Lynchburg Hillcats Limped into All-Star Break
David Freier | On 23, Jun 2018
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, is only a few hours east of Lynchburg. It features the Loch Ness Monster, a roller coaster built in 1978 and still the only coaster featuring two interlocking loops over water and a helix tunnel between the two loops. The loops and helix tunnel make for an exhilarating ride, much like the ride dedicated fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats experienced in the season’s first half.
Early season games were marked by temperatures around freezing, while rainouts contributed to the team having four scheduled doubleheaders between June 6 and June 13 – three of them on the road, including back-to-back nights in Frederick. Even with a seven-inning limit imposed by Minor League Baseball rules, that is a lot of innings. Of the eight games in these doubleheaders, the Hillcats lost six. They dropped both games on June 6 in Wilmington, and four games in two days at Frederick. The only victory was a home game against Potomac, where starter Zach Plesac earned his fifth victory on the season, his fourth in a Lynchburg uniform. That night’s second game was washed out by rain.
“Yeah, we haven’t been able to work like we would like to, but there is nothing we can do, it’s just Mother Nature,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor about the team’s weather misfortunes. “When it’s raining we go inside to the cage and do the best to prepare to go out and play the game.”
Three of the Hillcats’ 70 games were completely eliminated by the wet first half to the season. This left them with a 29-38 record heading into the Carolina League All-Star break. Much like the winding and twisting of the Loch Ness Monster, the Hillcats performance was up and down.
A win streak where they posted eight victories in ten games in April, was followed by six consecutive losses to enter May. The team would tally six straight victories in the middle of May before going on an extended road trip where they would lose ten of 13. That was before they began the difficult stretch of doubleheaders just prior to their final first half homestand against their rival from Central Virginia, the Salem Red Sox.
Coupled with the Hillcats’ streaky performance, there were numerous injuries and player transactions. Outfielder Trenton Brooks missed eleven games early in the season, and third baseman Gavin Collins had two stints with injury. He spent ten days out in early May, and returned to the disabled list May 29, and is yet to return.
“He was making progress, taking good at-bats,” said Odor about Collins’ performance this season. “When injuries occur, it gets hard to evaluate players. It’s too bad he’s on the DL again.”
Collins was featured in the Hillcats lineup, often batting third or fourth, usually behind center fielder Conner Capel. Capel would also go down to injury, suffering a concussion on May 7 that kept him out of action until June 16.
As a high point, Capel was one of three Hillcats players to earn a position on the Carolina League’s Northern Division All-Star squad. His first half performance with a triple slash line of .291/.374/.424/, 86 total bases, plus 18 extra-base hits, 29 RBIs, and ten stolen bases, earned him a trip to the mid-season classic in Zebulon, North Carolina, home of the Carolina Mudcats.
Joining Capel on the three-hour trip south were pitchers Sam Hentges and Dalbert Siri. Hentges, arguably Lynchburg’s top starter in the first half, led the team in victories at the break with four, strikeouts with 65, and surrendered only two home runs to opposition hitters. Hentges fronts a group of starters who are in the final stages of return from Tommy John surgery. Fellow rotation members Justin Garza and Plesac, also recent victims of elbow surgery like Hentges, are showing signs of a strong recovery on their return to the mound.
“We’re always conscious of where they are, Garza, Hentges, and others, as far as we watch their workload,” says Hillcats pitching coach Tony Arnold. “I think just concentrating on their deliveries so they can get in a good spot to minimize the pressure on their arms.”
Garza had a strong first half, though he was another Hillcat who spent several weeks on the disabled list. He won the first two Carolina League Pitcher-of-the-Week awards to open the season before heading to the DL. The California native tallied 47 strikeouts in 41.2 innings in ten starts over the season’s first two months.
The peal performance for Hillcats pitching was Plesac’s day on the bump Sunday, May 6. Facing Myrtle Beach, Plesac went the distance using only 74 pitches, 55 for strikes, to record a shutout of the Pelicans.
“He knows how to pitch with his secondary pitches, throwing off his fastball” says manager Odor. “Anytime you have a pitcher who is able to throw his off-speed pitches any time in the count it’s a huge plus.”
Plesac is one of five Hillcats mounds men who have spent time with AA Akron this season. He recently returned to High-A to log some time on the hill over the week of doubleheaders. Reliever Ben Krauth also made the trip up and back to AA, while Kieran Lovegrove, Jake Paulson and Henry Martinez appear to be up to stay with the RubberDucks.
On the hitting side of the ledger, the Hillcats have also seen some good performances. Capel’s earned him an All-Star berth, while repeat Hillcats Jodd Carter and Anthony Miller are improved over last year’s showings. Miller, in particular, now that he is fully healthy, has shown some talent while sharing first base duties with Emmanuel Tapia. Miller already has 114 at-bats this year, where he only tallied 197 in 2017. His runs scored of 18 and home runs at three equal or surpass his totals from last year, while posting a .350 OBP, well ahead of the pace that left him at .308 for the previous season.
Another Hillcats standout who did not get an All-Star nod (though he deserved it) was left fielder Mitch Longo. His stellar hitting to close out 2017 helped bring the Hillcats a championship, and his bat near the top of this season’s lineup has been equally dependable.
“He’s immensely talented on his bat to ball skills,” says Hillcats hitting coach Justin Toole, who has tutored Longo over the past two seasons. “When he’s ready to hit and he’s aggressive, good things happen.”
The Cleveland area native has a .288 batting average with 94 total bases, featuring 19 extra-base hits, 35 runs, and 18 RBI batting mostly out of the leadoff position. He’s done this in 59 games, where most of the other league leaders have played in 64 or more of their teams’ contests.
The club’s roller coaster ride also featured some significant dips. The Hillcats were on the downside of two separate one-hitters. Frederick’s Brian Gonzalez blanked the squad on May 8, prompting the Hillcats to go on six-game win streak. The second one-hitter was more recent, and nearly a no-hitter.
In the final homestand of the first half Boston’s top draft pick of 2017, Tanner Houck, combined with reliever Joan Martinez to pitch 8.2 innings of no-hit ball. A wrist flick of a swing by shortstop Luke Wakamatsu on a hanging breaking pitch from Martinez was the only Hillcats hit but did drive in a run preventing a shutout.
Perhaps the lowest point for the Hillcats was against Carolina Mudcats’ pitching. In only twelve games in Major League history has a single pitcher stuck out 19 or more hitters. Ron Necciai is well known for having struck out all 27 batters pitching for the Bristol Twins against the Welch Miners in the Class-D Appalachian League in 1952, and other baseball notables, Bob Turley and Dave Righetti to name two, have put up more than 20 punchouts in a game during their minor league careers.
In the final High-A game for Brewers top-prospect Keston Hiura, his mound mates, led by starter Marcos Diplan, struck out 19 Lynchburg hitters on the way to a 9-0 rout. This ignominious loss came after a one hour and five minute rain delay, with seven of the nine Hillcats batters striking out two or more times, and three posting three strikeouts at the plate. Hiura’s two-homer, five-hit performance led a five-homer night against Hillcats pitchers. The Hillcats wore out the path between the dugout and home plate that evening.
As the weather begins to heat up, 90 temperatures are forecast for Central Virginia, and the summer solstice looms on the horizon. After splitting a four-game series with Salem to end the first half, the Hillcats got a three-day break for the All-Star festivities and a chance to adjust their mindset.
“I think with most guys coming up to this level for the first time you’re going to have an adjustment period,” said hitting coach Toole, “you’re going to have to handle better pitching and deal with better hitters.”
The Carolina League plays a split season where playoff teams are based on the winners of the first and second halves. With a clean slate, the Hillcats can set their sights on a successful second half and a berth in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season as a Cleveland Indians farm club.