But now, after a complete turnaround, the Braves are not only in the postseason, they have taken the first step toward a championship.
The Rome club, making its first playoff appearance since 2006, hosted the first game of the Southern Division’s best-of-three playoff series on Wednesday against the Asheville Tourists, and posted a 5-3 victory before a crowd of 2,586 at State Mutual Stadium.
After building a 5-0 lead, the Braves carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning.
The Tourists second batter of the inning got Asheville’s first hit of the game, and then the Tourists made it real interesting.
They had the bases loaded with no outs, and proceeded to score three runs. But the Braves worked their way out of the jam to take a 1-0 lead in the series, which shifts to Asheville on Friday for Game 2.
“It got a little hairy there in the ninth,” said Rome manager Randy Ingle. “All of (Asheville’s) guys have good numbers, and to be able to pitch like we did tonight was very good to see.
“Our defense made some really good plays, and our offense really came through and executed,” added Ingle. “We had some opportunities to score more runs, but luckily we didn’t need it tonight.”
One of the stories coming into the game was that the Braves were getting a little bit of help, thanks to a Major League rehab assignment. Atlanta rookie Andrelton Simmons, who has been on the DL since the All-Star break with a broken right pinkie, played shortstop and batted second for the Braves.
It’s not often that something can over-shadow a big leaguer, but the pitching performance of Navery Moore did just that. Moore got the start for the Braves and earned the win after not allowing a hit in six innings.
“Navery Moore set the tone, and he was outstanding,” said Ingle. “He was electrifying and aggressive.”
Moore, who starred at Vanderbilt, was SAL All-Star when he was starting in the first half for the Braves, but in the second half he was moved to bullpen.
“It felt pretty good and I was just trying to go out and get us off to a good start,” said Moore. “It’s good to have a good start in the playoffs and go into the game two with some momentum.
Simmons got the first hit for the Braves when he hit a rocket up the middle for a single. For the game, Simmons went 1-for-4 with a strikeout.
“It went well and the hand felt great,” said Simmons. “I saw the ball out of the pitchers hand pretty good, and I’m not swinging with fear anymore. I feel comfortable swinging, which is good.”
Just like the other players, Simmons knew that a chance for a no-hitter was still there.
“It was pretty cool,” added Simmons. “These guys aren’t that much younger than me, but it was cool to see the younger guys take care of business. It got a little unfortunate there in that final inning, but we pulled it out.”
Offensively the Braves did the bulk of their damage in second inning where they scored four runs. Cory Brownstewn drove in two runs with a double, and Tony Mueller drove in two more on a single to center.
“With two outs I was just looking to make a good swing on the ball, and it was big to get two-out two RBI hit like that,” said Mueller. “The way we did it feels good.
“We had a little scare there in the ninth but we did a great job, and you can’t ask for a better game in the first game of the playoffs,” added Mueller.
Robby Hefflinger drove in Rome’s fifth run on a single in the third inning to give the Braves a 5-0 lead.
Going from “worst to first” is what the Braves have done this season, and that phrase could be seen all around SMS. The Braves printed up and gave out T-shirts with the saying, and for the staff and players that have been here all season, what a season it’s been to make it to the playoffs.
“It hadn’t sunk in yet,” said Ingle. “(Making the playoffs) is one of the best feelings considering where we were and what we did in the first half.
“To all of sudden turn things completely around and finish up the way we did — winning the second half and getting into the playoffs — is still sinking in,” added Ingle. “And it may not all sink in until I’m home in the off-season.”
Mueller and Moore both feel the same way. Both of them were in Rome for the downs of the first half, and are now here for the ups of leading 1-0 in the playoffs.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Mueller. “I’ve been here the whole time, and we were just miserable that first half. Then to come out win the second half and take a 1-0 lead in the playoffs is huge.”
For Moore, he knew the team could play better than it did in the first half, they just had to do it.
“The first half was a struggle, and we were just glad to have a clean slate going into the second half,” said Moore. “We knew could produce on the field, it was just a matter of getting it done. We just took it one game at a time and it’s been successful for us.”
The Braves will now make the trip to Asheville for Game 2 of the series witch a chance to earn a berth into the championship series.
“It feels really good being up 1-0 because were going into a tough environment in Asheville and they’re used to their own ballpark,” said Ingle. “Game 1 was a very good game on our part; we’ll enjoy it tonight and then we’ll get on that bus and head to Asheville and go after it in Game 2.”
The Braves will send Greg Ross (7-9, 4.60) to the mound to start Game 2, and Asheville will be sending the highly-touted lefty Tyler Anderson to the mound. Anderson (12-3, 2.47) was drafted out of Oregon with 20th overall pick in last year’s draft.
“He’s a really good pitcher,” said Ingle. “He’s shut us out before, and we’ve gotten to him before, so hopefully it comes out for the better on our part and we can get to him.”
NOTES: Former Rome Braves Jonathan Schuerholz and Jon Mark Owings attended the game.
Schuerholz was the starting second baseman on the 2003 team that won the South Atlantic crown in the team’s inaugural season in Rome and was the manger in Danville this past season.
Owings, who spent part of three seasons in Rome (2005-07), is a Gainesville resident. He came to not only see his former team, but to also support long time friend and fellow Gainesville native Robby Hefflinger.