The first half of the Lynchburg Hillcats’ 2019 season came to a conclusion on Sunday afternoon, June 16. The Hillcats were facing their Northern Division rivals, Wilmington, for the seventh consecutive day. They had been eliminated from first half contention the previous weekend in Potomac and were now facing the victors of the Northern Division.
The late afternoon contest would be the second of the four-game homestand to go into extra-innings. Never leading Wilmington, the Hillcats would post three runs in the ninth to tie the game at five, and push it to a tenth inning. Unlike Friday evening, where Lynchburg would win with a run scoring walk-off single from Steven Kwan, Wilmington would send the Hillcats to their third straight defeat thanks to a run-scoring balk called on reliever Yapson Gomez that was hotly contested by manager Jim Pankovits.
If you examine the baseball resume of Matt Solter, your first thought might be journeyman. Since graduating from high school in New Bern, North Carolina, in 2012, he has pitched for Furman University, the Strasburg Express of the Valley League, the independent clubs of Gary-Southshore and St. Paul (bracketing a two-year stint in the Giants organization at Augusta and then San Jose), and finally ending up with the Cleveland Indians organization for the 2019 season.
This is not an unusual pathway for an undrafted player. For Solter, it is par for the course.
“My whole life has kind of set me up for this,” he shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “All this travel is fun for me, so easy.”
He is the second youngest player on the Hillcats. Born January 10, 1998, only teammate Nolan Jones is younger than Oscar Gonzalez in the Lynchburg clubhouse. A native of Sabana Grande de Palenque in the Dominican Republic, 2019 is the fifth year of his professional baseball career. At 21 years old, the 2016 MVP of the Arizona League is taking the High-A Carolina League by storm.
Growing up on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez began playing baseball at a young age. With three older sisters and two brothers there was always a bat, ball, or glove around.
When asked to recall where his passion for baseball came from, Gonzalez shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night, “My first time I picked up a bat. Then I started throwing balls to my dad and my friends.”
Competition. That is a driving force in the life of Nolan Jones, the third baseman for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Whether it is competing against his brothers in the basement playing floor hockey, or making up hitting games in the back yard in a batting cage his father had the good fortune to acquire, Nolan has grown up with a deep competitive spirit.
“I started young playing baseball, ice hockey, and football,” Jones shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night about his sporting activities growing up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. “I just fell in love with baseball.”
For as long as he can remember, High-A Lynchburg’s Steven Kwan has been singularly obsessed with baseball. Standing 5’9” and weighing in at 175 lbs., he wears uniform number one, bats at the top of the order, and has been the Hillcats’ sparkplug through the first month of the season.
The product of Washington High School in Fremont, California, he attended Oregon State, and was selected by Cleveland in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. A center fielder by trade, Kwan brings energy and excitement to the field.
“My parents took me to this sports camp when I was a kid, but I only went one time because they were too embarrassed to take me back,” he recalled as he talked about his focus on baseball, “I would grab a basketball and play by myself, I wouldn’t play with the other guys, and when we played baseball that was the only thing I wanted to do.”
Baseball is a game where rhythm matters. The hitter is trying to get into a pattern where he can predict the trajectory and rotation of a pitched ball, and the pitcher is trying to throw the hitter off to get him to swing and miss, or to ineffectively make contact with the ball, inducing a pop-up, or a weak fly, or a groundout. For the 2019 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, Eli Morgan has been one of the most effective pitchers at keeping opposing Carolina League hitters off-balance and unable to generate a consistent rhythm in the batter’s box.
Morgan, now in his third year out of Gonzaga University, was an 8th round selection by Cleveland in 2017. The right-handed 5’10”, 190 pounder finished the previous season pitching 143.1 innings, the most he had ever thrown in a baseball season.
As Spring Training drew to a close for 2019, the Cleveland Indians traveled from Arizona to Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, for a two-game set. Along with the expected Major League roster, the club took along a handful of players expecting to start their seasons in the minor leagues.
For one of these players, High-A Lynchburg’s Luke Wakamatsu, the two games would mark a special occasion. On Monday, March 25, Luke got to stand across home plate from his father while lineups were exchanged. The 6’3” tall, 185 lb. fifth-year professional would be playing against the team on which his father serves as bench coach.
“It was amazing,” said Luke. “I wanted to try and beat him so bad, so that I could talk smack to him.”
Jared Robinson is a Carolina League veteran. A member of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats for all or part of the past three seasons, he understands the challenge and demands of professional baseball. With experience comes established success and a chance to climb the organizational ladder towards the Major Leagues.
Hailing from West Covina, the 23-year-old right-handed pitcher is a southern California native. Robinson’s interest in baseball began when he was very young, watching his older brothers play.
“I liked watching their games,” he said. “I think that’s where it all started, visualizing being out on the field in front of all the fans.”
Every ball player has a different journey. For Robert Charles Orlan, who goes by R.C., it started in Pennsylvania. Born in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, his family moved to Houston, Texas, and it was there that baseball became a part of his life.
“I had this plastic tee growing up, basically a big wiffle ball attached to a piece of string so I could hit all day, my parents didn’t have to do anything,” he said in a kind of self-deprecating tone of voice.
Imagine traveling over 8,000 miles away from home for your career. Beyond the distance, you learn a new language, you must become exceptionally proficient at your job, and when the journey began, you were only 18 years old.
This is the odyssey of High-A Lynchburg Hillcats catcher Li-Jen Chu. A native of Taichung, Taiwan, he has been playing baseball as a professional since signing with the Cleveland Indians organization in 2012. Now 24 years old, Chu shows signs that his performance is catching up with his talent.
If you meet the 6’0″, 170 lb. Ernie Clement out of uniform, you might not know that he is one of the Cleveland Indians’ Top 30 Prospects, as determined by Baseball America. He came in at 24 in their preseason rankings. Currently, MLB Pipeline has him in the number 28 spot.
Raised in Rochester, New York, the 22-year-old has been playing baseball since the age of three. His parents encouraged him to play other sports – he excelled at hockey – but he always returned to his first love, baseball.
“I love the team aspect and everybody coming together for one common goal,” said Clement about his deep passion for baseball. “All of my friends played baseball so that made it really fun.”
Right-handed pitcher Eli Morgan began his professional baseball career a little more than one year ago. Now the number 29 ranked Indians prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is in his first full season. Morgan has reached the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats working as a starting pitcher. This path to a career in baseball is a recent development.
“Through high school, I wasn’t even sure about college baseball,” said Morgan. “I wasn’t getting looked at.”