About David Freier
It is challenging to maintain a balanced perspective when you win the Carolina League Player of the Week Award your first week at the High-A level. Mitch Reeves of the High-A Hillcats received that honor for the week ending June 30. The 6’2” 210 lb. outfielder/first baseman was promoted from Low-A Lake County on June 20 and got off to a hot start as the fast A level.
At the time of the honor, Reeves was batting .375, and had two home runs and nine RBI in his first nine games with the Hillcats.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to get some good swings on good balls,” said Reeves in an interview for Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I was messing around with my friends and said it must have been a down week, cause I was kind of surprised when I got it.”
Baseball has not always been the focus of High-A Lynchburg’s left-handed starting pitcher Juan Hillman. The 6’2”, 200 lb. second round pick of the Indians in 2015 out of Winter Haven, Florida, spent most of his time playing quarterback. He knew very little about baseball.
“I picked up a baseball one day and a friend of my mom’s asked if I wanted to try and play,” he recalled about his first time taking the mound to Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I just knew you had to throw it to the catcher every time. I was throwing pretty hard back then.”
For left-handed pitcher Adam Scott, baseball has always been a part of his life. “There is a picture of me with a baseball in my left-hand, and a Teddy Bear in the other,” said Scott in a June interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night.
Born and raised in Canandaigua, New York, a small town on the north end of the Finger Lake bearing the same name as the town, he grew up less than 30 miles southeast of Rochester. It was the perfect place for the now 6’4”, 220 lb. left-hander to build his baseball acumen in a sports oriented family.
“My mom’s favorite story is one about me where there is some plastic tee that would wobble back and forth, never fall down. Before I could walk, I would swing, hit the ball, crawl over, get it and keep doing that,” said Scott, enthusiastic about this family story and his own distant memory of it.
In the Minor League, most players live in simple accommodations. A short-term apartment shared with teammates, a room in the home of a host family, or a hotel room if their stay with a team is not expected to last long. For right-handed pitcher Robert Broom, his seasonal residence is none of these things. Instead he lives in an old RV.
Broom is not the first player to do this. In 2015, pitcher Daniel Norris of the Detroit Tigers garnered a great deal of notoriety by living out of his VW van.
Broom’s situation is a bit different.
The first half of the Lynchburg Hillcats’ 2019 season came to a conclusion on Sunday afternoon, June 16. The Hillcats were facing their Northern Division rivals, Wilmington, for the seventh consecutive day. They had been eliminated from first half contention the previous weekend in Potomac and were now facing the victors of the Northern Division.
The late afternoon contest would be the second of the four-game homestand to go into extra-innings. Never leading Wilmington, the Hillcats would post three runs in the ninth to tie the game at five, and push it to a tenth inning. Unlike Friday evening, where Lynchburg would win with a run scoring walk-off single from Steven Kwan, Wilmington would send the Hillcats to their third straight defeat thanks to a run-scoring balk called on reliever Yapson Gomez that was hotly contested by manager Jim Pankovits.
If you examine the baseball resume of Matt Solter, your first thought might be journeyman. Since graduating from high school in New Bern, North Carolina, in 2012, he has pitched for Furman University, the Strasburg Express of the Valley League, the independent clubs of Gary-Southshore and St. Paul (bracketing a two-year stint in the Giants organization at Augusta and then San Jose), and finally ending up with the Cleveland Indians organization for the 2019 season.
This is not an unusual pathway for an undrafted player. For Solter, it is par for the course.
“My whole life has kind of set me up for this,” he shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “All this travel is fun for me, so easy.”
He is the second youngest player on the Hillcats. Born January 10, 1998, only teammate Nolan Jones is younger than Oscar Gonzalez in the Lynchburg clubhouse. A native of Sabana Grande de Palenque in the Dominican Republic, 2019 is the fifth year of his professional baseball career. At 21 years old, the 2016 MVP of the Arizona League is taking the High-A Carolina League by storm.
Growing up on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez began playing baseball at a young age. With three older sisters and two brothers there was always a bat, ball, or glove around.
When asked to recall where his passion for baseball came from, Gonzalez shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night, “My first time I picked up a bat. Then I started throwing balls to my dad and my friends.”
Competition. That is a driving force in the life of Nolan Jones, the third baseman for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Whether it is competing against his brothers in the basement playing floor hockey, or making up hitting games in the back yard in a batting cage his father had the good fortune to acquire, Nolan has grown up with a deep competitive spirit.
“I started young playing baseball, ice hockey, and football,” Jones shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night about his sporting activities growing up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. “I just fell in love with baseball.”
For as long as he can remember, High-A Lynchburg’s Steven Kwan has been singularly obsessed with baseball. Standing 5’9” and weighing in at 175 lbs., he wears uniform number one, bats at the top of the order, and has been the Hillcats’ sparkplug through the first month of the season.
The product of Washington High School in Fremont, California, he attended Oregon State, and was selected by Cleveland in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. A center fielder by trade, Kwan brings energy and excitement to the field.
“My parents took me to this sports camp when I was a kid, but I only went one time because they were too embarrassed to take me back,” he recalled as he talked about his focus on baseball, “I would grab a basketball and play by myself, I wouldn’t play with the other guys, and when we played baseball that was the only thing I wanted to do.”
Baseball is a game where rhythm matters. The hitter is trying to get into a pattern where he can predict the trajectory and rotation of a pitched ball, and the pitcher is trying to throw the hitter off to get him to swing and miss, or to ineffectively make contact with the ball, inducing a pop-up, or a weak fly, or a groundout. For the 2019 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, Eli Morgan has been one of the most effective pitchers at keeping opposing Carolina League hitters off-balance and unable to generate a consistent rhythm in the batter’s box.
Morgan, now in his third year out of Gonzaga University, was an 8th round selection by Cleveland in 2017. The right-handed 5’10”, 190 pounder finished the previous season pitching 143.1 innings, the most he had ever thrown in a baseball season.
As Spring Training drew to a close for 2019, the Cleveland Indians traveled from Arizona to Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, for a two-game set. Along with the expected Major League roster, the club took along a handful of players expecting to start their seasons in the minor leagues.
For one of these players, High-A Lynchburg’s Luke Wakamatsu, the two games would mark a special occasion. On Monday, March 25, Luke got to stand across home plate from his father while lineups were exchanged. The 6’3” tall, 185 lb. fifth-year professional would be playing against the team on which his father serves as bench coach.
“It was amazing,” said Luke. “I wanted to try and beat him so bad, so that I could talk smack to him.”
Success is no mystery to High-A Lynchburg center fielder Austen Wade. In Little League, he played on successful teams in his hometown of Midland, Texas, winning city championships between the ages of ten and twelve. Also a football player at that age (who in west Texas doesn’t play football?), baseball remained his first love.
“Growing up in west Texas, high school football is big. You play junior league football, then high school football,” said Wade, “but my parents said play whatever sport you want, and we will get you wherever you need to be in order to play. Honestly, my first love was baseball.”