The postseason was the exact opposite.
The Braves were eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday night when they lost to the Asheville Tourists, 4-3, in the decisive Game 3 of the South Atlantic League Southern Division series.
The Braves, who were in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, opened the series with a victory last Wednesday in Rome, and they needed to win just one of the two games in Asheville to advance to the SAL championship.
But Asheville swept the final two games of the series, including Saturday night’s thriller.
The game ended when Robby Hefflinger — who has been one of the Braves’ biggest run producers — struck out with the bases loaded against Asheville reliever Seth Willoughby.
The defeat ended a memorable season for the Rome club, which had the worst record in the league prior to the All-Star break but then produced a dramatic turnaround and won the Southern Division’s second-half crown.
In Saturday’s game, first baseman Jordan Ribera blasted a long two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh to break a 2-2 tie and help give the Tourists their 90th win of the season, and Willoughby made the clutch pitches to save a season.
Ribera’s 11th homer in 68 games was a towering shot over the lights in right-centerfield and helped move the Tourists three wins away from their first SAL title since 1987.
Asheville now advances to play SAL defending champion Greensboro in the league’s best-of-five championship series that begins Monday night. The Braves entered the playoffs with hopes of winning the SAL title for the first time since their inaugural season in Rome in 2003.
Asheville will host Greensboro on Monday and Tuesday nights at 7:05 p.m. at McCormick Field.
After an off day, the series would resume in Greensboro on Thursday, and if necessary Friday and Saturday.
Greensboro beat Hagerstown (Md.) 2-0 in their best-of-three series to decide the Northern Division champion.
Trailing 4-2 in the ninth, Rome rallied against Asheville closer Jefri Hernandez, who allowed two walks, two hits and a run and left the bases-loaded mess for Willoughby, who just joined the team two weeks ago and was making just his fourth appearance for the Tourists.
“It’s a different situation because your season is over if you don’t get the job done,” Willoughby said. “I was able to make some good pitches when I needed to.”
“Awesome. Unbelievable. What a gutsy performance by these guys,” said Asheville manager Joe Mikulik, soaked from an on-field champagne shower.
This is Asheville’s first trip to the SAL championship series since 2001. The Tourists trailed Lexington 2-0 in the best of-five series when the remainder of the series was canceled and the Legends declared champs after the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11.
After the start of the game was delayed by rain for an hour, the Tourists took a 1-0 lead in the first when Trevor Story walked and scored on Taylor Featherston’s double.
Rome tied the score in the second on a solo home run by Robby Hefflinger.
Asheville reclaimed the lead in the second on Brian Humphries’ two-out RBI single.
Tourists starter Chris Jensen pitched well, striking out seven with no walks in 6.1 innings, but he allowed the tying run in the seventh on Elmer Reyes’ RBI single.
Asheville beat Rome 6-2 Friday night at home.
It was the first nine-inning postseason win at McCormick Field since 1987. Asheville won a five-inning playoff game at home in 1996.
Rome won the first game of the series at home, 5-3 last Wednesday.
Asheville’s 88-52 mark in the regular season (.629) was the second-best mark in the minor leagues, one percentage point behind Winston-Salem (87-51, .630).
The 88 victories are the most in manager Joe Mikulik’s 13 seasons and the best for the franchise since the 1987 Tourists finished 91-48.
Asheville has won 90 or more games just six times in 92 seasons of pro baseball. The 1927 Tourists hold the franchise record for wins with a 97-49 mark (.664).
The Tourists won the Southern Division’s first half with a 47-23 record.
Rome finished in last place, 29 games behind with the worst record in the minor leagues.
But with many of the same players, the Braves rallied to win the second half with a 44-24 record, four games ahead of Asheville (41-29).