About David Freier
Mitch Longo, the product of Mayfield, Ohio, walked in his first three plate appearances on a Wednesday night that ended the first week and the first homestand of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats’ 2018 season. When on base, the 6’ 0″, 185 lb. Longo wears a glove that most closely resembles a penguin’s flipper. The black Velcro straps wind around and above the wrist, securing the cushioned glove in case he should dive back into first base, or slide headfirst when advancing.
Beginning his third season in the Cleveland farm system, Longo sports this contraption to protect the site where he had hand surgery early in 2017. His immediate goal for 2018 is to stay healthy and show the Indians what he can do.
“In short season rookie ball I rolled my ankle, and then last year I broke my hamate bone,” says Longo recalling past injuries. “I don’t want the stigma of not being a guy they can rely on.”
Fresh green grass. The crack of the bat. A bright warm day requiring sunscreen and a ball cap. These are sure signs of spring training and an impending new season. While Cleveland Indians farm hands were working out in balmy Arizona, fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats were enduring a March of temperatures in Central Virginia ranging from a low of 22°F to a high of 78°F. Opening Day usually marks a point when winter fast retreats in the rear view mirror. This year, winter decided to hang around a bit longer.
Under clear, sunny skies, a game time temperature of 59°F paired with a steady breeze out of left field. A mix of old and new Hillcats trotted out onto Calvin Falwell Field for the season opener. Newcomer Sam Hentges would get the nod as the Opening Day starter for the Hillcats.
The Lynchburg Hillcats were the dominant team in the High-A Carolina League. They won both halves of the Northern Division and finished the season with an 87-52 record. The next closest team was the Buies Creek Astros at 74-65, who failed to qualify for the playoffs in either half of the Southern Division.
One significant contributor to the Hillcats success was the stability of their roster. Of the 12 position players on the Opening Day roster, only one was not with the team when the season ended on September 9 (infielder Yonathan Mendoza, who received a promotion to AA Akron on July 6). Seven of the original 13 pitchers also lasted the full season on Lynchburg’s roster. For a minor league team whose primary goal is player development, that level of stability is unusual.
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.”
Pitching is an inherently difficult activity. It takes many years to master the art of hurling the baseball over home plate with consistency and accuracy. The minor league system provides opportunities for pitchers to hone their craft. For Dominic DeMasi of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, his journey through the Indians farm system has been about developing that consistency.
“When I got drafted I was actually more over the top mechanically,” said DeMasi. “I throw a sinker, cutter, and slider. I’m just trying to repeat the same stuff. The change from when I was drafted is now just getting repetition.”
Thirteen pitchers have started a game for the 2017 edition of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. That much turnover in the starting rotation usually indicates that successful pitchers have moved up to a higher rung in the developmental ladder or injuries have forced pitchers into the starting rotation. In either case, that much turnover would indicate a variable level of performance from the pitching staff. The starters’ success has been a prime contributor to the rotation’s turnover, but for each player who has moved up to AA Akron this season, another one has stepped in and successfully contributed.
At the head of this year’s standout starters is Brock Hartson. He began the season pitching out of the bullpen while taking the final steps in his recovery from offseason hip surgery.
Tanner Tully is a 6’0”, 200 lb. left-handed starter out of Elkhart, Indiana, selected by Cleveland Indians in the 26th round. He was the last of six Ohio State Buckeyes taken in 2016.
Growing up in Indiana, he developed an appreciation for hunting, fishing, and sports. These made up a rotation across the seasons that kept him engaged.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kieran Lovegrove moved to California when he was five years old. Growing up throwing a ball around, and hitting golf balls, he readily became enamored of baseball.
“When I came to the states, I picked up baseball very quickly,” said Lovegrove. “It became this infatuation I had with the sport. One of my earliest memories is going to a Dodger game and getting to meet Paul Lo Duca. Then I got to see Eric Gagne’s 55th consecutive save. I started following the game and never looked back from there.”
A 13th round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2016, Gavin Collins is holding down the hot corner for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Promoted to the Hillcats from Low-A Lake County on July 5, Collins has fit right into the …
High-A Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Aaron Civale got started in baseball by following his older brother.
“I wanted to do everything he did, compete at what he did,” he said. “He played baseball, basketball, and soccer. I did the same.”
At the age of 17, Jodd Carter joined the rookie level Arizona Indians for his first taste of professional baseball. Selected in the 24th round of the 2014 first year player draft, Carter was following in the footsteps of other recent Hawaiians who have entered professional baseball. This includes friends he grew up playing ball with in the Hilo area, most notably Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals, Kean Wong (Kolten’s younger brother), and Kodi Medeiros (who is currently pitching for the Carolina Mudcats, also in the High-A Carolina League).
Now 20 years old, Carter reflected back on his start in professional baseball.
“It was a big step for me,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting all the international players when I first got there [to Arizona], but they all welcomed me.”
The top reliever on this season’s High-A Lynchburg Hillcats has been Argenis Angulo. The 6’3” closer hails from Araure, Venezuela. He made his way to the Cleveland system through Ranger College, a junior college in Texas. A 19th round selection in the 2014 First Year Player Draft, this season marks the first one begun in full season ball. Of his previous three seasons, he spent two in the Arizona League, and his third started in short-season ball at rookie level Mahoning Valley.
For as long as he can remember, Angulo has been playing baseball.
“My dad always liked baseball. He introduced me to it when I was two years old. He started tossing balls to me. I started playing Little League when I was about four years old.”