Frazier and Peoples Led Hillcats to Carolina League Playoffs

The Lynchburg Hillcats team clinched the second half Northern Division title of the Carolina League on Tuesday September 1 with a loss by the trailing Frederick Keys. This set a matchup with first half Northern Division winner Wilmington for the evening of September 9.

The Hillcats finished the second half with a 39 – 31 record, bringing their season record to 72 – 68, best overall in the Northern Division. The second half resurgence was headed up by two key performers, starting pitcher Michael Peoples and center fielder Clint Frazier, who would lead them into the playoffs.

Peoples got the starting nod for the first game of the Northern Division Championship series. His level of excellence throughout the second half of the season earned the 24 year old, 14th round draft pick in 2012 out of Western Oklahoma State Community College this opportunity.

Only a keen observer of the Hillcats would have seen the way Peoples emerged as the ace of the pitching staff and deserved to start Game 1 of the playoff series. Reflecting back on Peoples season, the turning point was Saturday June 6. He was scheduled to start against the division rival Potomac Nationals. In 9 starts up to that point he had a 3-3 record, with a 7.34 ERA and in 41.2 innings had 30 strikeouts, 20 walks, and opposing batters were hitting at a .293 clip. Not the kind of line that would lead one to predict success over the remainder of the season.

If you took that line as a sign of things to come and did not pay attention to Peoples throughout the rest of the season, then you missed the opportunity to observe some impressive pitching. In his outings from mid-June on, Peoples gained consistency in his offerings and matured his approach to Carolina League hitters.

“Consistency of my offerings, and the maturity of understanding who you are, I attribute that to my success of late.” said Peoples the day before the first playoff game.

His final line for the season was an 11- 4 record. The 11 victories were good for second overall in the Carolina League. He pitched a total of 139.2 innings on the regular season, lowering his opponent’s batting average against to .254. More impressively in that span of more than twelve weeks, Peoples allowed only 19 earned runs, bringing his season total ERA down to 3.42. This success came from a better feel for the sinker, a new addition to his repertoire during the offseason.

“I’ve always had a four seam, always had a curve ball, my change ups been developing more, getting better, but the sinker, it’s been a big difference in coming off the fastball, going in to righties and going after the corners.” said Peoples.

With his best performance since his rookie season of 2012 Peoples was ready to head into the playoffs, especially considering the potent Hillcats offense behind him. It was not just the improvement of Peoples that led the Hillcats to a playoff birth. The High-A Lynchburg offense was a force to be reckoned with in the Carolina League.

Prior to the All-Star break Bradley Zimmer was the driving force out of the three hole in the lineup. Upon his promotion, Nellie Rodriguez stepped up and emerged as an offensive force prior to his promotion to AA Akron on August 11th. At that point Rodriguez led the Carolina League in home runs (17) and RBIs (84), had a .275 batting average, and OPS of .852. This outstanding performance earned him the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award, in part because, even with three more weeks in the season, no other player in the league topped his home run, RBI and OPS numbers.

“This is a young man with an idea, for as young as he is, he uses the whole field.” said hitting coach Bobby Magallanes about Rodriguez.

The potent Hillcats offense did not just rely on Rodriguez’ bat. His teammate, center fielder Frazier, also showed the makings of a future major league top performer.

In July and August Frazier had re-established himself as an elite level prospect, and his season numbers bear that out. He finished second in the league to teammate Nellie in homers (16) and OPS (.842) along with 72 RBIs.

He shifted to the third spot in the batting order when Zimmer was promoted and developed the work habits that will give him a chance to possibly reach the Major Leagues by next seasons end if he continues to perform the way he has this season.

“He’s got good work habits.” says hitting coach Magallanes. “He has matured quickly.”

When you examine the team’s offensive statistics it is clearly evident that the team was ahead of their competition throughout the Carolina League. The Hillcats finished the season with a .261 batting average, 98 home runs, 611 RBIs, 295 doubles, and .749 OPS. The only category where any team was within shouting distance of the Hillcats batting numbers was batting average, where the Salem Red Sox had a team average for the season of .258.

The combination of a potent offense and a pitching staff matured by hard work and improved consistency pointed towards thoughts of a Carolina League title for the Hillcats. Unfortunately though the numbers on paper might strongly suggest a victor, the games on the field often produce a different outcome.

In game one Peoples continued his series of excellent outings, but the Hillcats offense stalled against the pitching of Blue Rocks starter Alec Mills. Mills held the ‘Cats offense to two hits and 3 walks over six innings with no runs to show it. Peoples had a strong outing as well, tying a career high with nine strikeouts, but allowed two runs on seven hits in six innings. The Hillcats bullpen was ineffective allowing another four runs to cross the plate, while Wilmington’s pen allowed only a solo home run to Mike Papi.

The second game of the series was the next night in Wilmington. This night the Hillcats fought valiantly, scoring three runs, but a two-run home run off the bat of middle infielder Jack Lopez in the 8th inning put an end to the Lynchburg Hillcats’ season with a 4-3 loss.

All-in-all it was a successful first season for the Cleveland High-A affiliate in Lynchburg. With the organization on the rise, it is likely that a number of this year’s Hillcats will grace the Indians major league roster in the not so distant future.

Photo: Matt Bell/MiLB.com

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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