Danville Braves

Danville’s Andrew Moritz (25) shakes manager Barrett Kleinknecht’s hand during the opening night ceremony on June 19 before the Braves took on the Pulaski Yankees.

Entering play on Saturday, the Danville Braves were 2.5 games back in the Appalachian League East Division standings. A big reason why is that the Braves have won 12 of their last 17, including their last six straight. That’s the longest winning streak for the team since 2009.

The team has seen players come and go throughout the summer. Danville being just the rookie affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, it’s not surprising to see so many names make the jump to Rome (Low-A) or even Florida (High-A). It started just 10 days in to the season, when 2018 second round pick Greyson Jenista got the call to Rome. Since then, a number of players have followed, most of whom were clearly putting up big numbers to get the attention of the Braves’ brass and getting called up.

That hasn’t stopped the D-Braves from a 28-21 record and maybe playing some of their best baseball of the summer.

“We’re losing guys left and right going up to Rome, going up to Florida, so the biggest thing is just making sure we’re developing the players here and if we do everything right we’ll put a win in the column,” said Danville’s first-year manager Barrett Kleinknecht.

Kleinknecht, who spent 2010-2015 in the Braves system before joining the organization as a coach in 2016, said the experience of telling a player he’s getting called up far exceeds the feeling of hearing it himself as a player.

“It’s more fun. It’s more fun being able to tell these guys that because you know how hard they’re working,” he said. “This is what they wanted to do their whole life… They’ve been playing baseball since they were four and five years old and to be able to give them the news that they’re taking another step in their career is awesome.”

A big reason why the team has been so successful this year, even with all of the players being promoted, has been the pitching staff. As a team, Danville is first in the Appalachian League in ERA at 3.26. The next closest is Pulaski at 3.75, who have allowed 29 more runs that Danville. The Braves have also allowed the fewest home runs in the league.

Some nights, the starters are able to go five or six innings, but some of the guys are being stretched out from relievers to starters or are returning from injuries and aren’t able to pitch that far into games so the bullpen arms have been a major positive and have contributed a lot to the success of the team to this point.

“You have your five-day rotation and you stick with that, but the guys in the bullpen, a couple of the guys are going on one-day rest, two-day rest. You’d like to give them three, but we’ve been kind of tight,” Kleinknecht said. “(Pitching coach Kanekoa Texeira) Tex has been doing a really good job of scheduling the pitching and making sure who’s hot, letting them know who’s got after this guy or that guy, but kudos to the relievers.”

At the plate, the team’s batting average is in the bottom half of the league. The offensive numbers aren’t going to jump off the page, but it’s been situational hitting and consistent effort that have sparked success with the bats.

“That’s the big thing is just getting these guys to mentally stay in the game and give their best effort every single time no matter what,” Kleinknecht said. “We need the same guy every single time.”

Kleinknecht gave a lot of credit to the organization for putting together a roster full of hard-working players. For a first-year head coach at this level, Kleinknecht said having the type of players he’s had has made this season much easier than it could’ve been.

“It’s helped out with the coaching staff that I’ve got has been awesome and all the rovers coming in, but kudos to Bridgy, (Atlanta Braves director of scouting) Brian Bridges in the scouting department getting these guys because they got guys that are developed, not only as baseball players but as people,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have that because if I didn’t have those kinds of kids, this caliber of players, this year might’ve been a little tougher.”

Including Sunday’s series finale with the Kingsport Mets, the Braves have 19 games left in the season and trail the Princeton Rays by 2.5 games for the Division lead. The top two teams in each division make the playoffs, and the Braves are only 1.5 games behind the Bluefield Blue Jays for second in the East.

At this level, winning isn’t always the top priority. It’s more about developing talent and have that talent make its way up through the system. That doesn’t mean the Braves have any less interest in winning it all if they have the chance to do so.

“Any time you make playoffs it’s a good thing. Winning is part of development, so if we have an opportunity to win, absolutely we’re going to try to win,” he said. “These guys have worked their tails off, a lot of time since February and some of the guys since January in college, to get to this spot and I think they deserve a shot to win it all.”

But to get there, Kleinknecht said nobody should be worried about playoffs. Instead, they need to stay focused as they have all summer to this point.

“We can’t change the mindset. It’s got to be about getting better each day, working on something to get better at each day, finding the things we didn’t do well tonight and work on it for tomorrow and the wins will take care of itself,” he said.

The Braves travel to Pulaski to take on the Yankees from Sunday-to-Tuesday. After an off day on Wednesday, Danville will return home with a doubleheader against the Greenville Reds on Thursday starting at 5 p.m.

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Chris Doherty is a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached a chris.doherty@martinsvillebulletin.com

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