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Nothing minor: first stop, Gwinnett (AAA baseball)

At this time of the year, baseball takes a leading role when it comes to sports.

With about 90 games left in the 162 regular season marathon, some teams are rounding into form and a few are falling off the proverbial map, and as July 31st (the trade deadline for Major League Baseball) inches closer, more fans pay attention to what is taking place.

However, a very hidden jewel when it comes to "the show" is minor league baseball.

Even in Metro-Atlanta, before current key players on this year's Atlanta Braves' division leading team including (but not limited to) Freddie Freeman (1B), Ozzie Albies (2B), Ronald Acuna, Jr (OF), Austin Riley (3B/OF), Dansby Swanson (SS), Julio Teheran (SP), and others, they make their mark in the minor leagues, including the AAA affiliate, the Gwinnett Stripers. Since relocating from Richmond (and formerly the Richmond Braves and Gwinnett Braves), the team provides a solid stop for a number of current key players at the big league level. Even with the current 25 man roster (for major league teams), most fans may not be aware of the larger 40 man roster teams carry; a number of the players are playing at the AAA level and are essentially a phone call away from reaching the Major Leagues (and in some instances, returning to the big leagues).

In putting the spotlight on this highly accessible, engaging, intimate, and fan-friendly experience of seeing top-flight talent, my first (of multiple stops) brings me literally right down the road from Atlanta to Lawrenceville (GA) and Cool-Ray Field. Given the pre, in-game, and post-game experience, it's one that hopefully encourages others here (and elsewhere) to take advantage of the game.

June 18, 2019: Lousivllle Bats vs Gwinnett Stripers (Pre-game)

A little after 5pm (and before final warm-ups and prep), I'm able to take a few moments to speak with starting right-fielder Travis Demeritte. The New York City born, Georgia-raised (Winder-Barrow HS), former 1st round draft pick (2013 draft, 30th overall), and 2018 top prospect enters the game as the team leader in RBI's (Runs Batted In). With a stretch of reaching base safely in 55 of 60 games, he's playing a key role in the team just 4 1/2 games behind International League South Division leading Durham.

He credits his improved consistency as a key reason for his growth as a batter, along with his continued focus on rounding out his offensive approach, defensive game, and making plays. Combined with the team's focus, including learning how to win close games, he's a player to keep an eye on (along with others on the team).

He encourages players at multiple levels (i.e. little league, high school, American Legion, college, et al) by stating, "Don't give up. Silence the noise...stay resilient".

(View the FULL pre-game interview below):

June 18, 2019: Lousivllle Bats vs Gwinnett Stripers (In-Game)

Entering the game, Gwinnett's starting pitcher, Kolby Allard, is coming in on a positive roll. In his previous 2 starts (1 win and one no-decision), he's pitched 15 innings and given up 2 runs (earned), as well as having a solid 12 strikeout to 3 walk ratio (to put it in perspective, having a 3:1 ratio is good, so over this stretch, a 4:1 ratio is outstanding).

After an hour and 40 minute rain delay, the game gets underway, but it includes a first inning controversy where starting left-fielder Adam Duvall is ruled out due to runner's interference (and results in Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill getting ejected).

Runs in the 2nd and 3rd innings thanks to RBI producing hits by Rafael Ortega (who gets 2 hits in 4 at-bats) and second baseman Jack Lopez (who gets 4 hits in 4 at-bats), Gwinnett has an early 2-0 lead. Despite some miscues in the field by Louisville and their starting pitcher, Vladimir Gutierrez coming off 2 consecutive losses in which he allows 10 runs (9 earned) lasting 7 2/3 innings, they are able to hang around (he goes 5 2/3 innings, giving up 2 runs on 6 hits, striking out 7 and walking 2 batters, a much improved start).

Over the first 5 innings, Allard, the 9th rated prospect in the Braves' system is in complete command. In the 6th inning, a 3-run outburst by Louisville headed by Alex Blandino (second baseman/shortstop), outfielder Aristides Aquino, and catcher Juan Graterol (who would later take a foul ball off his hand but would remain in the game) put Louisville on top 3-2. Still, a 6 inning performance with 9 strikeouts and 3 walks keeps the team in the game.

Trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th, Gwinnett is able to put pressure on Louisville closer Sal Romano. Singles by Lopez and Travis Demeritte along with a league leading 14th hit by a pitch at bat by shortstop Andres Blanco loads the bases with one out. First baseman Sean Kazmar, Jr (who gets 1 hit in 3 at bats) unleashes a scorcher that is flagged down by center fielder Narcisco Crook. While Lopez is able to score (on the sacrifice fly), but Demeritte is thrown out at third base, ending the inning and taking it to extra innings.

In the bottom of the 10th inning, Duvall is able to turn on a fastball by Romano and depositing it some 467 feet into left-center field, completing the team's rally and winning in extra innings by a 5-3 score.

June 18, 2019: Lousivllle Bats vs Gwinnett Stripers (Post-game)

Duvall, the first-baseman/outfielder who has experience in the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds (including a 2016 appearance in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game), is gracious in taking time after the game to speak with the media. A member of the Braves' 40-man roster, he notes the team's work ethic and focus, especially coming off their recent road trip.

"Players are working together; there's a lot of baseball talk (in the dugout) which is good. Players are focused and keep grinding", he remarks.

With an air of professionalism that mirrors the big leagues, the minor league experience is one not to overlook. Players who are continuing to hone their skills, let alone those with major league experience, are literally a stone's throw away.

Combined with truly being a phone call away, why wait to check out tomorrow's players when you can do so today?

After all, there's nothing minor about it.

Quick notes: To find out more about the team, including their schedule, tickets, game-promotions, and related options, make sure to visit their website (click HERE to visit their site), as well as adding them on Facebook (Gwinnett Stripers), Twitter (@GoStripers), and Instagram (@gostripers).

Photos taken by Andrew Snorton.

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