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.
Triston McKenzie is still technically a teenager, but his list of professional accomplishments is growing at a rapid pace.
After pitching briefly in the ninth inning of the SIriusXM All-Star Futures Game in Miami, Florida, on Sunday afternoon, McKenzie was named the Carolina League’s Pitcher of the Week on Monday.
It marks the second time this season that McKenzie has received the honor, following his award on May 14.
The future was now on Sunday, even if most people missed it.
Major League Baseball has done an effective job of hiding the All-Star Futures Game, a collection of some of the best and brightest upcoming stars on the minor league stage. With a great opportunity to get the names of these young budding prospects out on a national level, the game was stashed away in the middle of the day Sunday while the big boys in the Majors wrapped up the first half of the 2017 playing schedule.
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.
The strength of the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is pitching. Right-hander Triston McKenzie, Cleveland’s third ranked prospect according to Baseball America, heads up a staff that leads the competition of the ten-team Carolina League. This overall pitching performance puts the Hillcats only two games behind Central Virginia rival Salem, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, heading into play on Thursday.
“Our starting pitching has been our strength,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “We have some guys here that have had some success in the past and continue to get better.”
The first thing you notice about Triston McKenzie is his size. He stands a spindly 6’5”, weighing in at only 165 lbs. When shaking hands with McKenzie you can feel the strength of his grip as his hand envelops yours. It is no wonder he has an intuitive feel for pitching that led the Indians to draft him 42nd overall in 2015.
Born in Brooklyn, New York his family moved to Royal Palm Beach, Florida, when he was young and he readily adapted to life in the south.
“I kind of like the setting down there a lot more, a slower lifestyle,” he said about growing up on the east coast of Florida.
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.
A gem of an outing last Tuesday by Lynchburg starter Triston McKenzie caught the eyes of all of minor league baseball and the Carolina League rewarded his efforts by naming him the league’s Pitcher of the Week for games played between May 8 and May 14.
The 19-year-old right-hander made just one start during the week, but he made his mark in a dominating effort at home against the Carolina Mudcats that he will likely remember for some time.
Rains again washed away another game for the Lynchburg Hillcats as Thursday’s game against the Carolina Mudcats was postponed. The two teams do not meet again in the first half of the Carolina League schedule, so the game will not be rescheduled.
The cancellation marked the fifth time this season that the Hillcats could not play baseball because of the weather and the second time in the last week after last Thursday’s game in Potomac with the Nationals was under water. It stopped Lynchburg from putting an end to a tough battle with Carolina after dropping two of three in a low scoring three-game series. The abbreviated set featured a total of eleven runs between the Hillcats (five) and the Mudcats (six).