080212RossHeffley1: Rome Bravesi Ross Heffley watches the game against the Augusta GreenJackets Thursday, August 2, 2012 at State Mutual Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/Rome News-Tribune)
ROME -- Ross Heffley certainly isn't the whole reason for the Rome Braves' stunning turnaround to their season. But there is no doubt that the Brookwood graduate is playing a significant role in it.
"He's really added to our ballclub," Rome manager Randy Ingle said of his little second baseman. "When something good is happening, he's usually right in the middle of it."
Nothing good happened in the first half of the South Atlantic League season for the R-Braves, who suffered through a 13-game losing streak en route to an 18-52 record -- the worst in the minors.
But the team got a fresh start in late June thanks to the split season in the Class A circuit and six weeks later the standings have been turned upside down.
You can credit the 22-year-old Heffley --hardly a ballyhooed addition at the time -- with being a prime catalyst in that worst-to-first transformation.
The 18th-round draft choice out of Western Carolina made his debut for Rome in the first game of the second half at Asheville and was 2-for-5 with two RBIs and a stolen base in the 7-3 victory.
Hefley hasn't stopped contributing since and the R-Braves haven't stopped winning.
A record 12-game streak through Friday gave Rome (28-14) a six-game lead in the South Division of the 14-team SAL and Heffley was hitting a productive .281 from his No. 2 spot in the lineup while also playing stellar defense.
"He's very quick turning the double play and he's hit near .300," Ingle said. "He's really helped us a ton offensively and defensively."
It didn't take the manager long to become enamored with Heffley. A veteran of 34 years in the Atlanta organization, Ingle appreciates an old-school player when he is fortunate enough to have one.
"You know the phrase, 'An old-fashioned scrappy dirtballer?'" Ingle said. "Well, that's what he reminds me of. He's a dirtballer. He knows how to play the game and he gives you everything he's got all the time."
When you're just 5-foot-8, you have to if you want to get noticed. After all, there is no way to make yourself taller.
But the Braves have had a number of undersized second baseman going back to the days of Glen Hubbard and then Mark Lemke. And Boston's Dustin Pedroia is shorter than either of them.
"If I can get the job done, I don't think my size will be an issue," said Heffley, who had hit .324 with two homers and 10 RBIs during Rome's winning streak.
It may have been coming out of high school, though. Major colleges weren't interested.
"My goal was to play (NCAA) Division I baseball," Heffley said. "But nobody offered me, so I was going to go to South Georgia junior college."
But that changed after Heffley hit a couple of dramatic home runs in helping lead Brookwood to the 2008 Class AAAAA state championship and a No. 3 national ranking by USA Today.
Western Carolina of the Southern Conference offered him a spot a month after he graduated and he accepted after a quick visit to Cullowhee, N.C. It couldn't have worked out better for Heffley or the Catamounts.
Heffley finished his four-year career with a school-record 354 hits and a .379 average. He was Southern Conference freshman of the year when he hit .391 and batted .419 as a junior when he was named first-team all-conference for the first of two times.
But Heffley still wasn't considered a top draft prospect. He had hoped to go early in the middle rounds and he knew that the Braves were interested. But the second day of the draft came and went.
Then early on the third day, the good news finally came.
"It was definitely a dream come true to be drafted by my hometown team," Heffley said.
Heffley had grown up rooting for the Braves and he remembers the excitement as Gwinnett County products Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur reached Turner Field.
"I used to go to a lot and I was there when Francoeur played his first game and hit a home run," Heffley said. "That was really cool. I remember how excited everyone was."
Francoeur and McCann were teammates on Rome's first team in 2003 and that young edition of the R-Braves jelled in the second half en route to the SAL championship.
Another title this year seemed completely out of reach as the 2012 team stumbled through the first half. But now nothing seems impossible.
Heffley wasn't around for the bad times. But he is certainly enjoying the good ones as the R-Braves have pulled off one late comeback after another.
"This has been a lot of fun," said Heffley, who had 13 extra-base hits and seven stolen bases in his first 37 games. "It's exciting for everyone."
Starting his professional career less than 100 miles from home is also a nice bonus for Heffley.
"I'm actually about an hour closer here than I was in college," he said. "My family and friends have been here for a lot of games and some of the other teams in the league aren't far away either. My parents have been to games in Greenville and Asheville."
Of course, where everyone would really like to see Heffley play is in Turner Field.
The Braves made Brookwood pitcher Lucas Sims their first-round draft choice in June and he rightfully so drew most of the attention. But another former Bronco is starting to be heard from as well."Making the major leagues is everyone's goal," Heffley said.
ROSS HEFFLEY FILE
Team: Rome Braves
Position: second base
Batting stats: .281 average with 13 extra-base hits and seven steals in 37 games through Friday
How acquired: 18th-round draft pick by Atlanta in June
Size: 5-foot-8, 185 pounds
College: Western Carolina
High school: Brookwood
Worth noting: Helped lead Broncos, ranked No. 3 nationally by USA Today, to the 2008 Class AAAAA state championship, batting .403 as a senior. ... Southern Conference freshman of year at Western Carolina and a two-time first-time pick for all-conference. ... Set school record with 354 hits and posted a .379 career average.