A Playoff Battle That Came Down to 1 Batter
There was real drama going on yesterday afternoon as the minor league season was finishing up. The AA Southern League plays a ‘split’ season format – winners of 1st and 2nd halves of play meet in the playoffs for each of two divisions, then those winners play to determine the league champion.
The Jacksonville Suns (a Marlins affiliate) came into play having taken the ‘hottest team in baseball’ crown away from our Mississippi Braves. The Suns had won 9 straight and led the South Division by 1 game over the Braves. The Braves owned the tie-breakers, but needed the Suns to lose in order to gain a tie and reach the playoffs.
Both teams were playing at 1pm yesterday, so their fates were emerging in parallel: the Braves in Huntsville vs. the Stars (Brewers); the Suns at home vs. Mobile (D-Backs).
Going to the 8th inning of both games, things looked bleak for Mississippi. They were mired in a pitching duel: 1-1. Meanwhile, Jacksonville had stretched a lead out to 6-3 over Mobile.
In Huntsville, the Braves then did what they usually do. Kyle Wren singled. Kyle Kubitza walked. A wild pitch moved both over, so the Stars intentionally walked slugger Cedric Hunter. A groundout was then all it took to plate the go-ahead run. Their pitching (Ryne Harper and John Cornely) then made that hold up for the victory.
Meanwhile, over in Jacksonville, Mobile was making a last-inning charge. Singles by Evan Marzilli and Ryan Court put the tying run to the plate with 1 out. Another single (Nate Samson) loaded the bases. After a strikeout, old friend Brandon Drury (he was part of the Justin Upton/Chris Johnson trade) doubled in two runs. That put the potential winning run (himself) on second base.
By alas, a groundout ended the threat… and gave the playoff spot to Jacksonville. So Mississippi missed out: quite literally by the margin of one hit that failed to occur 550 miles away. Jacksonville had to win 10 in a row to finish the year in order to best Mississippi (who finished 8-2) – and they did it.
So the best team in the Southern League for 2014 did not make the playoffs, despite the best overall record and a winning record against all four playoff teams.
Baseball is a funny game.
M-Braves Quick Hits
There were a few things I made a point to check on this weekend while checking out the M-Braves.
Jose Peraza. About his injury. I didn’t see Jose at all on Friday, and he had been out of action for 3 full weeks since a groin injury, which made me think he’d been shut down for the year. Not quite. Jose was back in the lineup for the late game (and I really mean late) of their Sunday double-header. He also played in the Monday finale… seemed to be moving around well, though did not attempt a steal.
Jose Peraza. About his future. With the breakout year that Jose Peraza had in 2014, many Braves’ fans have been asking whether he could play center field. There’s good reasons to think so – and at the core of all this is the dissatisfaction with the play of B.J. Upton, coupled with the embarrassment of riches that Atlanta has in middle infielders right now. In fact, Mississippi and Lynchburg both have so many good ones, that finding playing time for everybody is evidently a problem. Heck, while Peraza was on the shelf, the team went 15-5 with these “backup” players.
So anyway, I asked. Turns out that since Andrelton Simmons signed his contract extension, Peraza has played second base… pretty much exclusively. Not center field. Not even really shagging balls in the outfield during BP. But there could be other reasons for this, too…
Kyle Wren. He’s better than I thought he’d be. I thought maybe he was reaching a ‘ceiling’ at AA. After a torrid start (he was promoted in June), he cooled considerably, with a batting average that dropped all the way into the .230’s. That has changed.
Wren finished this season with a .283 batting average. I personally got to see eight ABs (missed the first one on Monday). In those 8 ABs, he got 7 hits including a double, a triple, and a steal. He put himself into positions in which he could score runs – and did so 4 times in those 2 games (scoring both of Mississippi’s runs on Monday; 2 of 5 on Friday). The double was a routine single for most people, but he sprayed it to short left field and was running flat out from the box. The play at second wasn’t close.
On defense, I also saw excellent reads and routes on balls hit to him in the outfield, including an over-the-shoulder “glide” to the wall of an unfamiliar ballpark that he made look absolutely routine. Defense is definitely not an issue, and his baseball instincts (no, these are not inherited from a front-office Dad) are apparent.
Wren doesn’t really walk enough (neither does Peraza), but he’s not a high strikeout guy either. He definitely uses the entire field – including the infield – to his advantage in searching for hits. His speed and bat control will play at the next level. I would expect that both he and Peraza will get AAA nods in 2015 – and then we’ll see, depending on what happens at the major league level.
J.R. Graham. A couple of years ago, some prospect lists had J.R. listed as high as #2 for the Braves (I found one list that put him between Julio Teheran and Christian Bethancourt: “He has the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter”). Since then, injuries and control issues have crept in and his stock has dropped considerably.
J.R. has now made the transition – mentally and actually – to a relief pitcher. This may have been what the Braves were thinking all along (and thus maybe it was we outsiders that had his expectations all messed up). He has a mid-90’s fastball and given his size (he’s 5’10” – don’t believe anything listing him as 6’… he lied about his height early on), that requires just too much from him to keep that going as a starter. As a reliever, though, that should play better, for he can go ahead and air it out for an inning at a time.
His last eight appearances have been in relief, though even just before that, he was said to be “thinking” in terms of a limited outing (he made 4 starts of 2, 2, 1, and 1 inning apiece). However, it was still a virtual coin flip for him this year: Graham was either very good or very bad – not much in between. He ended up with 50K, 26BB in 71 innings and a 5.55 ERA.
It’s another coin flip right now on where Graham starts the 2015 season – AA or AAA. Either way, he’ll be working on control again, but this time strictly as a reliever.
About the team. They like Trustmark Park in Pearl. For those hoping that they might move to a locale near you? Nope – not happening. They have a long-term lease that’s going to continue for quite a while. The team is owned by the Atlanta Braves, so while they might prefer to be a little closer to Atlanta, having a club in Mississippi still doesn’t hurt them in terms over regional popularity (think “Braves Country”).
About the Southern League itself. Multiple people I talked to cited the franchise in Pensacola (the Blue Wahoos/Cincinnati) as being the best-run with the best stadium and fans. This despite a last-place finish and league-worst record in 2014.
The worst franchise situation looks to be in Mobile, despite a fairly new Hank Aaron stadium. A poor park design and poor management have really hurt them, and there’s talk that the Diamondbacks might pull out and go to Texas.
The Jackson Generals have their own problems – poor attendance and a bad affiliation (Seattle). I’m not sure if there cold be a worse place to put a Mariners affiliate other than western Tennessee. They’ve stuck it out, but you’ve got to wonder “for how much longer?”
Finally, a story related by M-Braves radio man Kyle Tait: it’s about the opening of Regions Field in Birmingham. The M-Braves were there for the 1st weekend of play there, and they learned about one of its quirks early on.
Gus Schlosser was the starter on Saturday evening (4/13/2013), but it looked to all watching like he had nothing to offer: he only got one batter out, giving up 4 hits and 6 earned runs while walking 2. His relief help, Michael Lee, fared no better: 8 hits and 5 more earned runs through the 3rd (but 11 total runs were scored by Birmingham in that first inning!).
Turns out that neither pitcher could see a thing. There was a “hole” in the stadium behind home plate that put the sun directly into the pitcher’s eyes at that particular time on that particular day. Schlosser was asked to ‘hang in there’ but complained that he had no idea where he was throwing the ball, for he couldn’t see the plate!
Ah, minor league problems.