SAN FRANCISCO – Five years after their teams squared off for the Georgia Class AAAA state championship, Henry County High’s Jason Heyward and Lee County High’s Buster Posey find themselves on a considerably larger stage beginning tonight.
Heyward’s Braves and Posey’s San Francisco Giants are meeting in a best-of-five National League Division Series, and suddenly a lot of writers from around the country are asking the two Georgia guys about that best-of-three series in 2005.
If you happened to have been at that high school championship series, could you even have imagined you were watching two players who’d finish first and second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote five years later? (It’s not official, but just about every writer I’ve talked to believes they’ll finish 1-2, in some order).
Could you have imagined that you were watching a level of talent that major league franchises can only hope to get once every decade, or maybe only once every generation? Because that’s how special most observers believe Heyward and Posey are.
Heyward hit .277 with 18 homers, 72 RBIs and an .849 OPS this season in 142 games, playing through a thumb injury that diminished his power for about six weeks and eventually required a DL stint that kept him out of the All-Star Game after he was elected as a starter.
Posey hit .305 with 18 homers, 67 RBIs and an .862 OPS in 108 games, including a ridiculous .417 with seven homers, 24 RBIs and a 1.067 OPS in July in just his second full month in the majors.
Heyward hit a tape-measure homer in his first at-bat on opening day, had 10 homers and 38 RBIs in his first two months before the thumb injury, and led major league rookies with 91 walks and a .393 on-base percentage that was the sixth-highest ever for a player who began a season younger than 21.
Posey, who played at Florida State and wasn’t called up to the majors until May 29, has only three years of catching experience yet is lauded for his skills and leadership of a pitching staff that led the majors with a 3.36 ERA.
Among Braves with at least 50 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Heyward’s .306 average in those situations was the team’s second-best, and his .927 OPS was the team leader.
Posey led the Giants with a .312 average and .923 OPS with runners in scoring position.
“He was a senior,” Heyward said of their 2005 state championship series meeting, the first time he said he’d played against Posey. “It was my sophomore year. He played in East Cobb [Baseball], but I didn’t play with him there. He was on an older team.”
What does Heyward remember about Posey from back then?
“He was a very versatile player,” he said. “He pitched and he hit well. He always hit well. He was a player you had to watch out for, that you had to be careful if you were playing against him.”
And that’s about it. Heyward is a no-nonsense sort of guy, a rookie who’s old school in believing that rookies should mostly be seen and not heard. It’s one of the many traits his teammates love about him, along with his huge ability.
So Heyward doesn’t go on at length with stories and anecdotes about Posey and their championship series, which, incidentally, Henry County won two games to one.
Posey’s memory of Heyward: “I remember him being really big already as a sophomore,” Posey told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Giants planned to bring along Posey slowly this year, and if veteran Bengie Molina hadn’t struggled early there’s a chance Posey would have spent the season in Triple-A.
But Molina did struggle, and Posey was so good after his callup that the Giants traded Molina and turned over the catching duties to the kid from Leesburg, Ga.
Posey has hit over .300 against both righties (.309) and lefties (.304), and has been a beast away from the Giants’ pitcher-friendly ballpark, batting a robust .351 with 12 homers and a .993 OPS in 55 road games.
Both rookies struggled in the final weeks of the season, Heyward batting .173 with one extra-base hit and one RBI in the Braves’ final 14 games, and Posey hitting .143 in his final 11 games.
However, half of Posey’s six hits in that stretch were home runs, and he hit eight homers in 28 games during September and October.
Posey went 1-for-11 in a four-game series against the Braves at Turner Field in August, and said he hoped he got the “first time back home” thing out of the way with that forgettable series against the Braves.
The Braves know better than to expect similar results this time from the phenom.
“I’ve seen Pose a lot on video and watching games, and he’s dynamite,” said Bobby Cox, who’s obviously so impressed with Posey that he’s already given him a Coxian nickname. “The kid is going to be a great hitter; he already is. And he’s got power, an arm that’s like a laser going to second base, and he stepped right in down the stretch, catching a really good pitching staff with no problems.
“That says a lot about a kid that’s out of South Georgia.”
Cox smiled and added, “I don’t know how we missed him.”
The Braves are known for scouting and drafting a bevy of talented players from Georgia, but they can’t draft them all. Besides, they’ve already got their own Georgia native behind the dish, Brian McCann.
And how ’bout that rarity, too: In an age where there aren’t a lot of cleanup-hitting catchers, this series could pit two young ones from the state of Georgia, when McCann bats cleanup during the series, as he is tonight.
By the way, Heyward is one of seven rookies on the 25-man NLDS roster the Braves announced this morning. That’s the most rookies Atlanta’s ever had on a postseason roster, and it doesn’t even include infielder Diory Hernandez, who is on the roster but technically is not a rookie.
You can read the story and see the complete, sans-Saito roster here.
♣ Zito is one expensive NLDS observer: The Braves couldn’t have been disappointed to see the Giants lefty Barry Zito off their NLDS roster.
Zito is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA and .184 opponents’ average in five starts vs. Atlanta, including a 10-strikeout, seven-inning, four-hit performance in his only start against them this season. He’s also 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA in four starts at Turner Field.
The Giants have Jonathan Sanchez penciled in to start Game 3. He’s 1-3 with a 6.00 ERA in seven games (five starts) against the Braves, including 0-1 with a 7.56 ERA in two this season.
But the Giants’ decision wasn’t between Zito and Sanchez, who went 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA, including 3-1 with a 1.17 ERA in five September starts. Sanchez was on regardless.
Their decision came down to whether to keep Zito on the roster to start a potential Game 4 in Atlanta. They will instead go with either tonight’s Game 1 starter Tim Lincecum on short rest, or rookie Madison Bumbarner, 21, who was a 1.18 ERA in his past six starts.
Manager Bruce Bochy’s decision is similar to the one the Braves face for a potential Game 4. Atlanta will either bring back Game 1 starter Derek Lowe on short rest of go with rookie Brandon Beachy, depending upon the situation.
If the Braves are down 2-1, it’s a reasonably safe bet they’d go with Lowe in that must-win Game 4 situation. Just as the Giants would surely go with Lincecum if they’re down 2-1 and facing elimination Monday in Atlanta.
But let’s circle back to Zito, one of the most expensive healthy, non-active postseason players we will ever see. He went 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA in his fourth consecutive losing season since signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants.
Just think about that: He’s 40-57 with a 4.45 ERA in four seasons since signing for $126 mill.
He pitched his way out of the Giants’ postseason rotation – at least for this round – by going 1-6 with a 6.06 ERA in his last seven regular-season starts, and particularly by walking in two runs in the first inning of Saturday’s loss to the Padres. The lefty was winless in 13 road starts since early May.
Meanwhile in September, Sanchez was 3-1 with a 1.17 ERA in five starts, and Bumgarner was 2-2 with a 1.13 ERA in five.
Bumgarner, 21, a lefty from Hickory, N.C., was 7-6 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts. Hasn’t faced the Braves. How ’bout this: in Game 4, in Atlanta, the team from San Francisco could throw against the Braves a battery with a catcher (Posey) from South Georgia and pitcher from the North Carolina mountains.
♣ OK, out of time. Gotta get ready and get over to the ballpark. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day here in San Francisco, temps in the upper 60s, but it’ll be a lot cooler at game time tonight.
By the way, if you’re ever in San Francisco for a game, I’d recommend you try to mahi-mahi tacos at the famous Fog City Diner, right down the Embarcadero, a mile or so from AT&T Park. Had them last night, some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten.
Let’s close with one from the great Nick Lowe, which you can listen to here. Oh, and check out this video from the gorgeous and immensely talented singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cook, off her album Welder, one of the finest real-country albums of the year.
“LATELY I’VE LET THINGS SLIDE” by Nick Lowe
With a growing sense of dread
And a hammer in my head
Fully clothed upon the bed
I wake up to the world
That lately I’ve been living in
There’s a cut upon my brow
Must have banged myself somehow
But I can’t remember now
And the front door’s open wide
Lately I’ve let things slide
I go to the bin
I throw the laundry in
And pick out the cleanest shirt
Then I tell myself again
I don’t really hurt
Smoking I once quit
Now I got one lit
I just fell back into it
Along with my pride
Lately I’ve let things slide
I go to the bin
I throw the laundry in
Dig out the cleanest shirt
When all at once I’m seized again
By exquisite hurt
That untouched take-away
I brought home the other day
Has quite a lot to say, the evidence is clear
Only resign piled high and wide
About how lately I’ve let things slide
I’m just about holding on
But lately I’ve let things slide