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.
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.
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.
With two on and nobody out in the top of the 12th inning, an error by Myrtle Beach allowed the go-ahead run to score for Lynchburg and the Hillcats held on in the bottom half of the frame to claim a 4-3 victory in the Mills Cup Championship Series opener on Saturday night.
The Hillcats never trailed, but let the Pelicans back into the game several times throughout the night before clinching the contest for good in extras
Lynchburg took a 1-0 lead in the second against Myrtle Beach starter Erick Leal. Three straight singles from Yu-Cheng Chang, Connor Marabell, and Yonathan Mendoza pushed Chang across with the first run of the game. Those names would all come up big much later on in the night.
Rains stopped the start of Game 1 of the Carolina League Northern Division Championship Series on Wednesday and the Potomac pitching staff stopped the Lynchburg offense as the Nationals defeated the Hillcats, 7-0, in the rain-shortened opener of the best-of-three series.
A delay of one hour and 13 minutes slowed the start of the Carolina League playoffs and both offenses were quiet through the first two innings, with the Hillcats getting a leadoff single from Tyler Krieger to start the night before he was erased on a double play ball by P-Nats starter Boone Whiting. Lynchburg would get just one more hit the rest of the night, a leadoff single from Connor Marabell to start the third.
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.”
The Carolina League season is rapidly winding down for the Lynchburg Hillcats, with just seven games remaining on their regular season schedule. Their ticket to postseason baseball in September was punched with a first half Northern Division crown, but they are sitting atop the league again with a 37-26 record and a one-game lead over the Potomac Nationals after breaking a tie in the standings with a walk-off win on Sunday. Earlier in the week, they had completed a sweep over Wilmington before dropping the first two games of their three-game set with the P-Nats.
The Hillcats will take their final road trip of the regular season this week, heading to Myrtle Beach for three games with the Pelicans beginning Tuesday before returning home for four straight against the Salem Red Sox. The playoffs are scheduled to begin on September 7.
In other Hillcats chatter:
Despite a strong first half, Cleveland Indians’ minor league outfielder Connor Marabell was left out of the Midwest League’s midseason All-Star Game in June while four other members of his Lake County Captains club traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the annual festivities.
That slight may have been righted some as the Lynchburg Hillcats prospect was selected by his former league as one of its postseason All-Stars on Tuesday.
For some players, baseball is in their blood. High-A Lynchburg Hillcats outfielder Connor Marabell has that distinction.
“My dad was a professional baseball player, my uncle Luke played college baseball, and my grandpa played baseball,” said Marabell. “The minute I was born I was holding a baseball.”
The Lake County Captains have two days off to rest on Monday and Tuesday and it could not have come at a better time for the scuffling farm club.
The Captains were stuck in the loss column for nearly two weeks until they won game one of a doubleheader against Quad Cities from Classic Park on Saturday afternoon. It ended a drought dating back to July 4, when Lake County defeated the Hot Rods in Bowling Green. Nine straight losses followed (and a pair of rainouts in Bowling Green) as the team was swept in four straight in Lansing and at home in three straight against Cedar Rapids to start a six-game homestand. They won a 2-1 contest in game one of the doubleheader on Saturday over the River Bandits before dropping a tough 2-0 loss in the nightcap. They rode six shutout innings from Matt Esparza and six RBI from Willi Castro (including his first pro grand slam) in Sunday’s 9-4 win to win the series.
Lake County (9-15) had crashed to the bottom of the Midwest League’s Eastern Division with its play of late. The club is 2-9 away from Classic Park in the second half and just 7-6 at home. They are tied for fifth place in the league and trail the South Bend Cubs by seven games after Sunday’s finals. The Captains will resume their schedule from Beloit on Wednesday, when they start a six-game road trip there and against Wisconsin next weekend. They have just three home games scheduled (July 27-29) the rest of the month.
In other notes from the Captains log:
The Lake County Captains have slipped into a summer slide, and not a fun one involving water parks or plastic sheeting sprawled across the lumpy yard.
The Captains coughed up a three-run first inning lead on Sunday to Lansing to lose a 6-3 final to drop their fifth game in a row and their third straight in their four-game series against the Lugnuts. The five-game losing streak matches the club’s longest so far in 2016.
It wasn’t the first time this week or even in the series with Lansing that Lake County had lost an early advantage, as they dropped a 4-3 decision in eleven innings on Saturday after holding a two-run lead in the seventh. The bullpen allowed two runs in the seventh on Friday to give the Lugnuts a 2-1 win.
The Captains are now 7-10 in the second half, five and a half games in back of Lansing and South Bend and in sixth place in the Midwest League’s Eastern Division. After concluding their series with Lansing Monday afternoon, they will take Tuesday off before returning home to start a three-game set against Cedar Rapids and a three-games-in-two-days series with Quad Cities on Saturday and Sunday.
In other news and notes in the Captains log:
The Captains began life without Francisco Mejia and Tyler Krieger last week but after dropping three straight games during the week, they used a pair of walk-off wins and a five-hit shutout on Sunday to sweep the Fort Wayne TinCaps at Classic Park.
The three-game sweep for the Captains was their first sweep and series win as a whole since taking three from Lansing from June 7 to 9. The wins pulled the Captains over the .500 mark with a 6-5 record in the second half. They trail the South Bend Cubs, who took three of four from the Captains earlier last week, by three games in the Midwest League’s Eastern Division.
In other notes from the Captains log: