After a couple of tough patches earlier in the month, the Lynchburg Hillcats have found that winning recipe in Carolina League play.
Winners of six of their last seven contests, the Indians’ High-A affiliate have charged back into the race in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. At 24-19, they trail the rival Salem Red Sox by three and a half games in the standings.
The Hillcats will play eleven of their next 15 games on the road, which could help them gain even more ground in the division. The ‘Cats have had a tough time at City Stadium this season, going just 11-13 on their home field, but are 13-6 on the road, a mark trailing only Salem’s 14-6 road record for best in High-A.
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.
A gem of an outing last Tuesday by Lynchburg starter Triston McKenzie caught the eyes of all of minor league baseball and the Carolina League rewarded his efforts by naming him the league’s Pitcher of the Week for games played between May 8 and May 14.
The 19-year-old right-hander made just one start during the week, but he made his mark in a dominating effort at home against the Carolina Mudcats that he will likely remember for some time.
Rains again washed away another game for the Lynchburg Hillcats as Thursday’s game against the Carolina Mudcats was postponed. The two teams do not meet again in the first half of the Carolina League schedule, so the game will not be rescheduled.
The cancellation marked the fifth time this season that the Hillcats could not play baseball because of the weather and the second time in the last week after last Thursday’s game in Potomac with the Nationals was under water. It stopped Lynchburg from putting an end to a tough battle with Carolina after dropping two of three in a low scoring three-game series. The abbreviated set featured a total of eleven runs between the Hillcats (five) and the Mudcats (six).
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.
Thomas Pannone, a left-handed pitching prospect in the Cleveland Indians farm system, may have already been rewarded for his incredible start to the 2017 season with a quick promotion from High-A Lynchburg to Double-A Akron, but that does not mean the recognition has stopped there for the 23-year-old starter.
On Monday, he was selected as the Carolina League’s Pitcher of the Month for April.
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.”
Sam Haggerty’s big week at the plate was recognized by the Carolina League on Monday as the league office announced the Lynchburg middle infielder as its Player of the Week for games played between April 24 and April 30.
The switch-hitting 22-year-old was a 24th round selection by the Cleveland Indians in the 2015 draft out of the University of New Mexico.
The Lynchburg Hillcats are staring up at a three-game deficit in the Carolina League’s Northern Division heading into play on Saturday, a game below the .500 mark at 9-10 on the season.
It was a quiet week for the ‘Cats, who were once again slowed by rains throughout the Carolina League playing region. Last Saturday’s game in Lynchburg against Potomac was waterlogged before the P’Nats won the series with a 4-3 win on Sunday. After an off day on Monday, the Hillcats travelled to Salem and dropped the series opener, 6-2, before the offense erupted for 13 runs in a 13-7 win on Wednesday night. Rains swooped in again on Thursday to wash out the finale of the series, sending the Hillcats back to Lynchburg, where they lost a 9-6 decision to Myrtle Beach on Friday night.
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.”
It has been a good week for the Lynchburg Hillcats as they carried a five-game winning streak through much of the week before losing game one of their series with the Potomac Nationals on Thursday.
Last Friday, Lynchburg dropped a 4-0 decision to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the series opener before winning three straight to start off their seven-game road trip. After being shut out, they put up five runs over each of the next three games of the series before moving on to Carolina to take on the Mudcats from Zebulon. Mother Nature interfered with the festivities on Monday, but Tuesday’s doubleheader went on as planned. The ‘Cats swept that double dip, winning by 1-0 and 7-1 finals before an off day on Wednesday. The pitching staff allowed eight runs on Thursday in an 8-2 defeat in the opener from Lynchburg with the P’Nats before a 4-2 win on Friday night.
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.