The Rome Braves make baseball fun again

ROME, GA — If the Atlanta Braves rebuild project begins this season with Dansby Swanson and ends a few years down the road with the abundance of top prospects on the Rome Braves, the organization is in great shape. The Rome Braves are not only winning, they are having fun and it is contagious to watch.

The Rome Braves finished the first half of the season 27-42, in sixth place in the in the South Atlantic League Southern Division. They caught fire in the second half, going 43-27 behind the emergence of some former first-round draft picks who watched their potential turn into reality. It culminated in their first playoff appearance since 2012, and a Game 1 victory over the Charleston RiverDogs in the Southern Division Championship round of the playoffs behind a dominant, 7.2-inning performance by the red-hot 19-year-old Mike Soroka.

That has seemingly been the key to the Braves success. They have an overabundance of youth that helps keep baseball fun, but skipper Randy Ingle also has talent by the boatload on his squad.

“We have a lot of talent on this club, and a lot of young talent on this club,” Ingle said. “The youngest in the league by far. I was looking the other day, I think [Charleston] has one teenager over there and we have nine. Nine!”

Ingle knew what he had from day one. Many of these guys were household names amongst prospect enthusiasts as their pitching staff was armed with four first-rounders (Soroka, Kolby Allard, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint) while the lineup saw a bevy of young kids taken in the 2015 draft.

“Oh yea, I was excited in spring training,” Ingle said. “Once we left spring training and the roster was assigned here, I knew we were going to have a lot of guys with a lot of talent. We knew that we would have our growing pains, and make young mistakes — that’s part of it. But these guys have responded very well. They’ve stayed the course, they come and work their rear ends off. They’ve gotten so much better.”

The biggest improvements came on the mound. Allard — the Braves’ 14th overall pick in the 2015 draft — had an August to remember, picking up a win on his 19th birthday en route to a 4-0 month behind a 1.72 ERA, striking out 37 and walking just six over 31.1 innings (I caught up with Allard after his scorching hot August, here’s what he had to say). Soroka, the Braves 28th overall in 2015, got hotter — and stronger — as the season wore on, posting his longest outing in the playoffs. Fried and Toussaint — who developed a curveball so nasty that Baseball America deemed it the best in the low minors — have seen major improvements in their command, while 2015 seventh-rounder Patrick Weigel broke out and led the Sally in strikeouts before an August promotion to Mississippi.

(Check out Touki’s signature curveball).

“They just kept working and developing,” Ingle said. “Dan Meyer has done a tremendous job with them, tremendous. They trust him, and they believe in them. He’s an outstanding pitching coach. They work on the fine-tuning in their delivery and their breaking balls and their locations. It’s all coming together.”

At the plate, Austin Riley — the Braves’ 41st overall in 2015 — has seen a tremendous turnaround since June. He blasted 17 home runs and 21 doubles in the second half, while really cutting down on his strikeout rate, which was somewhat of his Achilles heel at the plate. He extended his hitting streak to 20 games in Game 1, driving in his 21st run over that span.

“I’m feeling it right now,” Riley said. “I have a lot of confidence right now. The strikeouts are coming down, I’m drawing a few more walks, and my pitch selection is much better. I’m feeling comfortable.”

“Austin is a beast with a big heart,” Ingle said of his three-hole hitter. “Unbelievable second half. Seventeen home runs in the second half, 10 this month I think. Eighteen years old and to do what he’s done in the second half has been pleasant to watch.”

But Riley is more than a special talent at the plate. He embodies what this Rome Braves team has been all about during their second half surge. Any time you speak to Riley after a game — win or lose — he is smiling, loose, and seemingly looking for the positive on even the darker days. It is an energy that has trickled down throughout the entire clubhouse.

“We got a lot of personalities around here,” Soroka said with a laugh as his teammates jokingly attempted to distract him during his postgame interview in the clubhouse. “It’s awesome. No one has a bad word to say about anyone. We’re really playing as a team. Everyone is for everyone and there is no selfishness out there. I think that’s the key right now, and we are on a roll.”

“We got a great group of guys,” Riley added with his trademarked ear-to-ear grin. “We’re coming together. We’re getting stuff done and we’re also having fun and I think that’s the key of a long season that we have. We have a bunch of talent on this team and we’re all playing together.”

Blake Silvers of summed it up well. As the collection of writers awaited to hear from Soroka, Riley and Ingle in the clubhouse after Game 1, the team was loose, joking around with each other and seemingly having the time of their lives. “You ever watch the postgame from a clubhouse of a team that just won a World Championship?” Silvers asked me as we awaited our interviews. “That’s what it’s like in here all the time.”

Along with all the numbers, along with all the wins, along with the long-awaited return to the playoffs, the second half was particularly special to Ingle. He captured his 1500th win of his illustrious career, and he couldn’t have been happier that it happened with the group of guys that got it for him.

“It’s special to get with this team,” Ingle said like a proud father. “I told them that night after we got it. It’s the character guys we have, and the way they go about it. It’s a close-knit group. They bust their [butt] until the end, they’ve done it all year to the last out. Win or lose. That’s something I’m very proud of. It’s something you can’t teach, but it is surely something you can praise. Getting it with these guys means a lot.”

The Rome Braves are in Charleston Friday night for Game 2 of the series. Should they win, this team, one that didn’t seem close to sniffing a .500 record at one point in the season, could be playing for a SAL Championship next week.

“If you could put a script together like I was thinking leaving spring training, we’d be right on it right now,” Ingle said. “And we’re not finished yet. I’m very proud of them.”

(This piece originally ran on the now defunct Today’s Knuckleball.)

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