Todd Cunningham and the Gwinnett Braves are first place in their division after two difficult seasons. Hitting and new manager Brian Snitker are big reasons why. (Photo: Karl Moore)
LAWRENCEVILLE — Other than a call that you’re going up to the majors, nothing is more appreciated in Class AAA than a rare scheduled off day.
Getting to enjoy it while in first place makes it even sweeter.
After two straight disappointing seasons, the Gwinnett Braves spent Wednesday holding first place in the International League’s South Division.
The G-Braves (25-19) will take just a half-game lead over Durham (26-21) into the start of a four-game home series with Norfolk tonight. But after the past two seasons were ruined by losing streaks of 15 and 14 games, any sign of hope is cause for celebration.
“We’ve been playing well,” said Brian Snitker, in his first year as Gwinnett manager after seven seasons as third base coach of the Atlanta Braves.
When the G-Braves, 15-10 in April, started May with five straight losses, it was easy for fans to think, “Here we go again.”
But Gwinnett, despite the loss of slugger Ernesto Mejia, then won 10 of the next 12 games to quickly right the ship.
The loss of Mejia to Japan, as well as injuries to Jose Constanza (groin) and Sean Kazmar (hand) were blows. But the G-Braves still lead in the International League in batting average (.275) and slugging (.402), and are just one off the top in runs scored (211) through 44 games.
Phil Gosselin is fourth in the International League batting race with a .323 average, while Todd Cunningham (.302) and Tommy La Stella (.291) are not too far out of the top 10 among qualifiers.
Joey Terdoslavich (.280) has been streaky, but he got hot when the G-Braves needed him most after Mejia left.
“We’ve swung the bat well all season,” Snitker said.
The pitching has been less consistent, with the team ERA of 4.10 ranked 11th in the 14-team league.
Even there, though, the G-Braves have had bright spots. Cody Martin has a 2.76 ERA to lead the rotation and hard-throwing Juan Jaime is 9-for-9 in save situations.
Snitker, who started his long tenure with the Braves organization as a player in the late 1970s, admits that he didn’t have a feel for what kind of team he had when the season started.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect at all,” said the Snellville resident. “You don’t really have your players until right at the end of spring training. Plus, I was the new guy. It had been a while since I’d been in this situation.”
Although this is Snitker’s 18th season as a minor league manager, just one previously was in AAA. That was in 2006, three years before the Braves moved from Richmond to Gwinnett and a year prior to his debut as third base coach in Atlanta.
Player development takes priority over winning in the minors, but there is nothing wrong with accomplishing both. Team chemistry is important in that.
“This is a good group,” Snitker said. “They’re playing hard and having some fun. It’s tough, with the travel and everything. I’ve been impressed with the way they have responded.”
Other than Mejia going to Japan and a few injuries, the G-Braves have had a relatively stable roster by AAA standards so far. Of course, that is subject to change at any moment.
Telling a player he is going up to the majors is the best part for any minor league manager’s job, even though it is a blow for his team.
“That’s what we’re here for,” said Snitker, who never made the majors as a player himself.
It has been La Stella, coming off a .343 season in Class AA, who has received the most attention because of the second base situation in Atlanta, but Gosselin has been the team’s MVP so far. The 25-year-old former University of Virginia standout has played four positions while leading the team in hitting.
The G-Braves have been winning despite the growing pains of catcher Christian Bethancourt, Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect, and third baseman Edward Salcedo, both just 22. Bethancourt has gotten untracked at the plate recently, but Salcedo is hitting just .200 and has 12 errors.
“They’re both still really young and it’s a process,” Snitker said.
The minors, after all, are all about development. But winning is nice, too.
*Late game not included