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 Lynchburg Hillcats put up four runs in the third and three more in the sixth to coast to a 7-1 victory to take the rubber match of the Carolina League’s Northern Division Championship Series from the Frederick Keys on Saturday night.
The victory gave the Hillcats a share of the Carolina League championship, an honor that they will share with the Down East Wood Ducks, who won their series on Friday to claim the Southern Division Championship Series.
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.”
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.
The starting rotation for the Hillcats took home yet another victory on Monday afternoon, this one off of the field, when right-hander Brock Hartson was awarded the Carolina League’s Pitcher of the Week honor for a solid start for Lynchburg on Thursday, August 10.
Making his second start after missing a week on the 7-day disabled list, Hartson took home his second win of the month of August with six shutout innings at Zebulon against the Carolina Mudcats as the Hillcats would go on to win 5-0 in the contest. Pitching one day after his 24th birthday, he allowed just three hits in his quality start, walking three and striking out five to earn his sixth win of the season for Lynchburg.
The 2017 season will be the first time since 1998 that the Carolina League hosts its own cavalcade of stars. The last time the Carolina League held an All-Star game featuring the Northern Division stars versus the Southern Division stars, High-A Lynchburg pitcher Triston McKenzie was not even a year old and was still living in Brooklyn, New York. The relocation of two franchises from the California League to the Carolina League during the previous off-season followed the end of the cross-country California-Carolina League All-Star contest.
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.
A five-run fifth inning by the Pelicans was too much for the Lynchburg Hillcats to overcome as Myrtle Beach evened up the Mills Cup Championship Series with an 8-3 win on Sunday night.
Three straight Hillcats hits to start the game put the club in position for an early lead against Pelicans starter Jeremy Null. Tyler Krieger, Francisco Mejia, and Anthony Santander each reached on grounders before Bobby Bradley grounded into a double play. Krieger scored to give Lynchburg a 1-0 lead, but the twin killing derailed the early threat.
Myrtle Beach tied it up in the home half of the first against Lynchburg’s Brock Hartson. Charcer Burks walked to start the frame and advanced to second on a passed ball by Mejia. Donnie Dewees sacrificed him to third and after a walk by David Bote, freshly called up 19-year-old prospect Eloy Jimenez grounded to third to tie the game on the out at first.
The Lynchburg Hillcats continued their fight for the second half crown in the Carolina League’s Northern Division, but ended the day on Saturday four games in back of first place Potomac. The Hillcats have already secured a playoff berth with their first half title, but remain in the hunt for home field advantage in the High-A postseason.
The Hillcats finished last weekend on a down note, dropping three straight in a four-game set to the rival Salem Cubs. After a day off on Monday, they took two of three from the Nationals to cut into that deficit in the division, winning the games on Tuesday (2-1) and Thursday (3-2). Returning home for three against Winston-Salem, the Dash won 10-2 on Friday and won on Saturday 7-5 on a two-run home run in the tenth inning.
Lynchburg will wrap up their series with Winston-Salem at 4:00 PM on Sunday before hitting the road for seven straight with Frederick (four games) and Myrtle Beach (three). After that road trip, they will play ten of their final 13 regular season games at Calvin Falwell Field.
In other chatter from Lynchburg:
Those pesky rival Salem Red Sox ruined the Hillcats’ weekend, taking three of four from Lynchburg. It was the first time since the middle of May that the two teams have not split a series against one another.
August has not been kind to the Hillcats (26-18) in general as the club is just 3-5 to start the month. With a playoff berth already clinched with their Northern Division win in the first half, they are still fighting for the second-half crown too, but trail the Potomac Nationals by four games. They split their series at home against those same Nationals to begin the final month of the regular season, but the pitching staff was lit up over the weekend, giving up 13, 12, and 11 runs in three straight games from Friday to Sunday against Salem.
The ‘Cats will take a needed day off on Monday to recoup before spending three days in Potomac, where they can make up some ground and hope to end the P-Nats’ five-game winning streak. They will return home at the end of the week to host Winston-Salem for three, only to hit the road again for another week.
In other Hillcats chatter:
The Lake County Captains (15-21) ended the month of July in disappointing fashion, dropping each of their final four games after a three-game winning streak earlier in the week. They got back into the win column with an extra inning victory on Monday night.
After taking their road series with Wisconsin with consecutive 6-2 wins last Sunday and Monday, they returned home to host the first place South Bend Cubs. After a 5-4 win in the opener, the Cubs won 3-0 and 11-7 to win the series. The Captains then headed on the road for four with West Michigan and dropped each of the first two games to close out the month. They needed 12 innings to steal a win on Monday as Jose Medina‘s solo homer gave the Captains a 2-1 win.
The Captains will continue their mini-road trip with a final game at West Michigan on Tuesday before moving on to Midland, Michigan, for three games against Great Lakes. Lake County will return home to Eastlake from August 6 to 9 when they host the Dayton Dragons.
In other news and notes from the Captains’ log:
The Lake County Captains had a short week since the last Captains’ log as the club went out on the road for a three-game series in Beloit before a three-gamer at Wisconsin.
Coming in with two days of rest after off days on Monday and Tuesday, Brock Hartson led the club to a 4-2 win on Wednesday. Thursday’s game was rained out, leading to a doubleheader split on Friday, with the Captains winning the first game 9-1 before dropping the nightcap, 7-0. In Appleton, a four-run ninth gave the Captains an 8-7 lead, but a two-run home run by Isan Diaz sent Wisconsin to a walk-off win. Lake County recovered from the defeat with wins on Sunday and Monday by 6-2 finals.
After Monday’s game, the Captains remain in the middle of the Midwest League’s Eastern Division with a 13-17 record, a half dozen games behind the front running South Bend Cubs while sitting in fifth place. Following an off day on Tuesday, the club returns home briefly for a three-game set against the Cubs before hitting the road for a seven-game trip with stops at West Michigan and Great Lakes.
In other news from the Captains’ log: