durham before they travel to Norfolk for their four-game tilt with the Tides. Gwinnett finishes the regular season with a three-game home series vs. Charlotte from Sept. 5-7 at Coolray Field.
Gwinnett Braves’ third baseman Hector Olivera made his debut at Coolray Field during the club’s recent four-game series that they swept from the Louisville Bats, and he had a chance to work with Atlanta Braves’ Minor League Infielder Coordinator Luis Lopez in preparation for the 30-year-old Cuba native’s debut in the Major Leagues.
The Braves acquired Olivera on July 30 from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-team, 13-player trade that sent Major League right-handed pitchers Jim Johnson and Bronson Arroyo, and left-handers Alex Wood and Luis Avilan to the Dodgers along with former No. 1-ranked prospect Jose Peraza.
“He’s a big kid,” Lopez said of the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pounder. “He’s a guy who might be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
Olivera hit two home runs in his first 28 games in America this season, but he was on the disabled list at the time of the trade because of a left hamstring strain he suffered on June 20 while playing for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers.
He had batted a combined .348 (24-for-69) in 19 games across three levels of the Dodgers’ organization before the trade. He began a rehab stint with the GCL Braves on August 13 and went 0-for-5 in two games before he moved to Class-A Rome for four, during which he went 1-for-12 with a run scored. Olivera played in three of the G-Braves’ four games against Louisville and went 3-for-12 with a walk and two runs scored.
Olivera also played third base in each of those games and spent time working with Lopez, who said he was impressed with what he saw.
“He’s a very intelligent gentleman,” Lopez said. “He listens. When you pay attention and pay attention to details, that will transfer into the game.”
Lopez also worked with Olivera to help instill the core values the Braves’ want to see in their infielders at every level of their organization, he said.
“To be a consistent ballplayer, you have to be able to make routine plays,” Lopez said. “That’s one of the things that we always touch on. You’re are going to make errors on aggressive plays, but you are going to become a good infielder if you make the routine plays.”
Olivera fielded each of the six grounders hit his way and did not commit an error in any the three games he played against Louisville. He has seven errors for the season, including one during his two-game stint with the GCL Braves and three while with Rome.
Lopez said he first met Olivera at the Braves’ Spring Training complex in Florida when he was there to rehab shortly after the trade, and Lopez was pleased to see Olivera appeared to be healthy.
Still, Lopez said he believes Olivera needs some time to get back in the routine of playing games every day because he went more than a month out of action because of the injury.
“I think game reps will allow him to be the guy we want him to be,” Lopez said.
Thurs: RHP Sugar Ray Marimon (4-4, 3.62 ERA) vs. LHP Brandon Finnegan (0-1, 5.79 ERA), 6:35 p.m.
Fri: RHP Kanekoa Texeira (6-3, 3.61 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Lorenzen (3-1, 1.93 ERA), 7:05 p.m.
Sat: RHP Jake Brigham (3-0, 5. 11 ERA) vs. RHP Donn Roach (2-3, 5.20 ERA), 7:05 p.m.
Sun: LHP Greg Smith (6-4, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Josh Smith (3-4, 3.88 ERA), 2:05 p.m.
The Gwinnett Braves return to Coolray Field to begin a four-game series against the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, after a 10-game road trip during which they went 5-5. They remained in second place in the International League Wild Card standings throughout the road trip and sit 3.5 games behind the Columbus Clippers for the lead. The G-Braves are also 6.0 games in back of the Norfolk Tides for first place in the IL South Division. The Clippers and Tides are in the middle of a three-game series at Norfolk. Columbus won the series opener 4-3 on Wednesday.
Louisville hovered around the .500 mark for much of the season and was 57-56 on August 5. However, the Bats have gone 3-9 in their 12 games since to drop to 60-65 and 10 games out of a playoff spot. They were outscored 48-20 in those contests, and the offense has struggled mightily during that stretch. The team has not scored more than four runs in any of those games, and it scored two runs or fewer eight times, including eight of their nine losses. The Bats also suffered three consecutive shutout losses from August 9-11. The first loss was 9-0 on the road to the Durham Bulls, and the final two were 2-0 and 3-0 home defeats to Columbus.
Pitching: The Bats also are tied for the second-highest ERA of any team in the 14-team International League with a 3.97 mark that equals the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Gwinnett, meanwhile, has a 3.19 team ERA that is the fourth-lowest in the league. The G-Braves’ pitching staff has also allowed the second-fewest hits in the IL with 994, which is 11 more than Norfolk for the lead in that category. Both teams rank toward the bottom of the league in strikeouts but in the top half in walks allowed. Gwinnett has the fifth-fewest strikeouts with 864, and Louisville has the second-fewest with 814. The G-Braves have walked 407 batters, which is the fifth-most in the IL, and Bats pitchers have issued 430 to have the fourth-most in that department.
Veterans Texeira and Smith have led the G-Braves’ pitching staff in the second half of the season. Texeira has won a career-high six consecutive starts since July 20 and has a 3.63 ERA (14 ER in 34.2 IP) in that span. The G-Braves have won each of Smith’s five starts since he rejoined the rotation on July 28 from a stint in the bullpen. He has tallied wins in three of those starts with a 1.95 ERA (6 ER in 27.2 IP). His 2.45 ERA (27 ER in 99.1 IP) for the season ranks second in the IL among qualified starters, and his 1.10 WHIP leads the league.
Finnegan, Lousville’s starter for the series opener on Thursday, was acquired by the Reds from the Kansas City Royals on July 26 as part of a four-player trade that sent right-handed starter Johnny Cueto to Kansas City. Finnegan, a 22-year-old, has made four starts for Louisville since the trade. He also appeared in 14 games for the Royals earlier this season, going 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA (8 ER in 24.1 IP). Finnegan made his Major League debut with the Royals on September 6, 2014 after they selected him in the first round (17th overall) of the June free agent draft earlier that season out of Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, TX). He also pitched in seven postseason games for Kansas City during its run to the World Series a year ago.
Hitting: The Gwinnett offense was dominant in the five victories during the road trip. The G-Braves scored eight or more runs in four of their five wins, but they were held to three runs or fewer in each of their losses. Overall, the G-Braves have a .260 team batting average that ranks fifth in the league but is .001 behind three teams tied for second in that department. Louisville ranks ninth in that category with a .255 average.
Gwinnett is still in the basement of the league home run totals with 43. The G-Braves are on pace to hit 50 this season, which is still fewer than any other IL team has at this point and would be the fewest since the Tidewater Tides hit 43 in 1980. Louisville has the fourth fewest homers with 59. The G-Braves lead the league in stolen bases, however, with 149, which is three in front of the second-place Indianapolis Indians in that category. The Bats have the fifth-fewest steals in the IL with 76.
Center fielder Mallex Smith hit .381 (16-for-42) with six steals and nine runs scored from the leadoff spot during the road trip, but that was just the third-highest average on the team during that stretch. Catcher Christian Bethancourt led the club with a .424 average (14-for 33), and outfielder Cedric Hunter batted .395 (15-for-38). Bethancourt also had six doubles, a home run and seven RBIs during the trip, while Hunter two doubles, a home run and 10 RBIs to push his team-leading total in that category to 64. Hunter also leads the club with 11 homers. Additionally, Smith is 25-for-29 in steal attempts through 50 games with the G-Braves and has 48 stolen bases on the season combined with Gwinnett and Double-A Mississippi, where he began the season.
Louisville’s top hitter has been outfielder Brennan Boesch, who boasts a .331 batting average (59-for-178) in 48 games with the Bats, although outfielder Ryan LaMarre leads the team with 88 RBIs and is tied with infielder Yorman Rodriguez for the team lead in home runs with eight. The Bats’ offensive struggles in August have led to a league-low .203 average during the month, and they do not have a batter who has hit better than outfielder Juan Silva’s .244 mark during through the first 17 games of the month.
G-Bites: Infielder Joey Terdoslavich has returned to Gwinnett after his fourth stint with the Atlanta Braves this season to open a spot on the Major League roster for first baseman Freddie Freeman, who completed his rehab assignment with the G-Braves on Tuesday. Freeman batted .375 (3-for-8) with a double, two RBIs, two walks and three strikeouts in two games with Gwinnett…The G-Braves also added three relief pitchers during the road trip, although two had been with the team previously this season. Right-hander Ryan Kelly was optioned from Atlanta on August 13, and fellow righty Brigham was optioned on August 16 when the Braves recalled right-hander Peter Moylan. The Braves also claimed Danny Burawa off of waivers from the New York Yankees on August 14, and he joined the G-Braves’ bullpen on Monday but has yet to make an appearance…Once their four-game set against Louisville is complete, the G-Braves will go back on the road for a three-game series against the Charlotte Knights at BB&T Ballpark. They will come back hom on August 27 to start a four-game series vs. Norfolk.
Right-handed starting pitcher Matt Wisler became the third of four former Gwinnett Braves pitchers to make his first Major League start with the Atlanta Braves this season when he faced the New York Mets on June 19 at Turner Field.
He pitched 8.0 innings that night with one run and six hits allowed, a hit batsman and two strikeouts to earn a victory in his big-league debut, as the Braves scored a pair of runs for him in the bottom of the eighth inning to head toward a 2-1 win.
Despite all of the new experiences the 22-year-old has had in his transition to the Majors, that superb first outing was as unexpected as anything, he said.
“What surprised me was my debut going so well,” Wisler said. “I didn’t really see that one coming.”
Wisler has gone on to make 10 starts for Atlanta this season with a 5-2 record and 4.74 ERA (30 ER in 57.0 IP). He suffered his first career loss the second time his spot in the rotation came around in a road start on June 25 against the Washington Nationals, but he then won four of his next five outings.
“Being up here, feeling a part of it, I don’t feel overwhelmed or anything, which is good,” he said. “It’s not really been too much change. Obviously, hitters are better and everything, but you have to pitch the same game and you still have to get outs and everything. You’ve just got to be executing a little more consistently up here.”
Those performances followed a 12-start stint with the G-Braves to begin the season after Atlanta acquired him from the San Diego Padres on April 5, four days before Gwinnett’s season opener, in a six-player trade that sent outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. and relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel to the Padres. Wisler began the year 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA (15 ER in 20 IP) in his four April starts, but after the calendar flipped to May he posted a 3-1 record and 3.20 ERA (16 ER in 45.0 IP) across his final eight starts before his call-up.
The moment he got the news of his promotion was memorable, as well. Wisler said he went into pitching coach Marty Reed’s office confused about why he had been pulled from his regularly scheduled start in Louisville, and Reed acted as though he was upset with Wisler for questioning his authority before he told the pitcher the Braves had promoted him to the big leagues.
Wisler also said the work he and Marty did with his mechanics benefitted him as he moved into the big leagues.
“Marty was a great pitching coach for me, helped me a lot this year getting back on track,” Wisler said.
He was one-quarter of a group of starting pitchers who began the season with the G-Braves but have since moved on to Atlanta, along with fellow right-handers Williams Perez and Mike Foltynewicz, and left-hander Manny Banuelos (currently on the disabled list). That quartet has combined to go 14-12 with a 4.69 ERA (120 ER in 230.1 IP) in 46 appearances, 39 of which have been starts.
“It’s pretty crazy to think that all four of us were in Gwinnett this year and now three of us are in the rotation,” Wisler said. “It’s great that I got to know those guys a little bit before I got up here. … It’s cool to know those guys, just from a little bit (in Gwinnett), and think that we have a chance to be together for a while.”
Those starters are part of a group of 29 non-rehab players who have played for both Gwinnett and Atlanta this season. Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez has relied heavily on former G-Braves this season, and he said he has been impressed by the quality of players he gets after they’ve worked with G-Braves’ manager Brian Snitker, Reed and hitting coach John Moses.
“Everybody has made some kind of an impact, some kind of contribution,” Gonzalez said. “Snit, Marty and Moses have done a great job preparing those guys. It’s a luxury to have a guy like Brian Snitker as the Triple-A manager. … He’s been dead on with every guy he’s brought up. You don’t have to worry about the guys not playing the game the right way, not getting a sign. That all stems from those guys in Triple-A in Gwinnett.”
Wisler got to enjoy that high level of instruction for only two-and-a-half months, but that relatively short time had a significant affect on his development during a season that has brought numerous new experiences.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve been up here. It is definitely a privilege to be here. I definitely learned a lot in Gwinnett, too. … I’m just always soaking in new information and trying to get better.”