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Changes Mark the New Season for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats

Changes Mark the New Season for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats

| On 13, Apr 2017

Baseball is a game of rhythms. In each season and each game there is an ebb and flow to its pace. A hitter adapts to a pitcher, a team adopts a new strategy, or a star player retires or moves on. All of these events produce change.

This year, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats are all about change. In their third season as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, there are many new elements to the Hillcats, and not just the faces in the dugout. Over the winter, the playing surface was completely remade. The renovation was begun immediately after the 2016 season. The field was leveled, a state-of-the-art drainage system was installed, and new turf and a warning track were put into place.

Along with the new field, the Hillcats redesigned their brand. Stepping away from the former gold and green colors and the cartoonish logo, they moved to a more stylish cat reminiscent of the Penn State Nittany Lions. The color scheme combines Blue Ridge blue and Seven Hills green – think navy blue and a green that matches the neon color of the Seattle Seahawks. Though a big shift away from their former colors, the scheme works. But the bright green alternate jersey is a bit jarring.

With new colors, logo, and field comes a mostly new coaching staff courtesy of the Indians. The only returning member is pitching coach Rigo Beltran, but his presence will stabilize and build on the development of a core group of pitchers, many of whom return to the Hill City following last season’s successful run all the way to the Mills Cup Championship round.

“It just in general affects our overall happiness here,” said new manager Tony Mansolino about the new field. “I remember playing in the middle infield and going to chase a pop-up behind second base and feeling like you are going to fall down. You dealt with it. You didn’t really know any better.”

With the new turf and flat playing surface middle infielders will no longer need to learn to play the former dip behind second and short. Now the surface looks more professional, infielders will be able to go back on balls without having to worry about stumbling, and a truer hop will be evident off the grass and dirt of the infield.

Asked if having Beltran back as pitching coach is a plus, opening day starter Matt Esparza responded, “I think it does. He’s very familiar with this league and community and he’s a great resource for us.”

Joining Beltran and Mansolino will be hitting coach Kevin Howard and assistant coach Kyle Hudson. All four have experience in the Carolina League. For Mansolino, it will be a sort of homecoming, as he played for the Hillcats a decade ago when he was a middle infielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.

“I actually got released out of that office that I’m sitting in now, so it’s kind of . . ., it’s come full circle now. Wow . . . things change in ten years,” said Mansolino about his return to Lynchburg.

For the first time as an Indians affiliate, the Hillcats will not have a prospect-laden roster. Most of the team’s top prospects have moved up to AA and AAA or are still working to try to reach the High-A level.

On the pitching side of the ledger, eight of the 13 members of the staff return from last year. They are joined by four newcomers, including Indians’ number three prospect, 19-year-old Triston McKenzie. Rounding out the pitching staff is free agent and Carolina League veteran Neil Holland, who comes over from the Nationals organization.

Toiling under the tutelage of Howard will be nine returning players who spent at least a few days with the Hillcats in 2016. New additions include first baseman Anthony Miller, and outfielders Ka’ai Tom and Andrew Calica. Calica was a 2016 draftee and New York Penn All-Star and will bat leadoff.

Of the returning hitters, two snagged a ring with AA Akron’s Eastern League Championship; catcher Daniel Salters and third baseman Claudio Bautista. Anchoring the defense will be 15th ranked prospect Willi Castro at shortstop.

Salters talked about his apparent demotion from Akron. “I knew that anything could happen. As much as you want to keep moving up, it’s not a bad thing. I’m going to get at bats. There are a lot of guys who don’t even get to play baseball anymore.”

With Indians top prospect Francisco Mejia at Akron, this gives Salters the opportunity to play every day, meaning he is still in the Indians’ future plans.

With all the new elements and a parent organization that just made a trip to one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory, there is a strong positive energy to the club.

To open the season, Lynchburg faced its Mills Cup opposition, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. A farm club of the Chicago Cubs, the Pelicans are also not high on top level talent, as the majority of their players from the previous season moved up to the AA level.

The Opening Day matchup featured Esparza for the Hillcats and Adbert Alzolay for the Pelicans. Heavy thunderstorms and a cold front rolled through Central Virginia the night before and morning of Opening Day. With the new field and drainage, the rain was not a problem, but the cold front brought a strong and steady wind with it.

From the start the wind would pose a problem for both pitchers. Unfortunately for the Hillcats, it was Esparza who suffered more of the damage on the way to a 4-2 Myrtle Beach victory.

To lead off the second inning, Pelicans right fielder Eddy Martinez singled, and this was followed by a two-run homer from designated hitter Trent Giambrone. This would be the first of four home runs aided by the 17 MPH gale blowing across the field from left to right. All four home runs would be parked in the right field corner.

Hillcats’ Salters and Jodd Carter would contribute solo shots in the losing effort. Esparza would tally three strikeouts to only a single walk, though he allowed both of the Myrtle Beach home runs. Lynchburg would fail to bring additional runs home in the third, fifth, and eighth innings when they had runners in scoring position.

“We’ve got to do all the little things,” said Mansolino about the makeup of his ball club. “We are not going to hit a bunch of home runs; you’ll see that by the size of our number three and four hitters. I think I might be taller than both.”

For the record Mansolino is listed at 6”1”, while #3 hitter Carter is 5’10” and clean-up batter Tom is listed as 5’9”. On Opening Day, it was an inability to execute with runners in scoring position that left the Hillcats short of victory.

“The way I see it is regardless of the group I get, our job is to make ‘em better individually,” Mansolino shared about his goals for the Hillcats players. “Yes, I want to win every game. I don’t lose well. My job is to help them get better, closer to the Major League team.”

A great deal has changed for the Lynchburg Hillcats of 2017. A new field, a new brand, a new manager, and some new players bring energy and enthusiasm to the ball park. With a strong commitment to player development, it will be interesting to see who of this year’s collection of talent learns to convert their potential into on the field performance and move up the organizational ladder, one step closer to that Major League debut.

Photo: baseballstadiumreviews.com