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First Half and All-Star Success for the Hillcats

First Half and All-Star Success for the Hillcats

| On 29, Jun 2016

Sunday, June 19, Father’s Day, marked the end of the Carolina League’s first half of play. The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats captured the Northern Division first half crown with a 45–25 record, equaling the win total of the 2009 team which went on to win the Carolina League Championship, their last season as a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.

The 70 games played in the first half by the Hillcats are distinguished by three elements – a strong offense, top-notch pitching from the starters and the bullpen, and a true sense of team effort. No one player on the Hillcats has completely dominated the rest of the Carolina League. Instead, each night a different player steps up to deliver a strong performance that leads his team towards victory.

On the offensive side of the ledger the Hillcats shared or led the league in a number of team offense categories for the season’s first half. They led the Carolina League in runs (385), doubles (142), home runs (62), runs batted in (343), total bases (949), walks (295), as well as on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.413), and OPS (.767).

This outstanding half season performance is even more notable, because 14 of their 70 games were against regional rival Salem, who was the winner of the Southern Division’s first half. Salem led the league in batting average (.266), triples (35), and stolen bases (147), while coming in second to Lynchburg in most of the other offensive categories.

“This is probably the deepest team I’ve had in the last three years,” said manager Mark Budzinski. “Everyone knows their role, does their job well, pitching, defense, base running, and at the plate. Really all aspects have clicked for us this year.”

Though the team performance has been notable, a number of individual players stand out.

Chief among these is first baseman Bobby Bradley. In 236 at bats he has achieved the league lead in home runs (15) and RBI (56), and is in the top six in walks (38), slugging (.496) and OPS (.851). The principal area he still needs to improve on is his overall strikeout percentage, which sits just a hair below 33% of his plate appearances. If he can maintain his overall performance and reduce his strikeout numbers he will have taken the next step to a Major League career.

Several players are having break out performances, in particular shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang and center fielder Greg Allen.

“Yu’s been as consistent as anyone at the plate this year,” said Budzinski about Chang’s hitting. “He’s just driving the ball to all parts of the field and playing well defensively. The first few weeks were rough for him, he had to make some adjustments, but he’s done those things and been much more consistent defensively.”

Chang, a 20-year-old from Taitung, Taiwan, is now in his third professional season. Coming into the year he ranked as the Indians’ #16 prospect and has shown he can step up to the challenge of the caliber of baseball played in the High-A Carolina League.

You might say baseball talent runs in his family, as his older brother, Jin-De Jhang, is a catcher in the Pirates system, currently playing at AA Altoona. In 246 at bats Chang ranks in the top five in the league in home runs (8), RBIs (45), runs (48), doubles (20), and slugging (.504). On top of that his defensive performance has shown notable improvement, with only one of his 12 errors coming since the beginning of June.

Of equal significance is the fact that he has been part of turning 42 double plays. Together his offense and defense have provided a significant contribution to the Hillcats first half success. If Chang continues to perform well, he may get the opportunity to move up to Akron and engage in some sibling rivalry on the diamond, as Akron plays Altoona eight times in July.

Other top performers in the Hillcats offense include Allen, Daniel Salters, Taylor Murphy, Sicnarf Loopstok, Anthony Santander and Claudio Bautista. Allen in particular has elevated his stock, leading the team in stolen bases (34) during the first half, falling just two shy of the individual league lead and only being caught twice.

“It speaks to the aggressive mindset that our organization tries to carry,” said Allen about his success on the bases. “From the front office on down they’ve tried to instill in our guys, being aggressive on the base paths and defensively, wreak havoc, take the extra base. I think our success is a testament to our coaching staff.”

Not only has the Hillcats offense been excellent, their pitching kept pace giving the team the opportunity to construct a winning record. The Hillcats staff led the Carolina League’s first half in wins (45) and shutouts (7 – tied with two others), and placed second in strikeouts (565), earned runs (240), hits (564) and ERA (3.54).

Much like the offense, a significant number of players contributed to the pitching staff’s success, including Nick Pasquale, Anderson Polanco, Cameron Hill, Luis Lugo, and Mitch Brown. Several others were outstanding.

First among these was Julian Merryweather, slotted as the fourth starter based on the Opening Day rotation. From the get go he dominated Carolina League batters on his way to an All-Star nomination and now a promotion to AA Akron.

“It’s a great honor,” he said about getting to attend the annual All-Star exhibition. “It’s a good representation of how hard we’ve worked as a team.”

His numbers indicate just how dominant he was. In eleven starts, he went 8-2, with only a single no-decision. He pitched 61 innings, allowing only 47 hits and awarding just 15 walks to opposing batters. His 1.02 ERA led the league by more than half a run and he struck out 58 batters for a 3.87 K/BB ratio. His only blemish was being shelved for a short time with a shoulder strain. Any concerns about that were alleviated when he returned from the disabled list to face Salem and had improved his velocity.

“As far as the velocity, I think that was just a result of the drills I do,” said Merryweather. “Every mile an hour a pitcher can get is huge.”

Prior to the shoulder strain, his fastball was usually in the low 90’s, but that Sunday against Salem he had a few pitches up around 98 MPH. This contrasted with his off speed pitches which were coming in around 78 on the radar gun. He kept the hitters off balance, not allowing any runs. On that particular day this big difference in velocity was very effective, and though he was removed from the game after four innings, he earned the win as the game was called because of rain, following the conclusion of the fifth inning.

Two other pitching notables for the first half were Justus Sheffield, the team’s number one starter, and David Speer, and invaluable arm out of the bullpen. Sheffield, who had 13 starts, struck out 53 on his way to four wins during the first half and began to show mastery of his secondary offerings beyond his low 90’s fastball.

Of all this season’s Hillcat pitchers who have tossed more than ten innings, Speer led the team in WHIP at 0.91. His pinpoint control earned him three wins and he struck out 34, to only eight walks, for a 4.25 K/BB ratio in 33 innings on the mound.

“He’s done an awesome job,” said Budzinski. “Being in a couple of different roles where he has come in for two-thirds of an inning and gotten lefties out, or pitching three innings getting extended and getting righties and lefties out, it has been a big part of his maturation. Learning to get righties and lefties out at this level, he will get an opportunity at some point to get guys out at a higher level.”

All of this success for the Hillcats in the season’s first half resulted in six members of the team being named to the Carolina League roster for the All-Star game which was played at The Diamond in Lake Elsinore, California.

The six honorees were Sheffield, Merryweather, Allen, Bradley, Chang, and Salters.

For Allen it was a homecoming, as he grew up in the San Diego area and went to college at SDSU.

“I actually didn’t know where it was going to be,” said Allen. “With it being so close to home, my family got to come out and be a part of it.”

In the game itself Allen was equally successful, leading off the game with a walk, and quickly stealing second and third base, which helped the Carolina League stars to score the game’s first run when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Salem’s Mauricio Dubon.

Allen was not the only Hillcat showing off their skills at the midsummer classic. Merryweather started the game and would earn the win for the Carolina League stars. Catcher Salters would throw out two of the California League stars while teammate Sheffield was on the mound.

“Sheff was pitching, he was quick to the plate so I just had to get up and throw it down,” said Salters about the two runners he gunned down in All-Star competition.

Finally, Bradley put the exclamation point on the All-Star contest by hitting the games only home run off Ryan Castellani of Modesto, a Rockies farm club.

“It was a unique experience being in an All-Star game and hitting it off a good pitcher in Castellani,” said Bradley with excitement in his voice. “I was just looking for something up and over the plate that I could drive, and got it on a 1-0 count.”

Bradley and teammate Chang had participated in the gala’s home run hitting contest on the deck of the USS Midway, the former aircraft carrier turned into museum in San Diego. Though neither advanced to the final round, it was an exhilarating experience for all of the Hillcats’ All-Stars.

As the team tries to dodge the recent summer rains in Virginia (their second half opening contest was rained out), they are set to enter the second half of the Carolina League season on an even keel.

“You’re starting over fresh, back to 0-0, so my message to the team was ‘It’s time to continue coming to the yard every day to focus and work, prepare just like you did every other game in the first half’,” said Budzinski about his first meeting with the team following the midseason break.

Knowing that they have already earned a spot in the postseason will make playing through the dog days of summer all that much more fun and exciting.

Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance

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