The Northern Division team won 7-5 over the Southern squad that includes Asheville Tourists (Colorado Rockies affiliate) and several Greenville Drive (Boston Red Sox), on a humid night Tuesday, June 23. The North is 7-1-2 in the last 10 SAL all-star games. The SAL, long called the Sally League, is a low-A level pipeline producing many major leaguers and much quality baseball.
For instance, the Tourists’ shortstop in 2012, Trevor Story, and 2014 outfielder Raimel Tapia play on opposite (U.S. vs. World) squads in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game July 12 in Cincinnati. Fred Ocasio is a World coach; he managed Asheville in the past two years. Story, Troy Tulowitzki’s heir apparent on the parent team, clubbed 18 homers and SAL-most 43 doubles to lead the Tourists to the ’12 league crown. Tapia stole 33 bases, scored 93 runs and knocked in 72 runs for Asheville last year, to help win its third SAL title ever.
Asheville won the title series over Hagerstown (Nationals), in the full five games, after advancing past Savannah (Mets) in semifinals. Konner Wade threw seven shutout innings, for a 4-1 clinching victory. The Tourists finished 94-51, thanks to a remarkable second-half road stretch of 30-8. They won twice more than their 2012 title team did. The Tourists have been in the SAL since 1976, and in the Rockies’ system since 1994.
In the 2015 first half, Asheville was 32-28 (merely 17-18 at home) and .457. Playoff hopes are reborn. The second-half divisional winner qualifies for four-team playoffs. Manager Warren Schaeffer has led Asheville to the most wins out of the second-half gate, at 3-1 and all on the road. Greenville opened 2-1, Lexington (Royals) 2-0 and Rome Braves 2-2. In the Northern Division, West Virginia (Pirates) started 4-0, Lakewood (Phillies) 3-1 and Delmarva (Orioles) 2-1.
In the first half, Hickory (Rangers) dominated at .647 (44-24), including 20-14 away. The Crawdads ended 7.5 games ahead of next-best W.V., in the North. In the South, Savannah Sand Gnats edged Greenville (.543) by a game. The Drive was 20-14 on the road. The other five squads were within three games of each other.
This was the first all-star contest at McCormick Field since 1996, and sixth since opening in 1924. It was the highest-scoring of six SAL all-star games this decade, thanks to rectangular McCormick’s short right field fence. It is merely 297 feet down the line and 320 to right-center, compared to 370 in left-center and 326 to the leftfield line.
Thus, three left-handers took advantage by each smacking two-run shots to the right, propelling the victors to a decisive 7-2 lead mid-way. That trio was Hickory rightfielder Luke Tendler, Delmarva second baseman Steve Wilkerson for his first homer this year, then outfielder K.J. Woods of Greensboro (Marlins). Woods served as designated hitter.
The game tightened in the final frame, as the South scored twice but stranded the tying run at second base.
Both left-handed Asheville all-star hurlers did not allow a run. Reliever Jerry Vasto got the North out in order in the fourth, striking out a batter. A double play bailed out South starter Helmis Rodriguez, after two reached base. No Asheville hitters made the squad. Tourists pitching coach Mark Brewer, hitting coach Mike Devereaux and trainer Casey Papas joined Schaeffer and MLB Rockies coach Vinny Castilla on the Southern coaching staff.
Greenville had the most (eight) all-stars chosen. Two Drive hitters sparkled. Third baseman Rafael Devers knocked in two runs. Only 18, he rates as the fifth best third-base prospect in the minors and fifth Red Sox overall prospect. He is among a few to play the entire contest. Shortstop Javier Guerra doubled, in both of his at bats. Other Drive all-stars were catchers Jordan Procyshen and Ben Moore, infielder Maricio Dubon, left fielder Derek Miller, and pitcher Mario Alcantara. Pitcher Michael Kopech, a 2014 first-round pick, missed the game due to injury.
Braves fan can relish that Rome sent four to the South squad. Premier shortstop prospect Ozhaino “Ozzie” Albies, 18, at .325 was a close second to Asheville’s Omar Carrizales (.326) in SAL average, entering this week. Other all-star Braves were pitcher Caleb Beech, OF Joseph Daris and DH Jordan Edgerton.
The North squad was led by seven from Hickory. Five were pitchers from the top (.276 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) SAL staff. Ariel Jurado, unbeaten at 9-0 with a 2.11 ERA, was the North starter.
Northern lead off hitter Malquin Canelo of Lakewood earned most valuable player honors, by reaching base four times. The Dominican shortstop had a double, single and scored a run.
The crowd of 4,423 enjoyed the home run derby with five competing. Winner Ryan O’Hearn, Lexington lefty first baseman, had more (16) home runs than any SAL hitter at midseason. Austen Smith of Greensboro hit 11, and Lakewood’s Rhys Hoskins and Jose Trevino of Hickory each with nine. Tied at eight are Guerra, Wullmer Becerra of Savannah (Mets) and Alfredo Escalera-Maldonado of Lexington.
The five derby competitors included Vinny Castilla. He walloped 320 homers for the Rockies and Braves.
Texan native O’Hearn, 21, is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. He homered every third try — in 11 of 30 swings. He hit four out in the final round, as runner-up Hoskins managed one. Hoskins led the league’s first half with a .337 average, and marks of .416 on-base and .530 in slugging. He is third in average, at .322. He is 6-4, and weighs 225. The two finalists were the two starting cleanup hitters.
HomeTrust Bank gave $100 per derby homer and $200 for each of Castilla’s three dingers, raising $4,000 for Children First/Communities for Schools. About 60 of its children sat on-field, seeing the derby.
The Tourists are home this week. For tickets, call 258-0428 or check www.theashevilletourists.com.
Photos by Pete Zamplas