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.
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.
Friday was a busy day for the Cleveland Indians, as four separate roster moves were made throughout the day in advance of the deadline for adding players to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft in December.
Earlier in the day, the team claimed left-handed pitchers Tim Cooney and Edwin Escobar off of waivers and outrighted catcher Chris Gimenez from the 40-man roster. With one final roster spot remaining, the Indians selected the contract of High-A catcher Francisco Mejia, protecting him from exposure to the Rule 5 draft.
The Cleveland Indians’ High-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, are set to reveal a new logo Thursday evening at a launch party at the Fifth and Federal bourbon bar in conjunction with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.
During its second season as an Indians affiliate, the Lynchburg organization ran a “Name the Team Contest” in June to come up with alternative nicknames for the ball club. The final vote came down to six different names, including the Derechos, Doves, Lamb Chops, Love Apples, River Runners, and the Hillcats.
While the focus right now may be on the Cleveland Indians’ Major League roster, things are going well throughout the Tribe’s farm system as well.
The importance on drafting strong and developing stronger is no more apparent than at the Major League level for the Indians. The current playoff roster is well-balanced between guys drafted/signed internationally and developed solely by the club (Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Cody Allen to name a few), others acquired via trades and developed on the farm (Corey Kluber, Carlos Santana, and other absentee names like Carlos Carrasco, Michael Brantley, and Yan Gomes), and other veterans still who were added via big trades or free agent moves (Andrew Miller, Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Brandon Guyer, and Coco Crisp).
The names that compose the roster now all worked their way up through the minor league system, whether in the Indians organization or elsewhere. The names of the future are doing the same and some standout performers were recognized this week when MILB.com announced its picks for Cleveland’s organizational All-Stars.
Indians outfield prospect Greg Allen has turned plenty of heads with his blazing speed on the base paths, but earlier this week, he was recognized for an underappreciated element of his game. On Monday, he was announced as one of just nine recipients of the 2016 Rawlings Gold Glove Award® for defensive excellence in the field.
Allen worked at two levels in the Indians system in his third season with the club after being selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft out of San Diego State University. He started the season at High-A Lynchburg, appearing in 92 games before a promotion on July 25 to Double-A Akron.
He worked exclusively this season as a center fielder for the Hillcats and RubberDucks and put together strong numbers in the field. In 795 1/3 innings during his time in the Carolina League, he made just a pair of errors on 239 total chances for a .992 fielding percentage. In addition to the numbers, he was a sight to see running around the outfield, often making the impossible plays possible.
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.