The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats Streak into the Carolina League Playoffs
David Freier | On 07, Sep 2017
The Carolina League plays a split season schedule, with the winner of each half gaining entry into the postseason festivities. The Lynchburg club earned a spot by winning the first half in the Northern Division. Finishing out the season strong by sweeping its final three home games against the Potomac Nationals, and then traveling to Wilmington, Lynchburg completed a four-game sweep against the Blue Rocks to conclude the season and win the second half Northern Division crown. Overall, the team finished its season with a league best 87-52 record, posting the best winning percentage for a Lynchburg team since they were a Mets farm club in 1985.
Looking at the roster for that Mets club, the most recognized name is shortstop Kevin Elster. He would go on to play for the Mets’ 1986 World Series Championship before establishing himself as their everyday shortstop in 1988. This year’s edition of the Lynchburg team is similar in that few players are top draft picks or rising stars. Instead, the Hillcats play as a team in the truest sense of that word.
“That’s kind of how we are built,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “At the beginning of the year, coming here, we thought we’d have pretty good pitching. That’s held true. The rest of it we weren’t so sure, no big strengths team wise.”
The pitching has indeed been the core of the team, leading the Carolina League in a number of team and individual pitching stats. The defense and hitting consistently backed the impressive Lynchburg pitching staff.
A number of hitters have put up strong seasons, including catchers Martin Cervenka and Sicnarf Loopstok. Cervenka was second on the team with a .278 average. Anchoring the catching position in his first full season with 400 at-bats, he was a constant presence in the middle of the line-up. Loopstok earned his keep as well, hitting seventeen home runs, surpassing his season best of five in two different years.
The second half play of shortstop Willi Castro also sparked the team, and he finished fourth overall in the Carolina League batting race with a .290 average.
Even with these breakout performances on the hitting side, the exemplary starting pitching for the Hillcats carried them through the season. Examining the Carolina League’s pitching leaders, Hillcats pitchers are prominent. Cleveland’s number two prospect (according to MLB Pipeline), Triston McKenzie, heads up the list of stellar performers. McKenzie, named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year, led the circuit in wins with 12 and strikeouts with 186. He ranked second in WHIP behind teammate Brock Hartson. Hartson paced the league with a 1.04 ratio, and led in ERA with a 3.06.
“I do think we feed off each other a little bit,” said Hartson. “You see one guy do well and it makes you want to do well.”
Mansolino agreed, saying “You always hear people talk about lineups feeding off one another, and making each other better. I would think that’s what has happened with our starting pitching.”
With Hartson, McKenzie, and former Hillcats starter Shao-Ching Chiang (promoted to AA Akron in August) claiming the top three ERA spots on the leaderboard, it might be easy to overlook the pitcher who will start the first game of the Northern Division playoff series, Aaron Civale. His name fails to appear in any of the league leader lists for ratio stats because he came in four innings shy of the minimum qualification for innings pitched.
Promoted to Lynchburg from Low-A Lake County on May 30, Civale turned in an impressive performance. He made 17 starts in the blue and green of the Hillcats, tossing 164 2/3 innings. He had a 1.06 WHIP, which would have been good for third behind Hartson and McKenzie, and recorded an 11-2 record. His ERA was 2.59, nearly half a run better than teammate Hartson, who took the league’s ERA crown.
The Hillcats pitching staff, from top to bottom, is their strength. Without fail, each pitcher gives credit to the teams pitching coach, Rigo Beltran, for helping them to this success.
“The number one thing to have them work on is a repeatable delivery so everything keys off their delivery,” Beltran said about helping his staff become better pitchers.
Nearly every pitcher who has donned a Hillcats jersey has pitched successfully. The most recent example is Sean Brady, who played for the team in the previous season, but spent most of 2017 in rehab for shoulder issues.
“It feels good to be back on the mound, getting back out against other guys and competing for a championship,” says Brady. “I was here last year but these guys have been battling all year here, so I’m kind of staying back and letting them do their thing.”
Brady was part of the 2016 roster who came up short against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the 2016 Mills Cup Championship.
Since joining the team on August 17, Brady has made four starts, putting up a 3-1 record, a 3.18 ERA, and limiting opposing hitters to a .221 batting average against while striking out 15 in 22 2/3 innings. His final two starts were part of the seven-game streak to end the Hillcats season, where he allowed only a single earned run to Wilmington in the season’s final game.
As the team turns its attention to the Frederick Keys, who stormed past the Salem Red Sox to claim the second playoff slot, Mansolino talked about what the team needs to do as they make their third playoff appearance since becoming a Cleveland farm club and their sixth straight in the Hillcats record books.
“I don’t think you sit on your hands. We’re not that type of team. We have to do all the small things right. We don’t have a lineup with three guys with 20 homers. The reason why we’ve won is we have worked at it.”
That work ethic has made the Hillcats the class of this year’s Carolina League. It will carry them forward into the playoffs and with consistency and a bit of fortune could bring a championship back to the Hill City for the first time since 2012.