Hail to the New Lynchburg Hillcats Season

On a cool and sunny Tuesday, the pop of baseball hitting glove and the dull thwack of fungo bats returned to the Hill City from their winter hiatus. This chilly workout presaged the events of Thursday, April 7th, 2016, when their second year of affiliation with the Cleveland Indians season began for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.

Similar to last season, the Hillcats roster features nine of the top 30 prospects in the Indians organization as determined by Baseball America. Fourteen members of the current Lynchburg roster spent time with the club in 2015, and the new additions replace such noted prospects as Clint Frazier, Nellie Rodriguez and Bradley Zimmer, all of whom will begin the season at AA Akron.

Of the returning players, the most recognizable name is that of Mike Papi. Now ranked as the number 19 prospect in the Cleveland organization, he finished the 2015 season with a .236/.362/.356 triple slash line, not quite the power that was expected from his bat based on his college performance at Virginia. He did show excellent plate discipline with 80 walks to lead the Indians minor leaguers.

“I think it’s an advantage in some cases and a disadvantage in some. Sometimes it forces a little bit of passiveness, and he needs to be more aggressive,” said returning manager Mark Budzinski about Papi’s plate discipline. “We don’t want him to walk his way to the big leagues, we want him to hit his way to the big leagues.”

If Papi had gotten one additional hit for every two weeks of the season his final batting average would have been .260 instead of .236. Even with that adjustment, he will need to show greater power as he is slotted as a corner outfielder, playing right field this season for the Hillcats.
He will be joined by Greg Allen in center field and Dorssys Paulino in left field. Both also spent time with the High-A Lynchburg club during the 2015 season.

New faces for most Hillcats fans will be Bobby Bradley at first base, Mark Mathias at second base, Yu-Cheng Chang at shortstop, and outfielders Taylor Murphy and Anthony Santander.

Southpaw Justus Sheffield, a first round draft selection of 2014, was tabbed as the Opening Night starter.

“I’m excited,” said Sheffield. “It’s my first opening night besides high school.”

Unknown to him when he expressed his excitement, the first game of the season would be quite unusual. The temperature at game time was 61°F and cloudy, but it would not stay that way for long.

Heavy, dark clouds could be seen to the southwest and headed towards the ballpark. As the National Anthem began, a cold rain fell from the skies and lasted precisely as long as the anthem itself. By the time the players had taken their positions, the field temperature was 50°F and a steady breeze was blowing from left to right across the field. This did not strike a good omen for the night.

Sheffield worked through a difficult first inning where he allowed the first of two runs to score. The combination of a single, then a stolen base, by Winston-Salem’s Hunter Jones was followed by a ground out that advanced Jones to third, and finally a passed ball allowing Jones to score the first run of the game and the season.

It was during the change between halves of the first inning that the weather again took over. As the Hillcats players began to get ready to bat, a new wave of dark clouds rolled in with lightning and thunder. Instead of rain, these clouds produced pebble sized hail that pelted fans and players alike with equal disdain. This assault left all involved covered in spots of slush as body heat quickly began to melt the hail. It was not long before the tarp was hastily drawn across the field and a 25-minute delay ensued.

For the night, Sheffield completed three innings. In that span he threw 67 pitches, 44 for strikes, and tallied four hits allowed, one base-on-balls, two runs scored, and four strikeouts. Of course this took nearly two hours to achieve, so he earned an early night. This would probably turn out to his benefit, as Lynchburg and Winston Salem would trade leads throughout the game and ended up tied in regulation. The game was finally decided in the 13th inning, when Hillcats reliever Jordan Milbrath struggled, giving up eight runs that produced a Winston-Salem victory.

For the game, Sheffield did what he had promised the day before. “I’m just going to go out and get outs. If strikeouts happen they happen, but I’m just going to throw strikes.”

For the season, Sheffield will be joined in the starting rotation by returnees Mitch Brown and Luis Lugo, who are slotted in the second and third positions in the rotation. They will be followed by newcomers Julian Merryweather and Sean Brady in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, respectively. This gives the Hillcats three left-handed starters, an unusual feature on most minor league teams.

In the bullpen, returning players include Trevor Frank, Robbie Aviles and David Speer. They will be joined by Cameron Hill, Justin Garcia, Cole Sulser, and Anderson Polanco. With the cold weather and the team fresh from spring training it is likely that all of these pitchers will get some time in games.

Rounding out the hitting side of the roster are infielders Ivan Castillo and Claudio Bautista and catchers Sicnarf Loopstok and Daniel Salters. All four of them saw time with the Hillcats last year, as did third baseman Paul Hendrix, who begins the season on the disabled list.

“We had a great spring, really good work at all levels.” said Budzinski. “They swung the bats well, played good D, the pitchers threw strikes and worked ahead.”

This first outing of the season has set the tone for the offense, with the team hitting .315 on the night with a .393 on-base percentage. A similar late game collapse opened the 2015 season for the Hillcats, but they rebounded to earn a trip in the Carolina League playoffs. Another timely hit or two to bring home some of the 18 men left on-base could have been enough to win this first game. With that kind of effort, the 2016 Hillcats will have a great opportunity to make a repeat visit to the Carolina League post-season.

Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News & Advance

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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