The Asheville Tourists ended their most recent seven-game homestand on a losing note, getting crushed 11-1 by the Greenville Drive on the second of three Education Days at McCormick Field this season. (The third and final 11 a.m. start will be on Wed. May 28 versus the Lexington Legends.)
Yet for the most part, the T’s were the buzzsaw — not the wood — over the past seven games.
In four of those contests, Asheville scored 10 or more runs. Unfortunately, Tourists pitchers allowed 11 runs in two of those other games. However, when the home team outscores the visiting clubs by a combined score of 51-39 during a seven-game stint, that’s a pretty successful stand. (Of course, you’d prefer to see the pitching staff give up fewer than 39 runs, but McCormick Field tends to yield a lot of scoring, especially now that the weather has warmed up.)
Overall, the Tourists went 5-2 on this latest homestand. That leaves then with a 25-19 record, good for second place in the South Atlantic League’s (SAL) Southern Division. But Asheville is five games behind first-place Savannah, which is building a margin that is looking increasingly difficult to overcome in this season’s first half. (Yet with 26 games remaining in the first half, that’s not an insurmountable deficit to overcome.)
For those that don’t know, the SAL plays a split-season format that essentially breaks the year down into two seasons. So if Asheville doesn’t win the first-half Southern Division title, it has a chance for the second-half crown. Then each half’s champion would face each other in the SAL playoffs. (In 2012, when the Tourists won the SAL championship, they made the playoffs by winning the Southern Division in the first half of the season.)
Ashley Graeter Breaking Out
With as many runs as the Tourists have scored recently, you’d figure at least a few of their hitters were putting up big numbers. You would be correct. But one in particular has been a standout.
Ashley Graeter played in five of Asheville’s past seven games, batting 11-for-18 (a .611 average) with five doubles, three home runs and five RBI. Graeter began the season without a starting position, perhaps because he’s versatile enough to play several spots on the field. Most of his professional career has been spent at third base, but with the Tourists, the 24-year-old has played catcher, first base and designated hitter.
With Ryan McMahon becoming a star at third base, Wilfredo Rodriguez and Jose Briceno playing well at catcher, Correlle Prime entrenched at first base, and several players rotating in the designated hitter role, it’s been difficult for the former Southern Miss star to get regular playing time. But if he keeps hitting the way he has, Tourists manager Fred Ocasio will surely move around all the pieces he can to keep Graeter’s bat in the lineup.
Pat Valaika Gets Promoted
One of the Tourists’ best players during the first two months of the season is moving up in the Colorado Rockies’ minor league system. Shortstop Pat Valaika, who was leading the SAL with a .370 batting average, was promoted to the Rockies’ high Class A level club in Modesto, Calif. at the beginning of the week. The UCLA product also compiled a .982 OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging percentage), ranking third among the league’s hitters in that category.
Earlier in the season, Valaika compiled a 22-game hitting streak, the longest in the minor leagues this season. He got at least one base hit in 30 of the 34 games he played with Asheville.
Interestingly, Valaika may push former Tourists shortstop Trevor Story over to third base. Rosell Herrera, who had a great season at shortstop for Asheville last year, is also on the roster (though currently on the seven-day disabled list). So the Rockies may have some decisions to make about who gets the most playing time in Modesto.
Valaika certainly deserved the promotion, however, and it’s good to see that the Rockies aren’t letting roster considerations affect a player’s development. The organization needs to see what he can do against a higher level of competition now. (In his second game with the Nuts, Valaika showed he’s ready, batting 3-for-4 with a triple and RBI.)
Of course, it’s always a bit disappointing to see someone whose success we’ve enjoyed move on, but that’s how it often works in minor league baseball when a player is doing well. Enjoy these guys while you can and remember that you saw them at the early stages of their professional careers.
Can we take any credit for Valaika’s rise, by the way? Three weeks after interviewing him, he gets the call to the next level. Could this be the first example of an Ashvegas bump? Tourists players may want to keep that in mind if we’d like to talk to anyone.
*** The Asheville Tourists return to McCormick Field on Memorial Day, May 26, for a quick three-game set with the Lexington Legends. May 28 is an 11:05 a.m. start time for the final Education Day of the season. The T’s then begin a four-game stand on June 5, which is a Thirsty Thursday. Single game tickets are currently available at the McCormick Field box office. For more information, contact the Tourists’ front office at (828) 258-0428.
Ian Casselberry covers Major League Baseball at The Outside Corner and provides analysis for The WISE Guys on ESPN Asheville (1310 and 970 AM) every Tuesday at 4:40 p.m. Follow Ian on Twitter.