Gwinnett Braves’ manager Randy Ready waves Todd Cunningham around third base during a game earlier this season at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. (Photo: Karl L. Moore/Gwinnett Braves)
LAWRENCEVILLE — This is the easy sentence: The pre-All-Star break Gwinnett Braves weren’t a very good team.
Here’s why: They are 16 games under .500. They are in last place 22 game behind International League Division leader Durham. There .418 winning percentage is second worst in the entire International League. They came one game of tying the franchise record for consecutive losses with a 14-game skid through late April and early May.
These are some reasons (or excuses): For barely more than 15 days did this team have a complete pitching rotation. Starter David Hale spent much of the early spring on the disabled list and former first-round pick Sean Gilmartin followed Hale to the DL on the heals of Hale’s return. The team’s been forced to use pitcher Yohan Flande as a starter, reliever, long reliever, innings eater. For much of the season it’s been a team light on even Class AAA experience, leading to middling batting average and ERA.
“It’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is,” manager Randy Ready said.
Now here’s the oddity: A team mired in losing hasn’t devolved into a sullen group. It’s a team rarely out of any game. Through the nominal first half, the G-Braves led all of minor league baseball in one-run games with 41. They’ve lost 24 of those games, another minor-league high mark.
“I don’t recall being in that many close games. I think it’s probably a combination of everything,” Ready said. “A pitcher light, or that hitter who is really producing. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Development, sometimes you take a hit.”
And that’s what Ready keeps repeating and preaching, that this is still development.
“The amount of those situations, those experiences, you have to look at it as half-full, not half-empty,” he said. “Hopefully, they get in those situations enough times they know how to come through. How do you do that? It’s just not that easy when you are between the lines. But being in that situation that much, that is what paves the way for consistency and that is the name of the game.”
Ready isn’t afraid to talk about the big leagues, it’s close to his favorite topic. It’s where he wants his current players to be. And something he hasn’t seen much of this season. Reliver Cory Rasmus and outfielder Joey Terdoslavich are the only two making the biggest leap for the first time this season.
Rasmus leads the team in saves with 10 and Terdoslavich has the most hits (102) and best average (.318) among G-Braves regulars.
“If you have an impact player on the triple-A level, they are probably going to go to the big leagues,” Ready said. “That is the business that we are in. Whatever player is producing (leaves).”
But through the record, the close losses and some of the injuries a few good performances standout.
Todd Cunningham, a first-year player in Class AAA, eased into his first season offensively before exploding in June, hitting .324 from the top spots in the order.
Marietta’s Hale returned from his DL stint and in his final six appearances had an ERA of 1.27, despite a 2-2 record. Stefan Gartrell rejoined his former team midway through the season and kept hitting. The outfielder now leads Gwinnett in games played (273), home runs (51) and RBIs (66). Then there is slugger Ernesto Mejia who’s 24 home runs so far this season match his entire 2012. A Class AAA All-Star selection and home run derby participant, Mejia has recovered from an early-season skid and a hamstring injury to produce his best first-half in the 27 year olds career.
For these successes, Ready credits the team’s ability to withstand the struggles.
“You got to keep it fresh and that is where the experience of the staff comes in. You can’t have, I call it fractioning. There is no, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” he said. “We’ve already been through that. That was in some of the early trials that we had back in May.
“From an experience standpoint, I think that’s beneficial in the long run. We are preparing players to develop and hopefully contribute at the major league level you also want to try to prepare championship-quality players too. These are the experiences that have to happen.”
This may not be the true midpoint, but it’s a few days to regroup and prepare for the final month and a half of the season, a time when players can turn around a career, or at least a season.
“It’s going to go fast after this all-star break. I know guys are looking forward to really establishing themselves,” Ready said. “That’s important the players understand that, so they don’t mail it in. If you finish strong, they’ll never remember your April and June.”