About David Freier
In the history of baseball, spanning 143 years, there are over 19,265 men who have played in the Major Leagues, according to baseball-reference.com. On the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, two players have fathers who excelled enough to join that select fraternity, shortstop Luke Wakamatsu and outfielder Michael “Conner” Capel.
The experience of Capel’s father had a significant impact on his love of baseball and the direction of his professional career.
The 6’6” lefty is a towering figure on the mound at City Stadium in Lynchburg. A thin beard frames the face of Cleveland’s fourth round selection of the 2014 draft. With eight starts under his belt, including his first career Opening Day nod, Sam Hentges is beginning to show the potential that he exhibited before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
After suffering the injury midway into the 2016 season (he had 14 starts for the Low-A Lake County Captains), his progress through the Indians farm system was delayed. Now, almost two years since his surgery, he is returning to form as he demonstrates what he can do on the mound.
“I take things from the weight room and the training room and bring them to bullpens and every day throwing,” said Hentges about his recovery from surgery.
Being left-handed in baseball confers certain advantages that right-handed players don’t receive. An old story at Livescience.com (old meaning it was posted in 2008) indicates that about 10 percent of the population is left-handed, but 25 percent of Major Leaguers are left-handed. For High-A Lynchburg Hillcats reliever Ben Krauth, being a lefty has always been an advantage in baseball.
“Growing up everyone always said you are going to have a job (in baseball) if you are left-handed,” said Krauth. “It seems to be true, but pitching is still the same. You have to throw the ball over the plate, challenge the guy in the batter’s box.”
Los Angeles Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani made quite a splash to open this season taking his turn in the rotation every fifth day, and serving as the Halos designated hitter on his off days. Having maintained a similar routine during his junior year in college, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats Trenton Brooks is suitably impressed by Ohtani’s performance.
“He throws 100 miles per hour, so I was pretty certain he’d make it in the big leagues as a pitcher,” said Brooks. “So far he’s surprised me with his hitting. He’s a plus on both sides of the ball.”
Excellent starting pitching is the norm for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats staff under Cleveland Indians management. D.J. Brown was 11-3 in 2015 while wearing a Hillcats jersey. Julian Merryweather pitched exceptionally well in 2016, earning an All-Star nod and a …
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.