Two years ago, Ryan Atkinson wasn’t pitching. He was a patient services manager at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, moving on with post-mound life. Nineteen months later, the right-hander is trying to pull off an improbably fast rocket ride to the Major Leagues. As a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training, he has a shot to make the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2018 Opening Day roster.
Go back to the 2015 MLB Draft. 632 pitchers and 579 position players were selected, but of those 1,211 picks, only 11 have already made their Major League debuts. Baseball fans know some of those names: Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, Paul de Jong, Dansby Swanson, and Ian Happ all came from the 2015 draft. There’s even a former General, 2016 Jackson hurler Andrew Moore, in that elite eleven. To ascend quickly, you have to be special, and people usually know it. Those six were chosen in the top four rounds.
Ryan Atkinson, a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, was not among the 1,211 draftees in 2015. Nor was he one of the 1,214 draft choices in June 2016 (634 of whom were pitchers). He hadn’t thrown a baseball in the twelve months prior to the 2016 draft.
Atkinson signed with Arizona–undrafted in eighty rounds over two years–in 2016. He ranked 13th in Minor League Baseball in strikeouts in 2017.
At 71-69 overall, the 2017 Jackson Generals finished their second straight year with an above- .500 winning percentage in the Southern League, compiling a 34-36 record in the Second Half. The Generals’ offense ended the season leading the league in eight different categories, though roster upheaval in July and August made it tough on manager J.R. House and hitting coach Jason Camilli to sustain Jackson’s early dominance. Pitching coach Doug Drabek’s corps of arms gained some traction down the stretch, as an improved starting rotation helped Jackson to a league- best 16 shutout victories. The Generals missed the playoffs by a few games, though they weren’t eliminated officially until the season’s final week. These are some of their highlights:
(NOTE: These memorable moments from the Second Half are by no means comprehensive—feel free to chip in your own thoughts in the comments below, or Tweet @JacksonGenerals on Twitter with your best memories of the 20th season of pro baseball in West Tennessee! There will also be a “2017 By The Numbers” post coming out soon that highlights many of the interesting statistics and figures from the year.)
SATURDAY, JUNE 17TH AT BIRMINGHAM (A First-Half Leftover)
Saturday Night’s Alright for Five-ing
After hitting .232 in May, Generals infielder Kevin Medrano rebounded with an outstanding June. Looking to tie Jonathan Rodriguez for the Southern League’s longest hitting streak, Medrano erupted for five hits at Birmingham on Saturday night, driving in a season-high four runs. The five-hit game was the first for a General since Tyler Bortnick in 2015, and it put Medrano in elite company as one of only seven Southern Leaguers to accomplish the feat this season. The five-hit night was the masterstroke on Medrano’s June canvas, wherein he painted a .371 batting average en route to Southern League Player of the Month honors.
SUNDAY, JUNE 25th VS. JACKSONVILLE
Dealing a Dozen
Inserted into the starting rotation to begin the Second Half, veteran right-hander Ivan Pineyro faced a former team in his first series and did not disappoint. In trying to even the Jacksonville series at 2-2, Pineyro struck out 12 Jumbo Shrimp hitters in seven scoreless innings, tying teammate Taylor Clarke for the Generals’ best single-game strikeout mark in 2017. Pineyro retired 19 straight hitters in his best stretch, and he came away with the narrowest of 1-0 victories after catcher B.J. Lopez scored from third base on a wild pitch in the bottom of the seventh. Joey Krehbiel and Gabriel Moya threw perfect eighth and ninth innings, as Moya recorded his 12th save overall and his third in four nights. Pineyro did not walk a batter. Pineyro was honored as the Southern League Pitcher of the Week, his first weekly honor in a seven-year career.
MONDAY, JULY 3rd AT TENNESSEE
Westbrook Whacks A Homer, Generals Avoid Sweep
Jamie Westbrook spent the whole month of June on the disabled list, and he came off it wanting to make up for lost time. Westbrook’s solo home run at Tennessee on July 3rd helped propel the Generals to a 4-1 victory, and it bore signs of what was to come in July. Westbrook had hits in 24 of 29 July games, including a 2017 personal-best streak of 10 straight games with a hit. He finished the month with a .320 batting average and 19 RBI, earning internal Double-A Player of the Month honors from the Diamondbacks’ front office. Westbrook also scored his first career outfield assist on July 7th in a 9-6 win over Birmingham. Jamie finished 2017 with his 4th straight season of at least 100 games played and at least 100 hits, one of only seven Generals position players who were on both the Opening Day roster and the 2017 finale roster.
TUESDAY, JULY 4th VS. BIRMINGHAM
Won on the Fourth of July
Hosting a home contest on Independence Day for the first time in eight years, the Generals bested eventual SL Pitcher of the Year Michael Kopech and the Birmingham Barons, 8-2, in front of 4,270. The rain-shortened contest nonetheless featured 11 hits from the Jackson offense, including multiple hits from Kevin Cron, Dawel Lugo, Evan Marzilli, and Galli Cribbs. Brad Keller earned the victory, while the Generals climbed a game ahead of the Barons with the help of Jared Miller’s second save of the year. The Generals finished 2017 with a 7-3 mark against the Barons at The Ballpark at Jackson, the best against any of their North Division opponents.
FRIDAY, JULY 21st AT BIRMINGHAM
A Southpaw Snaps the Skid
After being shut out on back-to-back nights at Regions Field, the Generals offense appeared severely handcuffed by the recent losses of third baseman Dawel Lugo (trade), shortstop Domingo Leyba (injury), and second baseman Kevin Medrano (promotion) in quick succession. In dire need of a win, Alex Young helped Jackson snap a five-game skid. The lefty delivered six scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and one walk while recording a season-high eight strikeouts in a 2-1 Jackson victory. The win was Young’s third in a row and third in the month of July, his best month in 2017. Young threw no fewer than five innings in any of his final ten starts, pitching to an ERA of 2.49 while striking out twice as many batters as he walked. His 2.51 road ERA was the best by any Jackson pitcher with at least 10 games started in 2017.
SATURDAY, JULY 29th VS MOBILE
Atkinson Beats BayBears
Wearing a slick black-and-blue jersey in appreciation of Shark Week, right-hander Ryan Atkinson struck out six batters in 5.1 innings and allowed one run, good enough to win his Double-A debut vs. Mobile. The victory gave the Generals the series win and continued an unexpectedly successful season for Atkinson, an undrafted free agent who took 13 months off from baseball before being signed by the Diamondbacks in July 2016. In his first full season as a pro, Atkinson struck out 167 batters, more than any other Diamondbacks minor leaguer. With the Generals, he pitched to a 3.22 ERA in seven starts, earning an invitation to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League in October along with Michael Perez and Victor Reyes.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 3rd VS. TENNESSEE
Payamps Dominates Tennessee Completely
Though Jackson avoided playing any home double-headers through the season’s first four months, rain finally forced the Generals and Tennessee Smokies to play a twin-bill in early August. Right-hander Joel Payamps started the opener, and he made lightning-quick work of a stout Tennessee lineup. Using 84 pitches and a solid mix of fastball, slider, and changeup, Payamps threw Jackson’s first and only complete game of 2017, shutting out the Smokies 4-0 in seven innings while allowing only one hit. Payamps’ CG earned him his first Southern League Pitcher of the Week award, and it kicked off an awesome August, featuring a 2.32 ERA across five games with a 1.00 WHIP and an opponents’ batting average of just. 216.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 4th AT CHATTANOOGA
Perez Breaks Moya’s Earned Run Streak
Facing his former team for the first time since a July 27th trade from Arizona to Minnesota, Chattanooga closer Gabriel Moya earned the save in a 3-1 victory over the Generals. However, Moya’s outing included a solo home run allowed to Jackson catcher Michael Perez, the first earned run allowed by Moya in over three months. Moya, having already earned Relief Pitcher of the Month honors for June and Midseason All-Star accolades as well, would go on to be named a Postseason Southern League All-Star, converting all 24 of his regular season save opportunities (17 with Jackson, 7 with Chattanooga). For Perez, the moment punctuated a rise from the Opening Day backup role to starter, featuring an OPS of .835 in 50 Second Half games with Jackson. Perez would also win “Best Defensive Catcher” recognition in a survey of Southern League coaches by Baseball America, solidifying his best season to date as a 25-year-old minor leaguer.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 18th VS. BILOXI
Duncan Nearly No-Hits Shuckers
An August addition to the Generals’ rotation, right-hander Frank Duncan stuck to his strengths, and his second start at Jackson very nearly made history. Duncan held a 2-0 lead while carrying a no-hitter into the ninth inning, striking out five Biloxi batters while collecting 12 groundball outs and stroking a single on offense. An infield single and a double in the ninth brought Biloxi within a run and chased Duncan, but Joey Krehbiel preserved the win with a two-out save. Duncan pitched five or more innings in each of his five starts with the Generals, earning an ERA under 4.00 and a groundout/flyout ratio of almost 2:1 (1.92). The near-miss allowed Dave Manning’s July 22, 1999 no-hitter to remain as the only no-hit game in franchise history.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 25th AT PENSACOLA
Herum’s Homer Evens Season Series with Wahoos
Jackson failed to score more than four runs in any of their 10 games against Pensacola in 2017, but they did enough to finish the season series 5-5 against the Blue Wahoos. The final meeting was a 0-0 Friday night chess match all the way into the ninth inning. Marty Herum, having gone more than two months without a home run, broke out the big stick with a two-out, two-strike mash to left field that put the Generals ahead 1-0. Herum’s first home run at Double-A proved to be enough for the Generals’ victory, and it revealed the power stroke that may be flashed again next season at Jackson. The 25-year-old third baseman hit .284 in 43 games with the Generals, drilling a team-leading nine doubles in August with a team-high .337 batting average during that time. Herum’s offensive numbers aren’t far from the pace set by Dawel Lugo, who manned third base for Jackson before being traded from Arizona to Detroit in mid-July.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30th VS. CHATTANOOGA
Kevin Cron Wins MVP, Generals Beat Chattanooga
He raised his batting average 61 points from last season. He hit 25+ home runs for the second straight year. He played in a league-high (and franchise record) 138 games, going over four months without a day off to end the year. He is Kevin Cron, and he earned the 2017 Southern League Most Valuable Player award just before the Generals took their second series from Chattanooga in August with 4-0 series finale shutout. (Notably, Cron recorded the walk-off RBI single in the Generals’ 5-4 victory over Chattanooga two nights before.) Cron anchored an offense that led the league in dingers and doubles, and he demolished his previous career high by recording 56 walks, almost twice his 2016 mark. He also led the league in assists at first base (69).
In tandem with 2016 MVP Tyler O’Neill, Cron becomes a part of the first tandem of players to win back-to-back MVPs for the same franchise in the 21st century. He’s the first to lead the Southern League in home runs in consecutive seasons in more than 40 years, since Jim Obradovich did so in 1975 & 1976. Cron joins Jake Lamb (2014) and Paul Goldschmidt (2011) as the third Diamondbacks minor leaguer to win Southern League MVP in the last seven seasons. The list of Southern League MVPs who are current Major Leaguers also includes Max Kepler (MIN), Marcus Semien (OAK), Evan Longoria (TB), and Joey Votto (CIN).
THURSDAY, AUGUST 31st AT TENNESSEE
Lockhart’s Last Stand
In 52 previous 2017 games when trailing after eight innings, the Generals were 0-52. Staring at a 5-2 deficit to begin the ninth inning, they still did not flinch, scoring a run to pull within 5-3 with two outs and men on the corners. Daniel Lockhart, a former Tennessee Smokie himself, fell behind 0-2 against Smokies closer Craig Brooks, but he wouldn’t go down. Lockhart fouled off five straight pitches before Brooks threw two balls, evening the count. After another foul to stay alive, Lockhart lined the 11th pitch of the at-bat into left field for an RBI single, drawing Jackson within 5-4. The Lockhart-Brooks duel catalyzed the Generals’ offense, which scored six runs across the final three frames in an eventual 8-7 victory in 11 innings. Starter Tyler Badamo did not factor in the decision, giving up five runs over six innings while striking out 10 Tennessee hitters in what would be his only Double-A start of the year.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4th AT TENNESSEE
A Finale You Could Feel
In the season finale, the Generals watched a duel unfold on the mound, as Jackson’s Ryan Atkinson tried to keep Tennessee’s Duane Underwood Jr. from winning his league-best 14th game of the year. Scoreless through three innings, the Generals drew first blood, as Victor Reyes smashed his fourth home run of the year over the right field wall for a 2-0 lead. Having held Tennessee down through six innings, Atkinson belted a two-out, two-run double off the left-center field wall in the seventh, recording his first professional hit in dramatic fashion. The Generals plated two more runs in the eighth, helped by Reyes’ fifth triple of the year and a sacrifice fly by Marty Herum.
Entering the bottom of the eighth with a 6-1 lead, Jackson looked momentarily shaky, as a bases-clearing three-run double by Tennessee’s Yasiel Balaguert brought the Smokies within 6-4. However, Kirby Bellow bore down for the inning’s final two outs, and Josh Taylor finished the game with a scoreless ninth inning. Taylor stranded a pair of leadoff hits by getting three consecutive outs, ending the game with the tying run on base and the winning run at the plate. The save was Taylor’s first of the year, and the win clinched an above-.500 winning percentage for the Generals for the second straight year. Reyes finished with nine total bases in the game, falling a single shy of the cycle. His 13-for-19 effort in the Tennessee series propelled him to being honored as Jackson’s third Southern League Player of the Week in 2017.
A special mid-afternoon moment came in the eighth inning, when 32-year-old infielder Travis Denker led off with a solo home run to right field. Denker’s 7th dinger of the year came in his 1,267 professional game between MLB and the minors, giving him 147 jacks in his career. After the Generals took the field for the bottom of the eighth inning, Denker was removed from the game by manager J.R. House, applauded by the Tennessee crowd and hugged by his teammates and coaches. Denker is not officially retired and can still hit, as shown by his .867 OPS in 186 at-bats this season. That said, it was cool to watch Denker—who has never hit a walk-off home run—walk off after a home run in his final at-bat of the season.
Before we turn our backs on 2017, we’d like to say thank you to all the people that have given us feedback and shown interest in the team this year. We’re glad you got to share in the magic of minor league baseball once more! We look forward to seeing you at The Ballpark at Jackson in 2018 or interacting with you online if you can’t make it!
Tyler Springs and Brandon Liebhaber
[Photo credits for Kevin Cron mosaic: Cody Cunningham and Kate Lentz)