About David Freier
Last season, Justin Garcia featured a flowing mane of dark blonde hair. This season, he has it cut short. Either way, he has been a reliable arm out of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats bullpen.
Garcia was born in Rowlett, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He attended Weatherford College for two years before the Indians selected him in the 38th round of the 2013 First Year Player Draft. He is now in his fourth season in their farm system and enjoying every minute of being a professional ballplayer.
Observing Sam Haggerty on the field, there is a look of fierce determination, a scowl, that suggests he will do anything to defeat his opponent. As an observer of ball players you might describe him as tough, determined, or scrappy. That would be accurate, but incomplete.
The 5’11”, 175 lb. second baseman is the first High-A Lynchburg player of 2017 to win a Carolina League Player of the Week award. Originally drafted by Cleveland in the 24th round of 2015, this is Haggerty’s second full season assignment in the Tribe organization. He got into 100 games with Low-A Lake County last year, and played briefly with the Rookie level Mahoning Valley team after signing.
Thomas Pannone turned 23 years old three weeks and one day into the current minor league baseball season. This past weekend he was given a late birthday gift by the Cleveland Indians organization, a promotion to AA Akron after only five starts decked out in the new blue and lime green duds of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.
If Pannone was on your list of the most likely Hillcats player to get the first promotion to AA that would be a surprise. He is not ranked in the top 30 Indians prospects according to the 2017 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. They list Pannone as a left-handed reliever, just ahead of his new AA Akron teammates Luis Lugo and David Speer, and behind Hoby Milner, a Rule V pick since returned to the Phillies, and Edwin Escobar, a journeyman who never actually suited up for the Cleveland organization.
At 6’1”, 175 lb., Martin Cervenka is a right-handed hitter who looks like he belongs on a ball field.
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he was the first Czech player to sign with the Indians organization. He has been playing baseball as a professional since he was 16. Now 24 years old, this is his first year at the High-A level.
“It was exciting for me,” he said about signing. “Ever since I was young I wanted to play pro baseball. Luckily I got the opportunity with Cleveland. It was just cool to have the experience.”
The Cleveland Indians made Ka’ai Tom a 5th round selection in 2015. He is one of two native Hawaiians on the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats roster, along with fellow Hawaiian outfielder Connor Marabell.
Baseball in Hawaii has a long tradition. Over 40 players from Hawaii have donned a Major League uniform – names that include Charlie Hough, Mike Lum, Kolten Wong, and Shane Victorino. Tom hopes to join that list of players someday. Like many players he got his love of baseball through his family.
“My dad, my grandpa, my uncle, all played baseball,” said Tom, “so it was kind of born into me, to carry on the family tradition of playing baseball.”
Matt Esparza is a 22-year-old 14th round pick in 2015 by the Cleveland Indians out of Folsom, California.
“I think it’s going to be a unique experience,” said Esparza about earning his first Opening Day start. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited and hopefully there is a good energy for the team.”
Esparza, who stands 6’2” 195 lbs., will be a veteran anchor of the High-A Lynchburg pitching staff, along with returning fellow starter Thomas Pannone.
Baseball is a game of rhythms. In each season and each game there is an ebb and flow to its pace. A hitter adapts to a pitcher, a team adopts a new strategy, or a star player retires or moves on. All of these events produce change.
This year, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats are all about change. In their third season as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, there are many new elements to the Hillcats, and not just the faces in the dugout. Over the winter, the playing surface was completely remade. The renovation was begun immediately after the 2016 season. The field was leveled, a state-of-the-art drainage system was installed, and new turf and a warning track were put into place.
For the second consecutive season as a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats reached the Carolina League playoffs. This year they took it one step further, winning the Northern Division playoff against the Potomac Nationals and advancing to the Mills Cup Championship before bowing to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who would win their second consecutive Carolina League title.
The Hillcats’ success as a team was achieved through a combination of a strong offense and consistent pitching.
Growing up in Pearland, Texas, a suburb south of Houston, Brock Hartson was naturally a fan of the Astros and their famous Killer B’s lineup. In fact, he played baseball against the sons of Craig Biggio.
“I really liked Biggio. He went about the game the right way,” said Hartson. “Playing against his sons, I had a pretty good understanding of who he was as a person and who he was as a player.”
The 6’3”, 195 lb. pitcher was drafted in the 21st round of 2015 out of the University of Texas-San Antonio. He won 22 games in three seasons as a starter in college, never getting a chance to pitch out of the bullpen.
The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats had clinched a guaranteed playoff berth by winning the first-half Northern Division title in the Carolina League.
The team fought valiantly to win the Northern Division second half title. That victory would insure all three divisional series games be played at Calvin Falwell Field in Lynchburg.
Alas, the Hillcats finished the second half with the identical 39-31 record of Potomac. With Potomac holding the tiebreaker – head-to-head wins – this meant the first game of the Northern Division Championship would take place at Pfitzner Stadium in Potomac.
For most players, a repeat assignment to a minor league level is not a sign of team commitment or individual progress. For High-A Hillcats pitcher Luis Lugo, this is not the case.
The 6’5”, 200 lb. left-hander out of Barquismento, Venezuela, turned 22 just before the season began. This leaves him on the younger side of the ledger for players in the High-A Carolina League and with his experience, he has surpassed his performance of last season.
“My work ethic has been a lot better this year,” said Lugo about where he has made the most strides in improving his overall game. “I’ve been focusing on mechanics and keeping my body in shape to be able to compete and be successful. My delivery has gotten better, and working with Rigo Beltran [the Hillcats pitching coach], has been a foundation for me to figure out what I need to work on and then apply in the game.”
Over the past several weeks, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats have been a prominent feature in both Carolina League and national baseball news. Lynchburg’s on-field host, Kestrel Kerl, has awarded the team the moniker of “Thrillcats” and the team and the player continue to live up to this name.
All the excitement began with the continuation of what turned out to be a 50-game hitting streak for catcher Francisco Mejia. The streak began May 25 while Mejia was a member of the Low-A Lake County Captains and continued at Lynchburg under the watch of hitting coach Larry Day.
“You try to keep him focused on the things that matter and that is his daily preparation as both a hitter and a catcher,” said Day. “Rigo Beltran, our pitching coach, does a phenomenal job of educating him on the night’s starting pitcher so that he knows what he’ll be seeing, and what he’ll be calling as the catcher.”