Powering through the All-Star Break

Without a doubt power is the calling card of the 2015 Lynchburg Hillcats. The team posted 25 homeruns in the month of May, which, at that point in the season, was a greater total than any other Carolina League team had amassed for their whole season. The division rival Frederick Keys were the next closest with 24 homeruns to that date.

The High-A Carolina League is generally considered to feature pitcher friendly ball parks, and to be a more difficult league for hitters. As the season passes the 70 game mid-point mark, this year’s Hillcats team has emerged as the most potent offense in the league.

With three or four games played for each team in the second half (weekend rainouts have made the schedule uneven) the Hillcats hitters have amassed a .398 team slugging percentage, featuring 52 homeruns, twelve more than the next closest team. They also hold the league lead for doubles, triples and total bases and have a team OPS of .731, also leading the Carolina League.

This potent attack is led by the Hillcats three mid-season Carolina League All-Stars, outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Luigi Rodriguez, and first baseman Nellie Rodriguez. The same trio also hold the top three spots for the league homerun leader board with Luigi Rodriguez at 11, Zimmer at 10 and Nellie Rodriguez in a third position tie with 9 (shared with Jacob Rogers of the Myrtle Beach club). Rounding out the top five is Clint Frazier with eight, yet another Hillcats hitter.

This collection of potent batting performances is what led Zimmer, Nellie and Luigi to earn berths in the annual California -Carolina League All-Star game held this year on Tuesday March 23rd in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

All three were excited about being selected, as it was the first All-Star game appearance for Luigi Rodriguez and Zimmer, while Nellie had been a 2013 mid-season All-Star in the New York – Penn League.

“It was amazing just being there,” said an impressed Nellie Rodriguez, “with the talent from this league and from the California League.”

“It was great fun to be in the locker room with players that you kind of know, but who complete against you.” said Luigi. “Cheering for each other is different.”

This excitement makes for a fun atmosphere at the All-Star game. The players then head back to their teams to compete against one another again, but perhaps with a bit more knowledge of how some of their opponents approach the game.

For Bradley Zimmer the game was something of a homecoming, as he hails from La Jolla, California, about 115 miles south of the Epicenter where the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes play their games in the High Class A California League.

“It was awesome getting to go back to California.” said an enthused Zimmer. “Getting to play in front of some of my family members, friends and getting to play with other guys I’ve been playing against.”

“It was fun, overall a really great experience.”

The three All-Star teammates have been fixtures on the Carolina League homerun leader board for the majority of the season’s first half and all three served as the only league representatives in the pre-game homerun derby at Rancho Cucamonga.

“I got to play in the homerun derby, which was really fun but I ended up losing to Nellie.” said Zimmer.

The derby featured two rounds, with Nellie Rodriguez defeating Zimmer in the first round, then pulling out the second round victory over Astros prospect A.J. Reed of the Lancaster Jethawks. Rodriguez hit eight homeruns in the first round, and followed up with five in the second round to top Reed whose final ball banged off the outfield wall to leave his second round total at four and keep Nellie victorious.

All three Hillcats All-Stars agree that they would love to hit in the California League on a regular basis.

“I felt like I want to go to that league,” said Luigi, “because the balls just fly there.”

Nellie Rodriguez also remarked on the difference in the California air.

“I could breathe a lot better. The ball just flies out there. It was nice to experience playing out there.”

As the Hillcats open the second half they continue their power barrage. Clint Frazier led off the June 26 Friday night game at home with a home run, and Sunday’s outing in Salem against the Red Sox featured four Hillcats dingers.

Luigi Rodriguez led off the Sunday afternoon contest by hitting the first pitch of the game over the centerfield fence to put him two homeruns up on teammates Zimmer and Nellie Rodriguez. This brought him to 11 homeruns on the season, which ties his career high total from 2012 with the Low-A Lake County Captains.

Rodriguez moves into the second half working on building upon the performance that earned him the All-Star nod.

“Try not to do too much and work smart.” says Luigi about how he’ll perform in the season’s second half. “Be consistent and bring my A-game every day.”

In the fourth inning of the Sunday game catcher Eric Haase crushed an offering over the left field fence for a two run homerun to give the Hillcats a 3-2 lead.

Going into the bottom of the ninth inning the Hillcats had only mustered one additional run by combining a walk to Zimmer, a textbook bunt by Nellie Rodriguez to move Zimmer to second, followed by Zimmer’s 29th stolen base. This allowed him to easily trot home from third on a sharp single to centerfield by Haase. This left the Hillcats down 6 -4 with only three outs remaining.

At this point the Lynchburg bats began to thunder. Salem pitcher German Taveras had set down the Hillcats in order in the bottom of the 8th inning. He opened the ninth with a walk to Haase, and the next batter, right fielder Mike Papi, stroked one over the right field wall for his first homerun of the season to tie the score.

This did not end the offensive output for the Hillcats. Following a groundout by Yhoxian Medina, the next two batters, Ivan Castillo and Luigi Rodriguez singled, and the two-hole hitter Clint Frazier walked to load the bases. This set up the potential for a momentous ending as All-Star and soon to be Futures Game participant Bradley Zimmer came to the plate. Zimmer, who has been nursing a sprained foot, was the designated hitter this afternoon. With only one out in the inning Zimmer fought off an inside pitch and looped a drive over the right field fence for a grand slam the lead.

Though the Hillcats would not score again, Nellie Rodriguez doubled following the slam, continuing the team’s barrage of hits.

Ben Heller came on to save the win against their I-460 rivals, for reliever Casey Weathers. This set the team record to 6-0 on the season at Lewis Gale Field in Salem.

For the Lynchburg hitters Sunday’s success can be summed up by Nellie Rodriguez about his approach to the second half, “Keep doing what I’m doing.”

Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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