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 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 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.
The Lynchburg Hillcats are once again well represented in the Carolina League’s All-Star Game, set to pit the North and South Divisions against one another on Tuesday, June 20.
With the first half winding down, the Hillcats are still in the race for the first half crown and some of the players to put them in that position were recognized with selections to the North squad for the exhibition event next week. Three pitchers and two position players were picked to fill out the roster initially, with one more late addition giving Lynchburg six total representatives.
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.
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.
Despite the hot start to their 2016 season, the Lynchburg Hillcats ran into a bump in their road this week, as they were swept in a series for the first time this season when they visited Salem for three. The three straight losses marked the longest losing streak of the year for the Indians’ Class-A Advanced affiliate, who is off to an impressive start while holding down the top spot in the Carolina League Northern Division.
Lynchburg began a four-game series in Carolina on Friday night to start the final half of a seven-game road trip. They will return home to Calvin Falwell Field for three games at City Stadium before heading back out on the road to Myrtle Beach next weekend.
In other Hillcats chatter:
The Lynchburg Hillcats, Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, used several big extra base hits to turn a 4-1 deficit into a 12-6 victory on Wednesday afternoon in a road win over the Winston-Salem Dash.
The Dash raced to an early lead with a run in the second off of Hillcats starter Sean Brady. The Lynchburg lefty gave up a leadoff homer to Nick Basto, but evaded further trouble despite a two-out double from Mason Robbins, who would have himself an incredible day at the plate for the Dash.
Over the past month or more of the season the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats players have been dominating in the Carolina League with four consecutive player of the week awards and a player of the month award. Only the most diehard aficionados of minor league baseball will know is that there is another significant award winner on the Hillcats roster, catcher Sicnarf Loopstok.
His award is for the Best Name in Minor League Baseball, otherwise known as Moniker Madness on Milb.com. Loopstok won the 2013 title joining such previous winners as Rock Shoulders (2012) and Seth Schwindenhammer (2011) by defeating Stryker Trahan, the Diamondbacks 2012 first round pick.
“It was a good experience.” Loopstok said about his run to the title. “I didn’t know I was in it, and then I started getting a lot of messages on Facebook, fans saying ‘Hey we are voting for you in Moniker Madness.’ so I checked it out.”