Hillcats at the Carolina League All-Star Classic
David Freier | On 22, Jun 2017
The 2017 season will be the first time since 1998 that the Carolina League hosts its own cavalcade of stars. The last time the Carolina League held an All-Star game featuring the Northern Division stars versus the Southern Division stars, High-A Lynchburg pitcher Triston McKenzie was not even a year old and was still living in Brooklyn, New York. The relocation of two franchises from the California League to the Carolina League during the previous off-season followed the end of the cross-country California-Carolina League All-Star contest.
“I’m very proud and excited,” said McKenzie. “It’s my first professional All-Star game, so I’m just excited to see what it holds for me.”
In addition to the three pitchers, the Hillcats send three hitters to Salem as well. Representing the Hillcats on the All-Star squad are Sicnarf Loopstok and Sam Haggerty. Shortstop Willi Castro replaced players who were injured or had been promoted.
Of these six Hillcats, only Castro has been to a previous All-Star game at any level. He participated as part of the Midwest League All-Star squad in 2016.
For Loopstok, who is in his third year with the Hillcats, being an All-Star is an honor he wanted to achieve.
“It’s great for me,” said Loopstok. “It’s one of my dreams playing as a professional.”
As the Hillcats reached the mid-season break, they pulled out a first half Northern Division championship. Salem lost both ends of a doubleheader in Wilmington and the Hillcats held the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 7-6 record over the Red Sox. The performances of the Hillcats All-Stars put the team in position to clinch their third consecutive playoff appearance since becoming an Indians farm team in 2015. It is the sixth straight franchise appearance in the playoffs, dating back to their affiliation with the Atlanta Braves.
Loopstok has spearheaded the Hillcats in the first half. He leads the team in three primary categories of offense. His eight home runs tie him with teammate Jodd Carter, he has 36 RBI, and a .279 batting average. Fellow All-Star Castro was actually sporting a better batting average going into the final series before midseason against Frederick with a .296 average. His torrid hitting in May and June put him in a position to gain an All-Star appearance when the opportunity became available. Castro got only a single hit in 19 at-bats in Frederick to fall behind Loopstok, his lone hit being his fifth home run of the season.
None of the Hillcats hitters made the starting line-up for Tuesday’s All-Star Classic. The Salem Red Sox were the feature hitters. Third baseman Michael Chavis was the games star, driving in the game’s only two runs on a double that plated Wilmington’s Nicky Lopez, and Frederick’s Austin Hays. Hays will be heading to AA Bowie following the game, his promotion announced by Baltimore earlier in the day.
Castro subbed for Lopez and got a single in his two at-bats. Neither Haggerty nor Loopstok got on base, each getting just a single turn in the batter’s box.
On the mound, it was the Hillcats show, mirroring the first half of the season when their pitching was preeminent. Chiang started the game for the Northern Division, pitching a single inning and allowing only one hit. He would earn the win as a succession of pitchers followed with their own single inning, delivering the game to Angulo who tossed a perfect ninth inning, with two strikeouts, to record the save and give the Northern All-Stars a 2-0 victory.
“Another guy that loves his fastball,” said Hillcats coach Rigo Beltran about Chiang. “Pitches with his fastball, and is very effective at changing speeds with his fastball. I like the fact that he pitches in with sinking action to the ball.”
Chiang’s last regular season outing came at home against Wilmington, where he faced off against fellow All-Star A.J. Puckett. He has been effective by mixing up his pitches and keeping opposing hitters off balance and off base. He was unable to do that against Wilmington, losing his fourth game on the season in a 9-0 loss.
Still working on his change-up and curveball, Chiang throws in the upper 80’s occasionally breaking the 90 MPH mark. The 23-year-old right-hander has only walked eleven batters, one of them intentionally, in 12 starts, accumulating 80 1/3 innings pitched. The reason McKenzie and Chiang were tabbed to participate in the All-Star Classic is they are effective and consistent.
“Hopefully it’s not too high,” said McKenzie about where his first All-Star game ranks on his list of baseball experiences. “Hopefully I can compete in more of these in the future.”
For McKenzie, the All-Star game was a letdown. He pitched poorly in the final game of the first half, surrendering seven earned runs and pitching less than two full innings. He also served up three homers to Frederick batters, bringing his season total to ten. McKenzie did not get to the mound for the All-Star game, instead teammate Brock Hartson was a last minute addition to the roster to replace him and pitched a clean fourth inning, allowing a single, and earning two strikeouts.
Even without taking the mound, McKenzie and his teammates represented the Hillcats well.
“I think the players we have out there are the true representatives of what the Hillcats are as a team. I think all the guys chosen play hard, play the game the right way. They’re just an embodiment of our team as a whole.”
The players will be back home in Lynchburg to open the second half of the Carolina League season on Thursday night against Frederick. Just like before they will play as a team, working hard to take the second half crown and earn home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Photo: Lee Luther Jr./The News and Advance